Alzheimer’s is not fodder for a joke

I walked past two women as I left the gym, late 30-somethings, I suspected. One was describing a moment of forgetfulness. I overheard the word “Alzheimer’s” as I passed. I overheard the sympathetic chuckle from her conversation partner.

I kept walking, even as I felt myself cringing. I kept walking, though my stomach hurt.

Alzheimer’s disease is not a joking matter. Yet these kinds of jokes are now commonplace, predictable, cliché. Forget a few small things, and you have a name for your forgetfulness: Alzheimer’s.

I walked down the hall, grieving.

Like so many others, I have seen the way this disease can wipe a mind clean of vast swaths of memory. I have seen the faces of relatives, the exhaustion, the disbelief, the frustration, the grief, the rage, even, as those they love fail, in painful, awful increments.

The stove still on. The washing machine overflowing. Clothes worn inside out. Things misplaced, things lost. Relationships obliterated.

“I don’t have a daughter.”

“Mom, I am your daughter.”

“I don’t have a daughter.”

I walked to my car thinking of all the people whose families had one member with this dreaded disease. I wanted to go back, find a way to ask the two women to think about who might pass by as they joked, who might overhear, whose day or life would suddenly be crushed into a small, horrible weight.

“It’s not harmless to joke about this disease,” I imagined myself saying. In my mind, I pleaded for care, for understanding, for awareness.

I did not go back; I was feeling the weight myself.

I was thinking about a kind, loving friend struck early, far too early for me to believe it when I got the news.

“She’s only a few years older than I am,” I said.

Even as I write, I cannot believe it is happening to her.

I got into my car. I turned on the radio – strangely, to a program about Alzheimer’s.

A Harvard doctor spoke about nutrition, exercise, learning and studying and using our minds as much as possible. He spoke about the need to avoid isolation as we all got older. Everything he said made sense. But I wanted to hear: “Get plenty of exercise, eat a healthy, balanced diet, play chess or learn a language. Spend time with people of all ages. And please, don’t joke about this disease when you mislay your keys.”

Maybe we joke because we know enough to fear losing our minds. As a volunteer hospital chaplain and a sometimes hospice visitor for those who need a rabbi in Cabarrus County, I’ve lived through those last, long weeks when the body and soul’s passage are accompanied by increasing confusion and disorientation.

I’ve learned to ride whatever the mind of my patient produces, even when the person I am visiting asks if I have picked up the cleaning or finished tailoring her dress.

“The dress looks wonderful,” I’ll say. “I think you will be very pleased.”

Entering the minds of those whose minds have changed so much, lost so much is a beautiful, heartrending task.

We must take that task seriously.

So, please, when you forget where you put the bill that needs to be paid or where you last put your reading glasses, feel free to joke about your fuzzy memory or even the fact that you might be showing signs of age.

Don’t turn that into Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is not a joking matter.

Barbara Thiede is a freelance writer: