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Alzheimer’s and the Husband #6 - Engagement

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Editors note: Dr. Stu Ervay is a member of the AARP Kansas Executive Council and a volunteer for AARP Kansas. In this blog, he shares his experiences as the husband of his wife of 58 years who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

For me to find enough meaning in my life I must be engaged in something.  I need to interact with other people. And the interaction must have a certain dynamic, a kind of vigorous back and forth. To the extent that happens, my feelings of aloneness dissipate.

My wife and I could do that without resorting to anger.  At least until her dementia interfered.

It took a while for me to realize what was happening. What we once enjoyed as productive banter became more like arguing.  There was no meeting of the minds as there once was. Our pledge to never go to bed angry with one another was getting harder to fulfill.

Even then, before admitting my wife to a residential care facility, I sensed aloneness. The kind of electric spark that once connected us psychically, was weakening. What happened to it? Was it me? Where was the thing we experienced eating ice cream and planning the future?  How could I get that kind of engagement back? 

Slowly, even agonizingly, I realized I couldn’t.

It was at that point I began to define aloneness as a lack of dynamic engagement with someone (or people) with whom I had formed an essential bond. 

Loneliness, as I said before, is quite different.

Biologists say that feelings of loneliness are normal defense mechanisms emanating from our primeval past. Like all mammals, our ancestors knew that being alone for any length of time could be fatal. There was safety in the herd. There was protection from the sabre toothed tiger lurking outside the group of humans circled around the fire.

Feelings of aloneness come from a higher plain of existence than mere survival. For example, some of my military colleagues would “re-up” because the army had become their family. They loved the camaraderie, esprit de corps, and even the “one for all and all for one” associated with the three musketeers.

I remember an older than usual captain with whom I served in the army.

During World War 2 he was a first sergeant, but after discharge he was reduced to selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. He descended from a position of authority in a magnificent cause to being a guy selling cleaning equipment to housewives.

He felt alone and sidelined from life. While not easy, he returned to the army, attended OCS just before his 28th birthday, and became a “regular.” Even with severe PTSD from horrific war experiences, and pervasive insomnia, he was happier than when he walked alone from house to house.

For 43 years I was a professor and consultant to public schools throughout the nation. Much of that time my wife was my “sidekick.” That was the result of our ice cream compact, as we called it. Together we hosted many special classes in our home, co-authored articles, and worked in state and national associations.

We prepared for and traveled to dozens of workshops and association conferences. We socialized with local faculty members and had a wide range of other friends throughout the country.  And, with all that, we were also active in our church and the activities of our sons.

We were fully engaged with each other and the world around us. We never experienced aloneness, even when my wife had to leave for weeks on end to take care of infirmed parents in another state. That was just temporary separation.

The aura remained.    

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There is a difference between what I call “intense engagement” and ordinary engagement. I realize that distinction doesn’t resonate with most people, but it certainly does with me.

And this may be where my story becomes more anomaly than commonplace.

My wife understood my tendency to be dubious. She also understood that it was, and still is, difficult for me to blithely accept something as fact if I think the “context” is insufficient. In other words, I can be a hard sell. Some might call me a pain in the neck.

Before joining a university faculty, I was a secondary school history and government teacher. I enjoy reading books on those subjects. Although never a debater myself, I liked debate’s insistence on supporting opinion with facts, and therefore used the process as a teaching method in grades 6 through 12. 

In a debate, no statement is considered sacrosanct. Everything said is subject to questioning and an insistence on seeing or hearing evidence. While many people today find that kind of thing annoying, it is nevertheless the cornerstone of a fully functioning democracy.  And I believe in it!

So, what does that personality quirk of mine have to do with Alzheimer’s and the Husband

Remember the story I related about how my “date” supported a homosexual man while in college?  My first inclination was to ignore the context and accept prevailing prejudices. I was ready to dismiss any woman who would associate with that “kind” of person. The evidence in 1962 terms was egregious.

But what my future wife taught me is that evidence can turn against itself, if considered in the light of compassion, love, and a drive to lift humanity as God expects.

She taught me that evidence and context must be painted with a broader brush. She introduced me to the literary works of C. S. Lewis, many of which she studied in classes at her church-related college. While I had heard of that world-renowned scholar, I didn’t know much about him or his view of the world.

My wife told me that understanding Lewis wasn’t easy, mainly because he struggled to understand who and what he was in the context of faith, theologically based evidence, and different interpretations of words and language in general.  There were many reasons for that.

He had been traumatized by the early death of his mother and experiences on the front lines of World War 1. He became a dedicated atheist convinced that no loving God would ever allow so much human suffering.

Lewis was complex and dubious about everything. That never changed. What did change was his understanding, and ultimate belief in Christianity. It wasn’t a dramatic conversion. In some ways it wasn’t a conversion at all. It was, instead, a continuing engagement with historical context, pros and cons, and an ongoing evaluation of evidence and the meaning of truth.

I understand that struggle. And I understand what Lewis endured with the suffering and death of his wife. Those events were instructive to him and caused him to become more engaged with life than ever.

In what way are you engaged with life, especially now? How is that engagement opening your eyes to new understandings? 

Continue to seek ways to take care of yourself.

©2020 Stu Ervay - All Rights Reserved

Stu is a retired university professor and consultant to public schools. Prior to his work in higher education, he served as a unit commander in the United States Army, and taught history and government in secondary schools. Since retirement he has written journal articles and a book on school improvement. He is now a state AARP volunteer leader. His wife, Barbara, is also a retired educator. In addition to many years of teaching middle school science, she played a significant role as an advocate for women in church leadership.

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