The Alzheimer’s Caregiver: The Real Meaning of Valentine’s Day

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Valentine’s Day can be particularly difficult for spouses of those with Alzheimer’s disease. The media bombards us with a commercialized view of true love: “If he really loves you, he’ll send you flowers, buy you chocolates, and present you with a big diamond ring.” (And, by the way, he should do the same thing next year, only more so.)

If we believe the mass marketers, any man who does less for his wife than this minimum standard must not love her very much. If you are the wife of a man with Alzheimer’s disease, where does this leave you?

Alzheimer’s disease is an insidious thief, stealthily stealing our loved ones from us before our eyes. Those of us who are married made vows to love our spouses in sickness and health, for better or worse, for richer or poorer. Alzheimer’s certainly covers “sickness” and “worse,” and the financial burden moves many couples to “poorer.”

However, beautiful things can come from the most difficult situations. One of the most beautiful things imaginable is the example of selfless love so many caregivers show to their spouses with Alzheimer’s disease.

My grandparents, Lucille and George Chapman, were married for well over 60 years. They made it through the Great Depression, sent their three children to the college which adjoined their property, and provided free room and board for many of their siblings, nieces and nephews while they went to school.

Lucille and George owned and ran a Western Auto store together for over 30 years. They were life partners in every way.

For the last 13 or 14 years of their marriage, my grandfather had Alzheimer’s disease. Since my mother and her two brothers lived several hours away, my grandmother had very little help with caregiving. She kept Granddaddy at home until the last three months of his life, when the level of care he required was well beyond what she could provide.

Even after he moved to a nursing home, she visited him every day. When family members had encouraged her to move Granddaddy to a nursing home before that time, she would say, “He took care of me all my life. Now it’s my turn to take care of him.” End of discussion. No bitterness, no anger, no pity party, at least that I ever saw.

Her actions did not spring from a sense of guilt or duty, but from a real understanding of true love. She loved him for who he was, not what he did. I have no idea how she lived — and even thrived — through those extraordinarily difficult years.

Her example brings me back to the question, what is Valentine’s Day really about? From watching Grandmama and many other caregivers, I can tell you that Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with the amount of stuff he buys for you, or whether he tops last year’s gifts.

True love is patient, kind, tenacious, loyal, faithful, and selfless. There is no more beautiful example of true love than how caregiver spouses live every day. Don’t be beguiled by the image of love presented by mass marketers. It is a trite and shallow substitute for the real thing.

Caregivers, I stand in awe of the example of true love you live every day, and hope I can learn from it.

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