Dave and I returned to the museum the next day and took a guided tour with a docent. The information and interpretation our guide provided helped us understand. We learned about the artist and the surrealist movement. We discovered Dali's motivation, and saw the nuances and repetitive themes in his paintings.
Alzheimer's disease, like my first encounter with Dali's art, is different, surreal, odd, and yet somehow familiar. Like most caregivers, I thought I could decipher Alzheimer's alone. That wasn't true. I needed help with the interpretation and facts.
Dali said he painted, "to help discredit completely the world of reality."
One of his most famous works is titled Persistence of Memory (1931). It's a stark landscape with a leafless tree on a barren, box-like cliff. The melted watches in it, Dali explained, show time has lost all meaning; and thus he ventured, all permanence was gone. Alzheimer's is like that, too.
I learned from Alzheimer's, as well as Dali, that common reality can be suspended. Names, hometowns, and traditional relationships don't matter inside the disease.
My mother-in-law, Billie, couldn't remember my name. She called me, "that girl," or "her." It made me sad until I realized my name was irrelevant.
Each morning, Billie extended her arms to me and exclaimed, "Well, look who's here. I haven't seen you in years!"
The new reality of our relationship was Billie liked me, whoever I was. Her memory loss made each meeting a jubilant homecoming. We shared joy found in surreal places. I like to believe there was some persistence to Billie's memory that made me familiar, at least.
If you are friend to a caregiver or Alzheimer's patient, choose a time to donate a meal, provide an afternoon of respite, run errands or just listen at the end of a difficult day.
If you are a caregiver, please ask for help. Take advantage of adult day programs and the resources available from the Alzheimer's Association.
Don't wait until you're exhausted and overwhelmed. There are many people who understand Alzheimer's and will help you navigate its surreal path.
We can honor those who suffer from Alzheimer's with our own persistence of memory.
Remember to share what you learn. Talk about your experience with family, friends and new caregivers. Join a support group, or create your own. Awareness and knowledge will help us solve this mysterious disease.
(This was a speech I gave at an Alzheimer's Association Candelight Vigil in Lakeland, FL)
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