• Ellen Belk
  • Alzheimer's Disease Destroys the Brain and Saves the Soul
Alzheimer's Disease Destroys the Brain and Saves the Soul
Written by
Ellen Belk
May 2012
Written by
Ellen Belk
May 2012
Alzheimer’s disease cannot be called prejudice in any way. Lack of verbal skills, empty gazes, memory deficient of how to do simple tasks… Yes, Alzheimer’s disease offers the ultimate individual experience and claims no one in the same way. But sometimes, a light will shine like no other day.
What can we learn from each person to help the next one? Come with me on Mabel’s journey; we’ll learn together.
It began with Mabel. I’m not exactly sure which day of the week I first met her, but I’m certain January was the month. Time wasn’t really important to her and when I was with her, it wasn’t important to me either. She didn’t depend on a calendar, and rarely, if ever, did she look at the clock.
Mabel was in the latter stages of Alzheimer’s disease when I first met her. She was a resident at the skilled nursing facility where I worked as an activity assistant.
Mabel stood out to me wearing her glasses which almost emphasized her smooth complexion and virtually un-wrinkled skin. After her weekly visits to the beauty shop, her dark brown hair held patches of gray with tight curls. She wore no makeup giving her the appearance of someone much younger than her chronological age. I didn’t know Mabel’s age when we met and she never told me.
She rarely spoke to me at all. In fact, she hadn’t spoken to anyone in quite some time; so you can imagine my surprise the first time I heard her voice.
As we sat in the sitting room, the afternoon sun warmed the space. I stood in the middle of a circle with my charges, my back to Mabel. All the others in the room were just looking at me, waiting for some action to begin. Out from the corner came a staccato voice in a loud, nearly shrill tone, “One, two, three…” I quickly spun around to see the owner of this outburst, but the voice had vanished. I glanced in Mabel’s direction, but as usual Mabel stared straight ahead, her eyes wide open and her expression blank.
Did my ears deceive me or did I merely yearn to hear Mabel speak something, anything?
I began passing out simple musical instruments to everyone in the circle—jingle bells for some, maracas for others. Our music circle would begin shortly. All of a sudden, the voice broke through the stillness, again strong and emphatic…”One, two, three…”
This time, as I quickly twirled around like a dervish, I knew without a doubt those words were coming from the seemingly quiet and detached Mabel. I walked over to her, gently touching her shoulder, and asked, “Mabel? Are you alright?” She gave no response, only a mere pursing of her lips.
As I stepped away, the voice broke the silence again. Indeed, Ms. Mabel spoke. My broad smile couldn’t conceal my pleasure to hear her lively voice.
When Mabel wasn’t lying in bed, she was lifted by no less than two people into her wheelchair. Mabel had been in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease for quite some time when I arrived on scene. Her hands were in a permanent clenched position that usually rested uncomfortably on her upper chest, just under her chin. Mabel couldn’t eat, drink, dress or bathe without assistance. She was known to professional caregivers as a “total care” resident. I found her fascinating.
Her big brown eyes, although fixed in a constant glare-like trance, still glistened and danced when enticed to do so. Mabel barely spoke, but those eyes had much to say. Her private room was her home, filled with family pictures and mementos from years gone by. Mabel had family and Mabel was loved.
Mabel’s inability to speak in full sentences never stopped me from talking with her. Yes, I did all the talking, but I was convinced that Mabel knew exactly what I was saying. I held her hand and told her about the weather. I always gave her a daily weather report and shared details about my life. Some days I got choked up when I sat close to her bed and held one of her family photos up for her to see. I never actually met one of her family members in person, but their presence was everywhere.
Love makes a difference even for those who no longer remember or speak.
On that sunny day in the sitting room as the other residents anxiously awaited our music circle activity to begin, I pressed the play button on the boom box and the recognizable rhythm of a familiar tune burst through the speakers. I stood in the center of the circle coaxing, enticing and encouraging the residents to shake their hand-held instruments and move to the music. Before long we were singing, humming, laughing and enjoying ourselves.
Mabel was in our music circle but unable to hold an instrument. Her gaze remained fixed and her lips remained pursed tightly shut. Undeterred, I approached her while I shook the maraca and sang the familiar tune. My large smile penetrated my heart which filled with love for my friend Mabel. And then out of the corner of my eye, I saw the movement. I quickly looked down just in time to see Mabel’s slipper-covered foot tapping in time with the music, as it rested on the foot pedal of her wheelchair.
Yes, Mabel moved to the music in the only way she could. My heart skipped a beat while it swelled with pride. In an instant, Mabel taught me a valuable lesson. This same lesson also serves as one for everyone who works with the memory impaired.
Regardless of what Alzheimer’s disease had done to her body, regardless of what abilities had been robbed from her, on that day, in that moment, with familiar music playing while an activity assistant sang off-key, Mabel tapped her foot and kept time with the beat. You can rob the mind but not the soul. And that became music to my ears!

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