Adventures in Alzheimer’s caretaking: dignity, personality remains


By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

DAVENPORT — As Alzheimer’s ravaged the mind of her mother, Anne, Janet Smith — a self-described impatient and grouchy person — was adjusting to the role of caregiver. After participating in eucharistic adoration together, Anne clearly expressed to her daughter that God had spoken to her during the time of reflective prayer. Her mother said, “I learned that I still have purpose on this earth.”

Lindsay Steele
Professor Janet Smith, left, talks with Alzheimer’s Association fall conference attendee Judy White of Taylor Ridge, Ill., on Oct.30 at Radisson Quad City Plaza in Davenport.

“I think her purpose is helping me grow up,” Smith said with a chuckle, recalling the story at the Alzheimer’s Association fall conference Oct. 30 in the Radisson Quad City Plaza ballroom.

Smith, a professor of moral theology and chair of life issues at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Mich., utilized a quick-witted delivery in a speech that was reminiscent of a comedic monologue. She played the roles of herself and her mother as she revisited the often humorous and enriching experiences they have shared as they endure the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.


In the five years since her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Smith has split her time between her teaching duties in Detroit and her mother’s home in Pennsylvania. As a consecrated virgin — a woman who has been consecrated by the Church to a life of perpetual virginity in the service of God — Smith expressed her gratitude for the experience of caring for another human being for the first time, despite the challenges.

She cited St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which explains that even when a person’s abilities are impaired, the person is still intact. “We are here to love and be loved, we can do that in any condition,” she said.

Though not ignoring the sometimes frustrating aspects of caring for someone with dementia, Smith focused most of the speech on what she has learned about the worth of human life at its later stages. “There is an enormous amount of dignity … her world is narrowing, and how she adjusts is profoundly impressive to me.”

Smith said her mother is aware of the declines in her condition, and has bad days. However, Anne’s personality – especially her wit — endures. Smith recalled a time in which her mother was less than impressed with a movie. Anne quipped to her daughter, “I’ll be the first to admit: I hope I forget it!”

The anecdotes and laughter were ubiquitous as Smith led the 200 attendees through her daily routine and the road bumps along the way, but the underlying message that all life is precious and meaningful also struck a chord. After the presentation, event organizer Jerry Schroeder, a parishioner of St. Pius X Parish in Rock Island, Ill., said, “I’m glad it’s dark in here, you’d see my tears otherwise!”

Linda Judd, a Lutheran from Clinton who attends Christian Experience Weekends (CEW) at Prince of Peace Parish, stood up from the audience after the speech and asked for the microphone in order to express her approval of Smith’s “engaging comedic dialogue.” Speaking from the perspective of someone whose daughter works with people with Alzheimer’s, she said, “I’ve never heard anybody talk about it like this before, usually it’s talked about as a (depressing) thing. … You’ve found the joy possible in the midst of a journey of this seemingly exasperating situation. This is a new way to look at how people can make it through and have joy to the last moments of a person’s life. There is an opportunity for laughter and joy, and not always getting dragged down.”

Bill Horrell, development and communication coordinator of the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Iowa Chapter and parishioner of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, said Smith’s uplifting yet realistic portrayal of the life of a caregiver offered respite and understanding to those in the audience going through similar situations. For Horrell, who recently lost his mother to cancer, her view on the dignity of life as the body declines was poignant. “We can look for the positives, celebrate life and heal old wounds. … Cherish those moments while you still can. You can still create new memories and not be bitter.”

Advice to caregivers
Janet Smith, who provides care for her mother with Alz­heimer’s disease, offers the following advice to other caregivers:
• Take time for yourself to regroup
• Keep a routine
• Maintain a safe environment
• Offer activities that make the individual feel useful
• Keep photo albums
• Be affirming, not condescending
• Look for positives
• Pray
• Laugh

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