Alzheimers

Good Men and the Secret of Happiness

Sargent Shriver in 1961.

Sargent Shriver in 1961.

In June my husband, who gets lots of review copies unbidden, asked me if I wanted to read Mark Shriver's memoir about his father, Sargent Shriver, who passed away in 2011 at age 95.

"Since you're a fan of all things Kennedy," he said, "I thought you might want to see it."

I didn't.

True, a high point in my adolescent life was standing in back of St. Matthew's Cathedral one December morning in 1963 waiting for mass to begin when suddenly a very tall, very disheveled, very pregnant Eunice Kennedy Shriver pushed past me, wearing smudged red lipstick and a full-length fur coat. But sons are not necessarily good biographers, and anyway, I had a stack of mysteries awaiting my attention.

But then in July, a Facebook friend pointed me to Reeve Lindbergh's review of A Good Man in the Washington Post, suggesting that this was a book I might want to read. Lindbergh — herself the daughter of two famous parents, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh — called it "a moving and thoughtful book." Maybe I'll read this after all, I said to myself. And then a week or two later, my friend Estelle sent me a copy of the book as an early birthday present, telling me she thought I'd connect with it on many levels.

I must be supposed to read this one, I thought.

The Heart of All Anxiety: Fear of Loss

Photo by GSPhotography/Shutterstock.com.

Photo by GSPhotography/Shutterstock.com.

I got emails from my mom and uncle about Nana, my last living grandparent. The news isn’t great. She’s struggled with dementia for some years now and hasn’t recognized me the last several times I’ve seen her. But while her mind has been betraying her for a while, it’s her health now that seems to hang in the balance.

Not that it’s a surprise at ninety years old. And it’s also not like we’re particularly close anymore. Aside from living 700 milers away, it’s hard to have much of a relationship with someone who has no idea who you are. But there’s something about knowing she’s close to the end of her life that really freaked me out last night.

When I was a little guy, I had three great grandparents that I remember visiting. They all smelled funny and talked constantly about stuff I didn’t understand, but I got that they were family. I’d visit Pappy and Sweetie, who lived in a trailer home on the Mississippi River; Granny Hagen had her own house for a few years, and then she got moved into one of those silos where people wait to die. Yes, there are some retirement facilities that actually have signs of life in them, but this wasn’t one of them. My mom’s family was pretty poor, and things like retirement and end-of-life planning weren’t a particularly high priority.

Their deaths didn’t bother me too much. I didn’t like seeing my parents sad, but that was about it. I’d miss the candy corns and balloons Pappy always gave me (he called candy corns “duck butters” because when he’d feed them to the ducks, their butts would stick up in the air when they reached down to eat them). But my grandparents were the ones I actually knew as people.

Til Death (or Dementia or Illness) Us Do Part?

Philip & June Weeks have been married for 58 years. RNS photo/The Weekses

Philip and June Weeks have been married for 58 years. RNS photo courtesy Philip and June Weeks.

Philip Weeks fondly remembers the days when his wife of 56 years, June, was a nurse and an artist whose paintings were compared to Rembrandt's.

Her paintings still hang in their home in Lynchburg, Va., but almost everything else has changed for the couple after she was diagnosed with possible Alzheimer's and then an abrupt form of dementia.

In one moment, the retired Charismatic Episcopal bishop said, she would lean over to kiss him. "An hour later, she looked at me and said, 'Who are you?'" he recalled.

When the person you married goes through a dramatic change, what's a spouse to do? As Valentine's Day approaches, clergy, ethicists and brain injury experts agree: There are no easy answers.

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