I went to my favorite restaurant this morning for breakfast and had the privilege of sitting across from an older couple who were celebrating the forty-fifth anniversary of his marriage proposal to her.
From the moment they sat down, I could tell this something was different about their relationship. She spoke to him gently; almost as one would speak to a child. She asked if he wanted his usual breakfast, and then ordered for him. Then she pulled out a hardback book that contained pictures of their memories over the years. Whether she had the book made or someone else I do not know.
As she slowly turned the pages of the book, she explained to him each picture, the people who were in each picture, their relationship to him, and where the picture was taken. Her words were soft and kind, and she was very patient with him as he strained to remember their past.
From what I could hear from their conversation it was clear that he had some form of cognitive impairment. It might have been dementia, or it could have been Alzheimer’s disease. Still it was clear that after forty five year together, he struggled to remember any of it, and she was having an equally difficult time facing the reality that their time over breakfast might be the last anniversary he would be able to recall anything from their past lives together.
While her love for him was evident, so was her pain. A couple of times her voice began to crack as she went through the pages of their book. She would pause briefly, take a deep breath and regain her composure. There would be time to cry later when they were not in public. And for that reason I abruptly finished my breakfast and left as tears filled my eyes.
As I drove home, I could not help but feel grateful that I was still creating memories with my wife and kids. Still, I was in no way unaware of the possibility that there might come a day in the not so distant future when either my wife or I, or both of us, might forget those memories. Until then, if that day should come, I will do all I can to cherish the time I have with the ones I love, and pray that God will allow me to keep them until the day I die.
Updated: Sep 7, 2023
When I was nine-years-old my grandfather died of pneumonia after battling for several years with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. He was fifty-six.
When I look back on that time of his life I remember not only my grandfather and his bewildered state of mind, but the love my grandmother gave as his caregiver. I remember taking a walk around the block with my grandfather one summer afternoon. As we came to a corner where we were supposed to turn to go back to his house, he insisted that the right direction was to go straight. I did not understand that he had Alzheimer’s and was confused. He told me I could go the way I thought was best, but that he was going his way.
When I arrived at the house ahead of him, my grandmother asked where he was. I told her that he had gone the wrong way and told me to go my way instead. My grandmother immediately raced out of the house to go look for him, knowing that he was unable to find his own way home. However, as soon as she went in the direction from which I had come, my grandfather came walking down the sidewalk toward the house. I remember the look of relief on my grandmother’s face as she walked him back home.
I also remember the time I was staying with my grandparents on the night when my grandfather, now in an advanced state of Alzheimer’s, could not find the bathroom. My grandmother attempted to guide him, but not before he relieved himself in the dining room. I did not understand what was wrong with my grandfather, but did in the moment realize that my grandmother was taking care of a man who was no longer able to take care of himself. In time, I would learn that my grandmother was his caregiver and sole source of support.
The incident in the dining room served a purpose, if for no other reason than to help my grandmother realize that after years of taking care of my grandfather, his needs were now greater than her ability to meet them. Not long after that arrangements were made to send my grandfather to a hospital for the mentally ill. Alzheimer’s was not well understood back in the mid-1970s, and my grandfather was placed in a home with all different types of mentally ill patients. I remember visiting him in the hospital one Saturday shortly before he died and seeing all the different men and women in their various forms of pain and confusion.
As a child there was no way I could understand just how much it hurt my mother, and especially my grandmother, to see my grandfather in a hospital like that. However, there would come a time later in my life that I would be able comprehend the emotional pain my grandmother felt when she had to concede that she was no longer able to take care of my grandfather. She loved him, and wanted to do all she could to see that he was properly cared for, and had everything he needed.
In the end, however, the decision to place my grandfather in a group home was determined by two important factors, his life, and her life. If my grandmother had continued to take care of my grandfather until he passed away, it would most likely have meant a major compromise in her health. As blunt as it may seem to say this, my grandfather was going to die soon. This we knew as we watched both his mental and physical health rapidly deteriorate. What my grandmother could not risk was her health.
Yes, the Bible does tell us to lay our lives down for one another, but that does not always mean unto physical death. Sometimes it does mean for us to give our lives, but the principle Jesus gave to us implied sacrificial living as much as sacrificial giving, and not necessarily physical death. My grandmother sacrificed much of her life in order to see that my grandfather had the best life he could live until she could no longer meet his needs.
My grandmother taught me, by way of example, that caregivers are a special type of people. They often seek the well-being of others before they care for themselves, and can sometimes even take giving too far. She also taught me that being a caregiver requires a balance between love and sacrifice. Achieving that balance can mean placing boundaries on life that sometimes looks like giving up, or not caring when placed in a position to enforce those boundaries. When this happens, feelings of guilt can sometimes crop up, which are in reality not rooted in truth.
The truth is that love knows no boundaries, and knowing your limitations does not mean you are giving up, or being unloving. Caregivers can only do what God gives them the strength and the means to do. While feelings of inadequacy may come up, those feelings are in no way indicative of the true love, concern, and devotion we have for the ones we love. The grace of God is sufficient to meet all of the caregiver’s needs, and is an excellent teacher of just how far to sacrifice ourselves. If you are a caregiver, give yourself a little grace. God will show you the rest.