John and Mary have been married for fifty-three years. Mary has Alzheimer’s Disease and lives in an Alzheimer’s Care Facility. John visits her every day. Every day, Mary does not know who he is.
Today is Valentine’s Day. He thinks about how much he loves his wife, about all she has meant to him, about all they’ve shared together over fifty-three years. When he visits her today, he brings her a rose and a box of her favorite chocolates.
As he offers his gifts to her, he says, “Happy Valentine’s Day, sweetie.”
She accepts the lovely rose and her favorite chocolates with polite pleasure.
He then says, “I love you, Mary.” And he tries to give her the gentlest kiss.
She swats at him and screams.
“Mary, I’m your husband. I’m John, your husband.”
Mary looks repulsed and scared and would get up out of her chair and run out of the room if she could.
“Get out!” she yells and covers her face with her hands.
“I love you, Mary. I’m your husband, John. Look at me, I love you.”
He tries to take one of her hands away from her face and hold it in his. She used to love holding his hand.
Mary squeezes her eyes shut and screams, “Help me! Somebody help me!”
After an aide comes in and settles Mary down, John leaves, heartbroken that he can’t spend meaningful time with his beloved wife on Valentine’s Day.
John can still have meaningful time with Mary. But he has to give up his old relationship with her in order to have a new one. The parts of Mary’s brain where John lived, the parts that housed Mary’s memories of the last fifty-three years, are either not working or are missing. Think about that. She has no memory of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, no memory of John, of being his wife, of being sixty, fifty, forty, or thirty years old. This information simply does not exist in her brain. Like it is for all of us, her truth, her reality, is based on the information she does have in her brain.
To Mary, she is only twenty-five years old. She knows no information beyond that. That is her truth. Imagine being twenty-five years old, and an eighty-year-old man you don’t recognize insists that he’s your husband, that he loves you and wants to kiss you. You’d fight him off, too!
John has to give up on being right and the truth according to his bigger brain and work with the truth as Mary lives it. He should not insist that he is her husband. To her, he is an old man, someone’s grandfather, and she is a young woman. He has to find a new relationship—
She has a beautiful smile. It reminds him of his granddaughter’s who lives far away. Would she mind if he visits with her for a while?
Where is she from? Well how about that! They’re from the same home town and can spend time reminiscing about life there.
He has a box of chocolates. Her favorite. Would she like one?
And go from there.
Lisa Genova, Ph.D., author of STILL ALICE, www.StillAlice.com