My father is 94 this year. He has Alzheimer’s and currently he has virtually no memory of 30 seconds ago. He is, however, seemingly content. As is often the case, this has been a long, progressive journey and we have found our way together. Each Alzheimer’s situation is different and for my father, I am glad to say he has never been delusional, not known who he was or what he did for work. He has always recognized me, and has always maintained a strong sense of ethics, values, emotions, and compassion for others.
I don’t know what it is like to be him, but slowly over the years, activities have been transferred to others. Whether that meant me paying his bills, or driving him, or getting his groceries, or reading to him, to now his care team in the memory unit assisting with all of his daily activities. I don’t know what it must feel like to be stripped of your activities one by one.
There is so much talk about finding value and purpose later in life, well actually, all through life if we are to have a life well lived. But articles are emerging more and more about the importance of being useful, finding purpose or adding value in our later decades of life. What happens when our abilities change in such a way that alters what we perceive as adding value?
My father was a physician at the university medical center. He was also a teaching physician. He loved what he did and gave everything he had to his work. He enjoyed practicing medicine as much as he enjoyed teaching it to new generations in healthcare. When it came time to retire due to an illness, he was fortunate to find a related activity on the State medical practice board. And when he needed to give that up to take care of my mother after an illness, he poured himself into her care. After she passed, he began a slow journey through memory loss.
I have wondered frequently over the years how fulfilled he has felt at different times, and what impact that has on him. Over the years our conversations have become grounded in the moment, generally very short due to his span of attention, and generally around a familiar set of topics.
So, you can imagine my surprise when one day this past year while watching a movie together, he turned to me and asked, “So, tell me about your job.” That has never been part of our repertoire of topics. I asked what he wanted to know and as I described what I did, whom I worked with, the mission of the company, and other facets, he would ask clarifying questions. This type of exchange had not happened for years. He was clear, he was articulate and he was interested. As I finished my explanation, he turned to me and offered to help, in any way. He asked if there was a way he could be involved to help improve the lives of the clients our organization provided services to. He wanted to contribute.
Through all the haze of memory loss, through all the limitations in activities over the years, through all the changes in his ability to walk, move or even speak, he had a driving need to have a purpose. That level of clarity did not return again after that day, but it was brilliant while it lasted.
What does remain with him is every time I visit and we watch a movie from his collection, he wants nothing more than to share his library with the other residents, to make them feel as good as he does when he watches them, and to share what he has. His life is so simple now and he doesn’t have many possessions left, but those he has that can be shared, he wants to do so. He wants to give to add value. He wants to give to have a sense of contribution and purpose. That has never faded despite all the other changes he has endured. That drive to make a difference is at his core and he will continue to offer himself to others until he can no longer, of this I am sure.