Excerpt from Lessons from the Lifelines Writing Group for People in the Early Stages of Alzheimer's Disease: Forgetting That We Don't Remember by Alan Dienstag:
The challenge of putting Don DeLillo's observation about writing and memory to work for people in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease brought to light aspects of memory and the psychology of people experiencing memory loss that I knew about but had failed to put to any therapeutic use. I would summarize the most important of these aspects as follows: Writing is a form of memory. As a form of memory, its characteristics create some unique therapeutic possibilities for people with Alzheimer's disease. Because it presents another way of remembering, it provides an individual with additional experiences of being a remembering person and access to different kinds of memories. Perhaps most important, it returns to those whose memories are failing the opportunity to experience and share the memories they have. In this respect, the writing group transformed a weakness into a strength.
What was true of the writing was also true of the reading. In reading the written work, the insecurity of unprompted verbal recall (a factor that over time tends to discourage talking in this population) was replaced with something that is not only tangible and therefore more secure but also lasting. The group format seemed to extend and intensify these effects as well as to provide therapeutic benefit in more traditional ways. In a remark that beautifully encapsulated the acceptance, recognition, and sense of belonging found in the group, one of our members put it this way: "We may not remember everything, but we remember each other and I'm a part of everyone here."
A patient of mine in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease once said, "I feel like a picture that's fading; every time I look, there is less of me here. I almost don't recognize myself." Watching the group members in their struggle to remember, write, and read their work is a moving experience on many levels. One of these is surely our awareness that the picture is fading along with the sparks of recognition. This awareness lends a poignancy and triumph to the work with which one can identify. In this identification there is also a healing of the breach that separates us from people with Alzheimer's. We all know what fading is like, and we all know that our fate is not so different from theirs. The triumph is temporary; it is of this moment, but it is the triumph of life over death. If we do need stories to live, then these are truly lifelines, acts of writing that are life preserving.
Listen to “Alzhiemer’s, Memory, and Meaning,” Dr. Dienstag’s conversation with Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith, March 26, 2009]