My Turn: The Unexpected Gifts of Alzheimer's

My 87-year-old mom never stops teaching me, even as her mind clouds with memory loss from Alzheimer's disease. She is regressing into a simpler time and mindset. Unlike her earlier lessons, which were deliberate and subtle, her current lessons are unintentional and sometimes blunt. But what they lack in finesse, they make up for in simple truth. A few things I've learned:

1. Be in the Moment
Since my mother lost her memory, each moment holds a surprise for her. She experiences life afresh, again and again. I notice this when I pick her up from the memory-support facility where she lives in Sarasota, Fla., to take her to lunch. As she approaches my old Toyota Camry, she exclaims, "Is that your car? It is so beautiful." I used to be annoyed at her forgetfulness, but I now realize she has the power to concentrate only on what is in front of her. There are no comparisons. What is, simply is. When she sips her glass of soda at lunch she will declare, "This is the best soda I have ever had" and mean it. I nod perfunctorily, but inside I giggle, thinking how wise she is, and wondering what it will take to make my glass of water the best water I have ever had.

2.  Touch Connects 
Nowadays when my mom walks into a room, she has a compulsive need to touch everything. She believes once she has touched an object, it becomes hers. This habit made me crazy, until I realized that she is like an infant who knows the world only through what she can touch, taste, shake or see. Life becomes real only when it is up close and personal. Perhaps there is a powerful truth in her need to touch. When I am all aflutter, what calms me down is being touched, being held, being massaged. Now when my mother reaches out to touch things, I recognize her need to be grounded, and I hold her hand.

3. Choose Your Memories
My mother fought with my father and her sister often, but to hear her talk about them now, my father and aunt were pussycats, instead of the fighting tigers that I remember. Of her sister she says, "We never fought. We were just the best of friends." Although her children laugh at her selective memory, my mother is having the best laugh of all. She never liked confrontations. Now she remembers her family the way she wants to, and they can't fight back.

4. Meet and Greet
My mother sees everyone as a potential friend. She never hesitates to start up a conversation with a child, a ticket taker, a waitress. "Treat others as you would like to be treated," she lectures me. That helps my embarrassment as she repeats questions to her new contacts. In the past, I found myself trying to restrain her outreach, not knowing where it would lead, and afraid she was annoying others. Now I model my mother's meet-and-greet philosophy. A year ago, I left the hubbub of a big city, where people rarely look each other in the eye. In my new community, as I run daily, I often stop and offer to take a photo of the tourists together, discuss how the fish are running with locals, or give a thumbs up to a youth riding her new bike.

5. Use Things Up
My mother never believed in saving things. She never put plastic on her furniture, nor covered lampshades. Things were to be used, not preserved. When anything wore out, whether it was a favorite sweater, or a piece of furniture, she would declare, "How wonderful. You enjoyed it!" Even when I empty a jar of peanut butter, I feel good, because I hear her declare, "You finished it!" As my mom's mind diminishes daily, I often bemoan the loss of the vibrant, wise mother she once was, knowing that soon she will no longer recognize me and then it will be all the more painful to witness her deterioration. But recently I was reminded about her delight at using things up, and it helped me realize that she is nearly used up. She lived a full life and perhaps now she is saying a slow goodbye, giving me time to adjust to the loss of her once powerful force. But I wouldn't say she's completely used up yet. She is still busy teaching me.

Plitt lives in Bradenton, Fla.

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