Finding Words

Mai's Quiet Zone, 2004

Dr. Alan Dienstag from “Alzhiemer’s, Memory, and Meaning,” in conversation with Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith, March 26, 2009:

I was working with a woman who actually first brought her sister to see me. Her name was Ann, and she wanted, her sister to join one of the writing groups [for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s], but her sister wasn't right for it. About two years later, she came back, and she [herself] had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. And so I started to work with her, and she joined one of my support groups.

She was in the group for a long time, and then it just became impossible for her to participate. The conversation was moving too fast. She just didn't have the language. She couldn't string together more than a sentence or two, and it just wasn't working. And so she had to leave the group.

Her husband, who was just extraordinarily devoted to her, really wanted her to maintain her connection with me. It was very helpful that I had known her before. And she would bring photo albums in. She would do a little tchotchke tour of my office. You know, when it wasn't really possible to talk about things, she would kind of walk around and we would look at objects. She was very taken by the birds outside the window. I mean, that was the kind of time that we spent together.

And then even that became difficult. She was one of those people who started to kind of retreat into almost a mask-like blankness. It was harder and harder to access her. And so we were reaching the end of that time, and I was talking to her husband, telling him that I just didn't think that it was a really fruitful way for her to spend her time and so on.

So it was around that time, and I was going on vacation, and she loved the beach and I loved the beach and this was something that we used to connect about.

As I was leaving I said, "Ann, I'm going to the beach. I'm going to be away for a while." And she smiled and her face kind of lit up.

I said, "What do you love about the beach?"

She kind of drifted away, as she did, and she got very quiet. And again I waited and I thought, well, you know, she can't really answer that question.

And she turned to me and she said, "There's some kind of music that lives there."