A Mind For All Seasons, Alzheimer's Part One
By, Marcel J. Hernandez, N.D.
(Note: I began writing this column with the intention of simply discussing a few common herbs found in many kitchens that research has shown to have a beneficial effect in addressing Alzheimer’s disease. As I wrote, the column unfolded along a different course. I’ll discuss the herbs next month.)
It begins with what we lightly refer to as “senior moments” – those seemingly natural short periods of forgetfulness -- a name you should know, a common word that you often use but can’t come up with in the “moment. Time passes innocently and little by little, memory completely fades away -- like the taillights of a car receding into a dark night on a very foggy highway. (I wonder, does the soul stay behind when consciousness flees the body?)
Alzheimer's is progressive degenerative disease of brain cells. With imaging, Alzheimer’s looks like "senile" plaques or lesions. Readers who live on the Big Island or tourists who have visited the volcano have probably walked “Devastation Trail,” a barren, moonlike, post-eruption terrain. As the brain lesions take over, the plaques carve a devastation trail of damage, with dementia in its wake. What is left is a variety of symptoms, including memory loss, disorientation, restlessness, impaired judgment, and irritability.
Like myself, many of my patients are aging and have expressed a desire to maintain their mental health until the end of their lives. Although there is a genetic component to Alzheimer’s, the predisposition for the disease does not have to manifest. A balanced approach that includes lifestyle factors, evidence-based nutrients and well-researched herbs can have a significant preventive impact.
My mother-in-law, Mary Alice, has Alzheimer’s. She is approaching 90 and her consciousness has almost completely vacated the premises. Mary Alice has lived a life of service – to her late husband and their five children, to her church, and to her friends. She was always there, calm and efficient, when you needed her. In the more than 30 years I’ve known her, she has never said a negative word about anyone. Never. Not even close.
Mary Alice was by nature a quiet person and always neutral or upbeat in temperament. She took teasing with a smile and a bit of sass. She and her girlfriends would play bridge for quarters and it was easy to tease her about her “gambling habit.”
In all ways, Mary Alice lived a life of selflessness. She never expressed a desire for anything for herself and was genuinely grateful for her life. She was extremely generous to her family, had very little need for money, and doled out what she did have. She came from the depression-era generation that darned worn-through socks and used them again. She made do with what she had. She wore her clothes for decades so her children gave her new dresses and other items of apparel for Christmas.
I have always felt that the true saints are those who express in their every moment of thought, word and actions the qualities which are generally attributed to Godliness: joy, service, generosity, optimism, positive outlook, appreciation, calmness, unconditional support and absence of judgment. In these ways and more, Mary Alice is one of the saintliest people I have ever known.
Now, in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, Mary Alice has most of the typical symptoms. But not irritability. Rather, she is calm, delightful and child-like. She doesn’t know who she is, where she lives or who her caretakers or family are, repeats phrases over and over, but she continues to be the same lovely, grateful person she always was.
Have you ever noticed that when a person is born, they are wrinkled, small, often hairless and striving to connect experience with consciousness? For many of us, becoming elderly is like being born, but going the other way. The circle becomes complete.
For some late stage Alzheimer’s sufferers, it seems like just their shells are left. All that they ever were has returned to the Source. For Mary Alice, I think her soul is still with her, still teaching those who know and love her about dignity in the very worst of circumstances.