Unexpected Blessings From a Journey With Alzheimer’s

My grandmother Missy’s effervescent spirit made its way into every nook and cranny of her life — she always wore bright-pink lipstick, drove a convertible, and encouraged us to break the rules. Before I was born, she threw the name “Grandma” aside in favor of “Missy,” which captured her exuberance. On every phone call I ever had with her, I ended the conversation with “I love you,” and she would never fail to reply: “I love you more.” After 10 minutes going back and forth, the only way to end the conversation was to accept that she did love me more — unconditionally and from the most honest place in her heart.

To my surprise, Missy’s unconditional love continued to grow. After she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, her life changed overnight. As an independent woman who cherished her own way of doing things, moving into a nursing home had its challenges. But to her nurses’ surprise, Missy’s Alzheimer’s only heightened her graciousness. For those who knew her, it was clear that Missy remained herself, lighting up the room even as she faded from the world. The staff celebrated her warmth and kindness under what otherwise would be fragile circumstances.

Sitting with Missy toward the end of her life, I learned that love does not require what we think it does, such as a story, a conversation, or even full awareness. It’s really something that goes much deeper than that. In her last years, Missy couldn’t remember or say my name, but every 30 minutes, her face would light up as she recognized my face. Her incredible smile not only brightened my day — it filled me with awe. I couldn’t believe that she still loved me as much as she used to say during our phone calls, even after her cognitive abilities had drifted away.

Alzheimer’s is not easy — in fact, it’s incredibly challenging, even in the best circumstances. But by sitting with Missy as she moved through her journey, I learned how to love in the truest sense and that love holds the power to transform our lives.

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