In a recent article in the Washington Post chronicles the sobering tale of a Washington D.C. doctor, David Hilfiker, blogging about his struggles and issues with Alzheimer’s disease. The doctor offers his insights about how the disease has changed him, resulting in him opening up and appreciating life, which is something we can all learn from and take note of.
David Hilfiker is diagnosed with “mild cognitive impairment,” which can be translated as recognized as Alzheimer’s disease in early September 2012. Throughout his blog, he opens up about how he used to identify himself through his “intellect” and worries about losing that aspect of his personality. He does not want to be remembered as somebody who is “unable to recognize anyone or speak cogently.” Later in his blog posts, he realizes that he has the ability to let his “self” go and that it is a huge gift. He sums it up perfectly by saying “It's similar to the Buddhist idea of non-self: What we think of as the ‘self’ is constantly changing; there is no single ‘self’ that persists throughout life. Clinging to our image of self leads to suffering. Embracing the changes leads toward enlightenment.” As I read that statement, it could not help but strike a chord deep within me. Identifying yourself with attributes that have the ability to falter as you age isn’t what you should do, but you should always be changing your self.
Another monumental lesson he has learned about is living in the present. Time and time again, we have always tried to live in the moment, but get caught up in the past and the future. Living with Alzheimer’s disease has made David actually carry that out. Rationalizing and internalizing what will happen in the future with Alzheimer’s “creates the misery; living more in the present alleviates it” he states in his theology. Alzheimer’s is an extremely debilitating disease that leaves the individual helpless and unaware of their surroundings.
Reading this article and blog posts hits extremely touching chord since my grandmother passed away from dementia in May 2011. I had an extremely close relationship with my grandmother. My single mother adopted my sister and I, with our grandmother helping raise us. She watched me go on the bus, taught me how to tie my shoes and would listen to me play piano, even though she wasn’t musical.
I remember as my grandmother got older, she would always ask, “Michelle, how are you?” numerous times.
I found myself growing frustrated at the multiple times I had repeat myself. I also saw three of her brothers and sisters pass away from Alzheimer’s and was extremely scared that my grandmother would never know who I was before she passed away. While not the same disease, many of the symptoms are the same. David depicts his frustrations with not being able to remember every detail, repeating himself numerous times, forgetting names, tiny details he used to remember.
As my grandmother continually lost more cognition, one thing that she never lost was her sense of humor. Even though she would still ask how I was doing or how college was going (I had graduated a year after), she was always able to smile and always laugh. A few years ago I asked her to say the "s" word and here at 92, my grandmother said “Sh*t.” Every time I recall that memory I laugh out loud. Thankfully, my grandmother passed away peacefully at 96, still recognizing all of us.
One thing that my grandmother and the words of David Hilfiker have taught me that life is precious. You need to live in the moment and not take things so seriously. Learn to change your “self” and be aware of your faults and accept yourself for failings. Try to see the good in life because it can go away in a blink of an eye.