A Symphony of Spirits
I was born in Maryville, Tennessee to older parents. My early years were shaped by an extended family of white-headed elders who were fond of imparting choice words of wisdom gleaned from their own lives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many years ago I took a temporary position at a geriatric hospital in Atlanta, I believed that my extensive medical training would prepare me for the physical and mental challenges of working with elderly patients suffering with dementia. But I quickly realized it just wasn’t enough. I worked alongside three unique caregivers, Native American nurses with deeply held spiritual beliefs and an uncompromising respect for all life. I experienced a new way of looking at life and death that valued these special patients as “undiscovered treasures.”
We live in a culture that worships youth and beauty, more people than ever will be facing the problems of aging. Perhaps the least understood and most feared of the aging diseases are Alzheimer’s and the other neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. Because these diseases destroy the mind as well as the body, they seem to rob the victims of all the qualities that once made them human. They engender a hopelessness in the medical profession and families alike, resulting in a sense that these people are already gone. My unique experiences as a geriatric care giver gave me the insight into the spiritual dimension of these patients, the “worthless” last years of people suffering from these types of diseases can be the most valuable.
I learned through my patients like Momma Sissy, a 102 year-old African American woman who still worked a farm in South Carolina and Stephen Z., a retired engineer whose wife of 50 years still spoke of their ongoing love for each other, I came to appreciate the special wisdom that comes from living life. Working especially with Aunt Mel, an independent strong-willed elder and Granny Ada, the matriarch of an Appalachian mountain clan, taught me the importance of loving relationships for long-term mental and physical health.
Through my experiences, I believe in a humanizing method of caring for Alzheimer’s patients. I found that there is a spiritual dimension of Alzheimer’s disease and other progressive, degenerative diseases of aging, a dimension that grows in magnitude as the stricken person’s physical mind and body wither.