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Learning to See: The Soul of Alzheimer's

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How quickly a change in perspective can dramatically alter what you see.

If I encouraged Bennett to paint, he became angry. It reminded him too much of what he once loved. Aware of his cognitive decline, he was frustrated that his hand would not move like it used to—his brain and hand were not quite in sync. Bennett is living with advanced Alzheimer’s. His long-term and short-term memories are a mish-mash of jumbled bits and pieces. His words tumble out scrambled and confused. Yet Bennett is still there inside.

My job was to engage him. Every afternoon around three he became highly agitated—a phenomenon known as sundowning. Initially, my attempts were not always successful, but I remembered my dear friend Monica.

She always seemed to bring the best out in me. I felt like I shined in her eyes. Whatever gifts or dreams I had, she embraced, nurtured, and supported. Her focus was never on my flaws or what was lacking, but on what was there. She saw the seed of my fullest potential. One day in the midst of one of our heartfelt conversations, I blurted, “I love you.” After a long pause, she said, “You love me because I see you.” Those words never left me. There is a power in really seeing someone. 

To SEE means seeing the sparks or deep soul within. It means seeing the wholeness within the brokenness of someone, no matter how debilitated the person may appear. SEEING is powerful, magical, and sometimes miraculous. 

Bennett was brilliant and still is, when that brilliance is seen and tapped. He was once a successful architect and gifted painter who was fascinated by Mayan ruins, old clocks, and birds—especially owls. Before moving into a board and care home, he had been living alone in his house until he fell and broke his hip. He had no family; his wife had passed away. When his neighbor found him, he was taken under court custody and brought to the home where I see him twice a week. He has come to know me, my face, my voice, but he doesn’t know how he knows me, what my name is, or in what context. But he is always glad to see me.

One day I decided to shift my focus from what he could no longer do, to what he could or might be able to do. I asked him if he would teach me to draw. At first, he thought I was joking, but when he sensed my sincerity, he smiled and agreed.

Our first project was what I call the hamsa project which took several days to complete. Hamsas are hand-shaped symbols of protection used in the Middle East. “They are hands that bless,” I told Bennett. I laid out the materials: sample models cast in metal, paint pens, white drawing paper, colored sheets, rhinestones, and other embellishments. Then I asked him to pick four designs that would serve best in his teaching.

What transpired was truly remarkable. When I asked him questions about drawing, color, shadow, shape, light, depth, his language began to change. He spoke with clarity and vision in complete sentences. He became confident, articulate, and bold. When I asked him about layout and design, he was witty, astute, and wise. His elegant dignity graced the hour as he instructed me where and why to put lines and colors. 

At one point, I cut our last piece of paper too much, and instead of having one shape, it fell to the floor in four pieces. I felt mortified. Unsure how to resolve this dilemma, I apologized, and let Bennett know that I’d made a mistake, but he reassured me, “It’ll be all right.” Pointing to the fallen pieces, he said, “Put this piece here, this one here, and the other two there.” Not only did it solve the problem, but it made the hamsa much more beautiful than it would have been otherwise—it became a mini masterpiece!

I almost forgot that this man had something called Alzheimer’s. Of course, the change was not permanent—he would weave in and out of these states as the years passed—but those moments brought him a renewed connection to life, intimacy, joy and purpose—the things we need to thrive at every stage of our lives.

When we completed the project, I thanked Bennett for his teaching. I also explained that each hamsa would bring him blessings each time he looked at them. I asked him to choose what he wanted to be blessed with. He chose Wellbeing, Love, Wisdom, and Peace. I wrote one of these words on top of each hamsa, and with each hamsa, pronounced the blessing. He glowed with joy, and thanking me, said that he could use all the blessings he could get.

I hung the hamsas on the wall in front of his chair. Several weeks later he fell into a thoughtful silence, and pointing to the hamsas said, “These were not here before, were they?”

“No.”

“Are you responsible?”

I shared the story of how they came into being. He was surprised and said he could not remember a thing. I asked what he thought about them.

“They are my friends,” he replied, smiling with a twinkle in his eyes. “They talk to me every morning.”

“What do they say?”

“They ask how I am. They care about me. They wish me good things.” As he spoke, he glowed with a radiance I had not seen before. I was stunned, left speechless as his radiance blessed me in its light. . .

Not only did Bennett teach me how to draw, but how to SEE . . . 


Mary Ann Konarzewski is author of the award-winning book, Creating a Rich and Meaningful Life in Long-Term Care. She is an activity therapist, certified massage therapist, consultant, and speaker who has worked in eldercare for twenty years. For more information on her work, see her websites at http://www.heartsongelders.com/  http://www.heartsongmassage.abmp.com/


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