The heavy, locked, dual steel doors swung open with the keying of the secret code, allowing the young, vibrant psychologist to enter the equally heavy, emotionally laden hallways of the infirmary. The smell was overbearing, the sounds enough to make even the staunchest of personalities succumb to the sadness that accompanies the end of life. While fear, physical, emotional, and spiritual despair graced the faces of those who walked the hallway, the patient’s, those infirmed, sick, and dying showed an essence of intense wisdom, hope, and a sense of longing behind those wrinkles that masked the inner beauty of a youth once lost.
We were taught to care for their emotional needs, to assess their mental capacity, to engage them within group exercises that fostered a sense of community and social reciprocation. We worked with them to deescalate the behavioral outbursts that accompanies inner turmoil of not knowing your surroundings, having forgot much of the lessons they worked to so hard to learn during a life long lived. Like an infant learning about their world for the first time, yet having the luxury forgetting more knowledge than most will gain, they saw their world as an infant does, preparing for the next stage in much the same way we push through childhood to take part in our adult life. Their journey, to make sense of the life they have lived, to let go, to enter into the next stage of the unknown.
In a recent article published in Psychology Today, Jeanne Murray Walker (2014) explores the spiritual complexity that accompanies the journey her mother undertook with Alzheimer’s Disease and its effects on the spiritual, emotional, and psychological growth of the individual that accompanies a loved one during that journey. In this beautifully written article, Dr. Murray Walker explores Alzheimer’s as a test of faith, a return to the basic tenets of hospitality, patience, prayer, and letting go of the individual we have grown so close to in our journey of love.
As a young graduate student being educated in the field of psychology, I could not understand how the theory I was taught correlated with the human despair I saw in those sterile halls of the infirmary. The emotional toll was great, but not for those who were sick. Somehow, they were at peace, even as their life slowly slipped from their grasp. I could not help but recognize the paradox that accompanies the end of life; the brunt of the emotional despair came primarily from the living, those who had to face the journey of saying goodbye. The sick and the dying seemed somehow at peace. There sense of life, the looming presence of death, and the wisdom behind those eyes, set deep behind their aged wrinkles written on their faces, masked a sense of knowledge unfathomable to my graduate school experience. They were the elders, the individuals who through their very existence, passes on a knowledge base that prepares us for the lessons of hospitality, prayer, patience, and letting go that our great spiritual traditions teach as being the royal road to God.
The life of the individual is deeply entwined in our innate capacity for growth. Like infancy succumbs to childhood, childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adult life, and adult life to old age, old age succumbs to death, leading us towards the great unknown, the end of our physical journey on this plane of existence, where life slips from the matter that once housed it, allowing our essence to return to its immaterial beginnings. While we yearn, grow, and strive towards goals we set in life, with each passing we mark another period of development lost, chasing the goals of life towards our final destination. However, in the faces of the aged, we often see a return to childhood innocence. Their faces tell a thousand stories, even though they may have difficulties remembering the very stories they have helped to create.
Walker (2014) presents an interesting account of the return to a childhood state of reverie her mother underwent during her battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. Like a childhood state of reverie, her mother found solace in playing with animals, a simple therapy that assists the patient to reconnect with their sense of childhood curiosity. While their journey might be limited, and they deserve the respect any adult warrants, we must work with them to find their sense of belonging during this final stage of life, honoring the curiosity that exists in the eyes of forgetting more than most of us have learned.
In our return to innocence, we face the difficult transition that accompanies the ending of life. While the survivors must deal with the shattered pieces of loosing a loved one, the infirmed often finds a sense of mature spirituality, as they have come to terms with the finite nature of their life. By honoring the journey of our ancestors, even in the face of the tragedy that accompanies the loss of mental capacity, we help our dying loved ones make sense of their eternal sense of purpose, honoring them for the love, work, and guidance they have fostered in our personal journey.
Walker, J. (2014, April 29). Alzheimers as a test of faith. Psychology Today .