If I were to tell you a story about a good guy diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, chances are, you probably wouldn’t want to hear it. If I told you a story of a good guy diagnosed with cancer, that story you may be more likely to hear. Why?
Hundreds of people diagnosed with cancer beat the disease every year. They catch it in time, the surgery is successful or the treatment is effective. Their support system is strong, their willpower is unparalleled or Providence has smiled down upon them.
We’ll read the story about the guy with cancer because deep down inside all of us is the need to hope. We need to know that in some cases, even with insurmountable odds, people with atrocious diagnoses survive whatever evil tried to kill them.
But since there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, there is a part of us that just cannot bear to hear about someone plagued with the disease. We like stories of hope, not stories of defeat. We want the good guy to win in the end. We want him to live with all his mental faculties and with dignity. We’re ok with memory loss that comes with old age. But when he forgets the people he’s loved and built his life around, this is simply too much for us to take in. It’s too heavy, too sad, too depressing.
I get it. I want the happy ending too, the person’s final years lived out well.
But if we read the story of the cancer survivor and skip the story of the person with Alzheimer’s, we are the ones who will lose. When we dismiss a person because of their diagnosis, we dismiss their life, the memories they still have and all the lessons we can still learn from them. When we turn away from a person with Alzheimer’s, we have subconsciously concluded that their life no longer has meaning.
Last year I was at a friend’s home visiting with an older woman who has dementia. A relative in his 50’s came in, greeted everyone except this woman and then exited to the patio to talk to other friends and relatives. She knew immediately she’d been slighted.
“He didn’t even say hi,” she said.
All life has intrinsic value, not just the life of the strong, the able-minded and the disease-free. Every single life is sacred.
Yes, we need stories of hope. We need stories of joy and love, of dreams fulfilled and people making a difference. We need stories of overcomers. We need to be encouraged and challenged and have our faith grow.
But we also need to hear the stories of those with Alzheimer’s, the history of their lives and the insight they still long to share. Too often, we view an Alzheimer’s diagnosis as a cruel death warrant. We’re not willing to engage; we just “can’t go there.” But what we’re really doing is giving the disease more power than it should ever have and denying ourselves the opportunity to grow from the person’s story.
One day there will be a cure for Alzheimer’s. I don’t know if it will come through a medication, a supplement or a lifestyle change. But there will be a cure. If we wait until that day to start listening to the stories of people who have the disease, then they aren’t the only ones who’ve lost. We end up losing too.