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If you're new to this blog and want some context for it, read this post from the day I announced my Alzheimer's disease and this post about the day I announced I had lost it. For more info, visit my website with my autobiography and all blog entries in chronological order for easier reading to catch up. There's also a sermon on the spiritual lessons I've learned through this journey through my damaged mind.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Life-Long Teachers

Washington DC
My wife Marja is an adult educator.  Almost thirty years ago, she and another teacher founded Academy of Hope to provide high-school-equivalency education for those who had not finished high school.  They started with four students in the former guard’s room of a low-income housing building.  They earned the $50 monthly rent with bake sales.  Academy of Hope has now expanded into the largest adult education program in the city.  Several years after the founding, Marja handed over the administration of the school so she could devote her time to her real love, one-to-one teaching and tutoring.  After her retirement several years ago, she has continued to volunteer as a tutor at the school.

Marja still gets called back to deliver lectures “from the founder” to occasional groups.  She’ll be speaking at Georgetown University next month.  Public speaking is not her favorite activity, and she usually has to go through her own personal hell to prepare a lecture.  What she comes up with, however, is a reflection of her own self: straightforward, simple, humble and meaningful.

She’s plans to speak about the “life-long learner,” a concept familiar to anyone in adult education.  We don’t stop learning just because we’ve completed high school or college or graduate school.  Our formal education can continue indefinitely or pause for a while and then resume.  At Academy of Hope, adults from their twenties to eighties continue their formal education.  For some it’s wanting to be able to help their children with homework, for others it’s a matter of qualifying for job advancement, and for still others it’s the simple desire for knowledge.  For all it’s a source of deep pride.

But we may not recognize that we are also “life-long teachers.”  We teach specific skills to our children and other adults, too.  We teach from our experience.  We teach from our presence.  We teach from wisdom gained over years.  Most of us are not aware of the teaching we do.  None of us really knows its long-term impact.

In this blog, of course, I’m teaching in a more formal sense about cognitive impairment in order to bring it out of the closet and into the light.  I also teach in my writings, lectures, and seminars.  But much of my teaching is less formal, although, perhaps, more important.  People have told me that just talking openly about my impairment cuts through some of the stigma attached to the disease.  When I remain active within my community and take on whatever responsibilities I can handle, others learn that Alzheimer’s or any cognitive impairment is a gradual process during much of which the impaired one can still participate in daily life.  Others begin to recognize that one can live with this diagnosis without fear. 

In the same way, each of you who reads this blog, or is cognitively impaired yourself or cares for a person with cognitive impairment, each of you teaches others about Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairment.  The teachings may be very specific, for instance, passing on some medical knowledge you’ve gained or the availability of a website or an Alzheimer’s organization.   

Or the teachings may be less well defined.  The willingness of you who have an impairment to “out” yourself neutralizes some of the embarrassment and shame that makes people afraid of the disease.  Your participation in the regular activities of daily living gives others a more realistic picture of what it means to live with Alzheimer’s and reduces some of the fear.  Your willingness to talk with another person who is worried about his or her own cognitive impairment can be very important. 

The readiness of those of you who are caregivers to join support groups helps other people who are earlier the journey.  When you dare to ask others for help, you teach about community and diminish the anxiety that others may have about the isolation they fear.  And when you include even your moderately demented loved one in activities she or he enjoys, you teach people to be less afraid.

Those of us who are in the middle of the struggle with this disease may forget that we have learned a lot that we can teach others.  We are a relatively small group of people.  We have wisdom and unique expertise that is profoundly important in our society.  In a culture in which Alzheimer’s is still deeply misunderstood, the education we provide is a vital piece in the effort to dispel longstanding ignorance and shame.


  1. Thank you for this blog. I always look forward to reading and absorbing every word when you pop up in my email box. You are a blessing and one of my teachers who I appreciate with all of my heart.

  2. One of the best lessons my mother-in-law tight me was that even though she couldn't remember people's names she could still read. But she did not remember that a hymnal was read differently than a book. Which did not keep her from singing right out even though the words she sang were wrong. It made me glad I made the effort to take her to church to see how happy she was to be there.

  3. Anonymous5/09/2014

    Thank you for this post. Marja sounds sweet. You are both educators and coaches. Good luck too on the other end of the spectrum - being the student. Have you read Grain Brian? Nothing came up in search. It's being passed around our neighborhood. The author is a neurologist. And nutritionist. We do love our bread. Just wondering if you have any opinions on the subject of food and brain health.

    1. I have not read Grain Brain and don't know more than the basics about nutrition. which does not include research into Alzheimer's. I'm told that a healthy lifestyle, enough sleep, good food, enough exercise may help slow down the development and progression of the disease.

  4. Anonymous5/09/2014

    Grain Brain ...... typo

  5. Thank you for this very thoughtful blog, David. I agree with you; the more we can hold conversations together about dementia, the more we learn and "defang" its terror. I like this image of all of us being both teachers and students at different times in our lives, and especially the way we come into each other's lives at the precise moment when our knowledge is needed.

  6. You seem to be doing really well! My grandpa is developing Alzheimer's and I've been really worried about him. After reading your blog however, I feel like we could slow down the digression of his memory. I'm sure that being active, like you, really makes a huge difference in keeping the Alzheimer's at bay. I wish you well and hope you continue your blog so that I can continue to read your amazing incites!


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