During the last years of her life, my maternal grandmother of blessed memory began forgetting things. Once I was wheeling her through a corridor of her assisted living facility when she waved to a friend, to whom she wanted to introduce me. “Hello, dear. I’d like you to meet my father, Harry.” Grandma Jeannette’s father was named Eduard. “Harry” could have been either my uncle or my cousin. So she got my name wrong. And our relationship. But what she was saying was essentially true.
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are a great source of frustration for both the one directly affected but for their caregivers as well. Without denying that fact, it’s worth pondering the ways in which forgetfulness can bring about insights which might otherwise get buried under the blanket of memory. What my grandmother needed to tell her friend was not my name or my place on the family tree; rather, it was that she felt a strong connection to her male relatives. Her father was a gentle, nurturing man; my uncle and cousin are as well. So even though my grandmother couldn’t recall my name, she was paying me the highest compliment: she deemed me worthy of being conflated with these three marvelous men.
My grandmother bore testimony that having dementia does not preclude having wisdom, and in certain cases may even be the source of it. Likewise, the spirituality of people with dementia is not always readily apparent, but nevertheless is present. Once when I was working in the dementia wards in the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale, I met a man who would not speak, but from morning to night would sing “Adon Olam,” “Shalom Aleikhem” and “Yigdal” one after the other, as if on an endless tape loop. His singing was a constant source of annoyance to the people who shared the common room.
It seemed to me that he was sealed off in some early childhood memory, with no awareness of the present. The only indication I had that he was in any way aware of what was going on was that whenever the other residents would tell him to be quiet, he would sing louder.
When I described this situation to my mentor, Rabbi Simon Hirschhorn, he said, “Are there other people on the floor with traditional background? Gather a few around him and make a tish,” using the Yiddish word for the “table” people gather around to sing Shabbat songs. I did this. It worked. Five old Jews sat in a circle around a dining room table and swayed and tapped their feet while “Mr. Yigdal” sang his songs, visibly happy to be sharing sharing them with people who appreciated them. It was Shabbes on Wednesday.
Rabbi Dayle Friedman likens dementia to our experience wandering in desert after leaving Egypt:
“They wandered with few guideposts toward an unknown destination. They could not sustain themselves without divine help. They were vulnerable before people they met along the way, and before the harsh realities of nature. They could not return to Egypt, the place of their memories, and they could not truly imagine what lay ahead. Perhaps people with dementia experience their lives as a kind of midbar,” a wilderness.
The wilderness can terrify. But it also can inspire. That was where God chose for us to receive Torah, far from the noise and clutter of more civilized places. All the inessential stuff–the names, the appointment calendars, the books with facts and figures–we had left behind in Egypt.