Alzheimer’s and Grieving

Last Saturday (6/13), I officiated at the funeral of Jane Hassler. Jane had suffered from Alzheimer’s for many years. In fact, I am surprised that she lived to the age of 91. She was in a local nursing home for at least the last eight years. So, I knew her about two years before she was institutionalized.

When I first met her, she was a pistol! She had a big smoker’s laugh (or was it a hack). She drove a big car (the make and model I don’t remember, ironic, huh). This seemed to be for her own protection, because she was prone to run into things. No one wanted to be in the church parking lot when she was driving in or out. Her driving skills (or lack thereof) were a parish legend.

But it was obvious that she was losing her faculties. She had no immediate family nearby. She had two nieces that would visit from time to time. They made a parishioner Jane’s legal guardian. Jane had no children. First, her car was taken away and her guardian would drive her to church. Other parishioners would also drive her around. Jane was less than happy about this circumstance. She let everyone know how unhappy she was. One day when she was cooking and almost set her house on fire, it was decided that she could no longer live on her own. She was then institutionalized.

She was initially very unhappy about losing her home and living in a nursing home. She was disruptive to other patients and staff. She refused to leave her room. Then something happened. It was as if a switch was turned (on or off) in her head. She suddenly became cooperative and happy. When I would visit her, she had a big smile on her face, even though she had no idea who I was. But she did recognize my collar. She would think that I was another priest and would call me by that name. One time when I gave her a communion wafer, she looked at it and said, “What’s this for?” (People without Alzheimer’s might ask the same thing.)

All of this is leading to how we grieve over the death of an Alzheimer’s patient. At one time I thought that I would not be able to emotionally handle my grandmother’s funeral. But after a series of stokes that took away her mind, it was a relief when she died. For me, she no longer suffered in a world she did not know. My father died of a stroke a few years after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. For his death I had mixed feelings of grief and joy. It was very confusing.

Alzheimer’s patients go back in time as the disease wears on. There is no short term memory. Dad would watch old reruns on TV and said, “They’re all new to me.” And as I reflect on Jane’s death, I see it as a blessing. Even though she was not cognizant of her disease, her world is no longer as confusing as it was. She had a big impact on some of her family members. Jane will be missed. But now she lives a life in joy, peace,and total love. She now knows what we will know, one day. Her life is now glorious.

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