Dealing with Overwhelm and How to Change Your Perspective

A spiritual perspective for dealing with Alzheimer's

Posted Nov 09, 2010

In the last two weeks, we've seen another explosion of information about the Alzheimer's crisis: lead articles in the New York Times, Time magazine's cover story last week, and Maria Shriver's initiative featured on Good Morning America. (Here is a link to Maria Shriver's blog about Alzheimer's: Maria Shriver blogs about Alzheimer's, and a to the Shriver Report.)

Overwhelming numbers
Perhaps like me, you struggle to comprehend the enormity of this epidemic, so I'll mention just three statistics and then speak about the personal dimensions of this tragedy.

On January 1st, 79 million baby boomers will begin turning 65. That translates to 10,000 people a day, or more than four million a year who face the risk of getting Alzheimer's. After the age of 85, -- the fastest growing portion of our population -- dementia strikes one out of two people. Estimates predict that by 2050, 13.5 million Americans will suffer with Alzheimer's, far more than doubling the five million sufferers today.

As Sandra Day O'Connor (former Supreme Court Justice) et al writes in the New York Times (The Age of Alzheimer's) the Alzheimer's crisis is of unprecedented proportion. We desperately need breakthroughs in research and effective drugs to help stem this epidemic illness.

These astronomical figures are difficult to relate to in terms of human suffering. How do you and I handle Alzheimer's when it strikes someone we love? Very little has been written about the spiritual dimensions of this illness, but for survival's sake, I needed to reflect deeply on this subject. Here is a perspective that I found particularly helpful.

Finding grace amidst the enormous challenges
When I first heard the term "the grace of diminishment," a phrase used by the French mystic, philosopher, and priest Teilhard de Chardin, I knew it was an invitation to look differently at living with my husband's illness. We found grace in moments of connection - in the response of friends and family, in nature's beauty, in the comfort of music, and in our love for each other. Hard, even harrowing, times can bring out the best in people, an opportunity to respond in the ways they couldn't have imagined. Sometimes we found surprises - or grace - where least expected; for example, when a friend reached out to us, or a family story brought a smile to his face, or we could laugh together over something silly. These seem like little moments, but anything that softens the harsh reality of Alzheimer's is a blessing. By some small miracle, we seem to find the inner resources to handle what we didn't think possible. That too is grace.

My book (Ten Thousand Joys & Ten Thousand Sorrows: A Couple's Journey Through Alzheimer's) has helpful reflections and suggestions at the end of each chapter.

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