Jun 23, 2010

Abraham Lincoln’s Advice to the Alzheimer’s Caregiver

We don’t know what advice Honest Abe would have given to us as caregivers for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Yet Lincoln’s famous remark about the “better angels of our nature” comes to mind. I’ve thought on occasion that Lincoln’s quote contained within it some wisdom for me as an Alzheimer’s caregiver.

By Pamela R. Kelley
Alzheimer's Reading Room

First, there’s the entire quote as lifted from Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugaral Address in March1861.

"The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Lincoln spoke of a future moment when the country would once again be united and its tragic civil war ended. He looked forward to a time when harmony and peace would resume. As an Alzheimer’s caregiver, I dream of the day when my mother will regain the harmony and peace she once demonstrated with her kind heart every day as she took care of me in my youth. I know that won’t reoccur while she lives this life.

I first thought of the Lincoln’s oft-misquoted phrase about “the better angels of our nature”. I know that when I am most successful in caring for Audrey, it’s because I’ve reminded myself to step back and think about compassion. I ask myself what would be the most compassionate thing to do in the circumstance. Whatever the circumstance is: her refusal to take medication, her refusal to see the doctor, her rejection of a dear friend, her disdain for the myriad ways in which my way is not “her way”, her criticism of my husband.

I accept that it will be good enough if she gets morning pills before noon. I write down anew the identity of the pills I push. I accept the grumbling that goes with a doctor’s visit. I count myself lucky to have a primary care practitioner at all. I slow my quicker wit and simply answer the questions, over and over. I listen with my heart and ignore the content of her remarks that sting.

My mother, in her diminished state, still teaches me. She’s taught me to get reacquainted with the better angels of my nature – forgiveness, acceptance, kindness, patience, empathy. She’s taught me to let go of my insistence on being right. She’s taught me what it’s like to live in the moment. If this isn’t the work of the better angels of our natures, then I don’t know what could be.

I’m tested every day, and I hold fast to all of the supports that surround me. In this household, the angels don’t contest between union and slavery. Here it’s patience and irritation, acceptance and useless acts. These stand in opposition. These I hope to reconcile. I win some; I lose some. It’s a life I’ve embraced. This is what it’s like for me to be a caregiver to an Alzheimer’s sufferer.

Pamela R. Kelley is the full-time caregiver for her mother, after serving as her long-distance caregiver for more than four years. Before her caregiving role took primacy, Ms. Kelley directed an American Bar Association-approved paralegal education program at the University of Alaska Anchorage from within UAA's Justice Center. As she transitioned to full-time caregiving, she prepared a resource manual and presented lectures on long-distance caregiving to her UAA colleagues. She is a 25-year member of the Alaska Bar Association, and concentrated her years of active practice in the areas of commercial transactions and creditor representation in complex bankruptcy cases. Over the years, she has published many articles on topics as varied as cyber-stalking and antitrust law. Ms. Kelley lives, works and writes in Anchorage, Alaska.

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Original content Pamela R. Kelley, the Alzheimer's Reading Room