The last on our list of “The Hardest Things” for caregivers to deal with is loss of our identity. We have been someone special to our loved one; now we could be anybody.
People with Alzheimer’s, their own personalities long since stripped away by the disease, can eventually lose the ability to identify even those who are closest to them. Not just names are lost, but also faces and voices and the feeling of family or friendship. This effect of the disease arrives sooner for some patients, later for others. Those who escape it do so by virtue of dying before they experience it.
For the Alzheimer’s patient, all connections are dissolved. He or she is alone.
For the forgotten sons or daughters or spouse or friends, loss of identity in relation to their loved one is exquisitely painful. The caregiver has now become a stranger. In especially cruel cases, unknown loved ones and caregivers may provoke fear or anger in an Alzheimer’s patient. But even if caregivers are perceived to be kind and helpful, they’ve become kind, helpful strangers.
One reader told me he is an only child, caring for his mother who has Alzheimer’s. She asks him repeatedly if he knows her son. He tries to tell her he is her son, but she doesn’t believe him. She continues to ask.
Perhaps you’re the spouse of an Alzheimer’s patient. You and your wife are together virtually every minute of the day, yet she never says your name anymore. There’s no glimmer of recognition in her eyes when she looks at you. The years you’ve been married appear to count for nothing now.
Maybe a faithful friend who visits your loved one regularly is no longer greeted with a smile, but with a blank face instead. The friend is heartbroken. She believes she’s of no help anymore.
When we’re no longer known by those we love most, the lack of connection leads to a lack of words, an emptiness that’s hard to describe. The person with Alzheimer’s is beyond the point of recognizing the loss. But the caregiver, the son, daughter, spouse, friend—these people suddenly experience what may be the most devastating pain inflicted by the disease: where once we were needed, special, able to touch the heart if not the mind of our loved one, now we’re invisible.
Fatigue and despair tell us, The road is too hard. The non-stop work doesn’t improve anything; it only brings you closer to the end. You can’t hide the pain anymore. It’s too big to carry. Surely someone else can do the job now. Your name means nothing to your Mom anymore. Anyone else’s face could take the place of yours; anyone else’s hands could do what yours do. You’re lost to your mother now. She’s lost to you.
But have we truly lost our connection with the one we’re caring for? I don’t think so. We just have to carry it on our own now. It’s up to us to hang on to it through the hardest times of Alzheimer’s. The person we’re caring for has been robbed of the ability to live out her identity, but she is still the person she was before Alzheimer’s. The relationship we had still exists; it’s just that now, only one of us is able to make the connection visible. The curves and angles, the highs and lows, the deep and the wide—one of us must keep them now for both of us.
Since any time is a good time to bring in help with caregiving tasks, now is perfect. Since it’s always helpful to share thoughts and feelings with someone who will listen with mind and heart, now’s a great time for that, too. It’s a fine time for a break, to get away for a while, to rest mind, heart, and body. I pray you do those things.
Because if you do, or maybe even if you don’t, you’ll be in a better position to see the real nature of your caregiving. The bigger picture. Perhaps at this point, with no more rewards of a smile, a few words, a pat of recognition, you’ll finally understand that the caregiving has been a gift. To both of you. Every facet of it has defined or reinforced who you are in relation to the one you care for. And you affirm the identity of your loved one, also. As long as you relate to her as a daughter, she is still a mother. As long as you care for him as your spouse, he is still a husband.
Though our loved ones have been robbed of the ability to live out their own identity, they are still God’s unique creations. When we’re with them, holding the essence of our relationships in our hearts and in our caring hands, the people we care for are real. They maintain their person-hood.
They live bigger than Alzheimer’s. And that’s a victory.
But now, this is what the Lord says–he who created you…he who formed you…:”Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”
Is. 43:1 NIV)
Father of us all, You know who we are. You made each of us unique. Help us as we guide our loved ones on their journey back to their true identities, back home to You. Thank You for Your assurance that we are all loved, each one as if there were only one. Show us how to give You glory, Lord. Amen.