Alzheimer's: The Loss Before the Loss

Found In: Growing Older

Tags: candle lighting, priestly blessing, dementia

By Lori Schneide

This ritual was created to honor the individual and the support network. It is most successfully used at a time of early diagnosis. Because the challenges which are to come are inordinate, this ritual seeks to frame the journey, and while the Alzheimer’s patient is still well enough, validate their life’s cause ahead.

San Fernando Valley, CA
A summer evening
Erev Shabbat

Ruth Sherman, 76, a retired high school English teacher, is the mother of Sarah and Bernard, and grandmother of Chandra, Benjamin and Cassidy. Over the past year, her gradual dementia, has taken a turn for the worse. What was first mistaken for her “good natured ditsiness” progressed into erratic behavior and a loss of verbal skills. She received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s four months ago.

Jerry Sherman, 75, a retired history professor, was at first unable to absorb and confront the reality of his wife’s condition. Ruth has been the lynchpin of the family; Jerry has built his life around her. Knowing that there is no hope for improvement, he sold their family home of 40 years, and moved the two of them to a retirement community which also has a nursing home and floor for Alzheimer’s patients on campus.

Sarah and Bernard, 48 and 46. Sarah lives in the Valley nearby with her husband Joe and two daughters, Chandra and Cassidy; Bernard lives in San Francisco with his wife, Nancy, and their son, Benjamin.

Rabbi has served the community for seven years. Ruth and Jerry are new to the community. Sarah was active in pursuing a relationship with the rabbi for her parents when they moved in, and they have already performed a hanukat bait together, as well as celebrated Purim together and Shavuot together. Jerry attends the weekly Torah study.

Ruth’s greatest fear is losing her relationships to everything she loves – family, poetry, music, nature. To honor this loss and the change in the family dynamic, Sarah sought to create a ritual for her mother with the family in order to nurture themselves through the imminent changes and challenges.

After eating an early evening Shabbat dinner with the family in the communal dining room of the facility, the family returns to the Sherman’s new apartment to light Shabbat candles together:

Ritual:

Rabbi: We observe Shabbat each week. Ruth and Jerry have spoken of Ruth’s oldest memory lighting Shabbat candles with her grandmother. Our mystical tradition speaks of a “second soul” which each of us possesses each week as we light the Shabbat candles, and remains with us for the duration of Shabbat. We are here to honor the uniformity of that soul, its steadfastness and its presence. Ruth, as you and your family face the changes in your life with courageous awareness, we dedicate ourselves to a healing process whereby we all recognize what is holy, familiar and universal in each of us.

Ruth, Sarah and granddaughters takes hold of the match; everyone’s hands together to light the candles.

Baruch Atah Adonay Eloheynu Melech Ha'olam, asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehadlik ner shel Shabbat.

You are Blessed, O God, Spirit of the World, who makes us holy with mitzvot and commands us to kindle the light of Shabbat.

Bernard: I wanted to read to you, a very daring personal poem by Milton, Mom.

On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?
I fondly ask; but Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best; his state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

God has not forgotten you, Mom; we will always be here for you.

Rabbi: Ruth, you and your family face the changes in your life with courageous awareness. Your grandchildren decided that it would be important to keep you surrounded by everyone who loves you at all times, and so each of your family members has prepared an object for you, Ruth, to serve as a visible reminder of their love for you.

Presentation of Objects:

Cassidy and Chandra present a pair of ballet slippers with their pictures glued on them.

Benjamin gives Ruth a compass keychain with a picture of himself attached.

Bernard and Nancy present a mobile of origami swans (Bernard teaches Japanese) with pictures from their wedding, family events and anniversaries.

Sarah and Joe present a stuffed dog that Ruth gave Sarah when she was 8. Tied to his neck is a photo of them.

Jerry presents a tiara that Ruth wore on their wedding day, framing their wedding portrait.

Each family member takes a moment to explain their gift to Ruth, why they chose it, and a memory attached to it.

Rabbi: Ruth, Bernard and Sarah have spoken about how each Shabbat you blessed them, and how you would call them, even through their adult lives, to give them this blessing. As you face a time of great ambiguity, which asks for great strength from each of your family members, your family wished to return this blessing together. There is a lot to mourn as you stand before the illness of your Alzheimer’s. But, if there is anything to gain strength from, it is the accomplishment of this family’s existence, which you nurtured into being, and which continues to work as a dynamic force around you for all of your days.

Sarah gathers all of the spouses, and grandchildren around Ruth and Jerry.

Sarah: Mom, here is our blessing for you:

May God make you like Sarah to walk daringly ahead,
Rebecca to keep your light and cunning ways,
Rachel as the beloved wife that you are, and Leah as the model of motherhood.
May the Holy One bless you and keep you.
May the Holy One shine light upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Holy One turn towards you and give you peace.

Y'simayich Elohim k'Sarah, Rivka, Rachel v'Leah.
Yivareichayich adonai v'yishmarayich.
Ya'er adonai panav elayich v'yihunayich.
Yisah adonai panav alayich vayasem lach shalom.

So shall we bless you and keep you. So shall we shine our lights upon you and be gracious to you. So shall we turn towards you as our mother and give you peace.