A woman finds herself shouldering the burden of providing care for a parent with Alzheimer’s while her siblings rarely call or visit. A man moves in with his mother, whose memory is splintering quickly, while his sisters claim things aren’t that bad, she’s just old. A woman finds herself caring for a mother who, in their tattered history together, never cared enough to mother her only daughter. These are just a few examples of what can happen to families in the world of Alzheimer’s. While it’s true that some families rally and bond together in the face of this relentless disease, it’s more common that old fractures and lifelong patterns rise up like ghosts from the grave.

My half-sister Maureen was dying of cancer during the last few years of our father’s life. I thought maybe, after a lifetime of resentment on her part (I was the daughter from the new family and got to live with our father when she didn’t) we could come to some kind of peaceful coexistence. We were both losing our father, and she was losing her battle with cancer. But it was not to be. If anything, her years of resentment grew bigger.

Alzheimer’s, more than any other disease, seems to illuminate every part of a family’s dynamic — all the tangles and weaves, all the broken places, as well as the strengths that might otherwise go unnoticed. What I realized in my own situation was that the rearrangement took place within myself. There would be no outward healing or reconciling — that was obvious. But I found in myself a deeper level of understanding. Maureen was the daughter from my father’s first marriage, the marriage we weren’t supposed to talk about. We were not a blended family by any means. And now she was losing our father to the piracy of Alzheimer’s without ever having inhabited his life as much as she longed to. When I wept for my own loss, I also wept for hers, which was a new frontier for me.

Families are always works in progress. So are we as individuals. Sometimes the best we can do is dive deep into our own souls and patch things up there, even if all around us there is still breakage.


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