Last night, in the course of a conversation about how much we tend to forget as we get older, a friend mentioned her concern that she might well have Alzheimer’s disease. Her mother and sister had it. A while ago she was at training for her work, and the trainer asked her to enter her password into her computer to begin. Not only did she not remember the password but she also didn’t remember she even had password. She had to leave the training. When she got back to her office, she realized that, of course, she had a password and remembered immediately what it was. As she told me, I didn’t display any emotion. I asked her some questions. I wanted to make sure that I demonstrated empathy by staying with the conversation so that she knew that I was accepting of her disease and not shocked or about to abandon her. It’s only now that I see that my response was just the same clinical, professional response that has been so unhelpful for me all along. I have wanted something more from others, but I didn’t even offer it to my friend. Perhaps she wouldn’t have wanted anything more, but I didn’t even give her the opportunity. I didn’t offer her my real empathy. I don’t have much reason to be surprised about the reactions of others to my disease. And, in fact, there have been more empathetic and helpful responses than I should have expected.
Alzheimer’s is a common disease. Lots of people have been through this process before; many are going through it now. I’m not so special, yet I keep expecting that people will respond to me as if mine were a unique suffering. And some do. But as the disease progresses and I become more typical, as my friends become accustomed to my behavior, as I develop the usual empty appearance of an Alzheimer’s patient, there will be even fewer who see me as “special.” I guess I need to prepare for that , too.