Living with Alzheimer’s: In Memory of Jane Holmes

This morning my ex-husband called to let me know his grandmother had died. I met her seventeen years ago when she still lived on her own in Chicago. At that time she was a spry, sharp woman clothed in bright colors and chunky jewelry. She had hilarious stories of creating advertising campaigns for the dairy industry, loved to talk about her friends, “the girls,” she saw regularly, and often took the bus to the museum. Over the years she developed vision problems, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and moved to New Jersey to be near her daughter and son-in-law. It was difficult for her to lose her freedom. I remember one visit in particular where Grandma was hoping she could walk to the farmer’s market. She wanted to taste the fresh strawberries and “feel the sun on her face.” Her daughter explained, for the second time that morning, that the market was actually more than a mile away across a busy street. It just wasn’t possible.

Some people describe Alzheimer’s as a regression back through time. Sometimes you can see people with this disease actually go backwards through their ages, developmental stages and corresponding memories. From a psychological perspective this can be a way for people to heal emotional wounds from the past and let them go. I’ll never forget sitting with a woman who was trying to figure out who was going to take care of her children while she went to work. Now, this woman’s children were in their sixties and she hadn’t worked for twenty years, but in the moment she was again a young woman trying to balance work and motherhood. Although it might sound strange, she and I were able to talk through the problem as if it was happening in the present so she could find a solution and move on.

It can be tempting to believe a diagnosis like Alzheimer’s means the end of personal freedom, relationships, and healing. But if we change our expectations there can be other possibilities. In the end Grandma went with her daughter to the farmer’s market and my client was able to rest easy about her family.