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Alzheimer's Rosh Hashanah Lesson

Alzheimer's Rosh Hashanah Lesson

The most important lesson I learned from Sholom still sends me shivers, nearly three decades since his passing.

by Shmuel Zev Hakohen

Sholom was truly exceptional. He had been a well known scholarly rabbi in his earlier years who had lectured widely and participated in leading rabbinic forums in America. He had a vast array of experiences and, upon retirement, was not encumbered by demands on his time. The only catch was that Sholom was fighting a losing battle against Alzheimer's.

I entered Sholom's life through a back door. His devoted wife patiently dressed him and brought him to services at our synagogue each morning. This had been part of his life in healthier years and she hoped that the familiar environment would slow down his decline. At the end of the prayer service, she waited patiently for her husband to come outside. Sholom could barely get up by himself and was too disoriented to find his way to the door. That was the task I volunteered for.

During the 18 months that I helped Sholom, I saw a lot. Alzheimer's peels away the protective layers of personality we build around ourselves, revealing the inner core. Sholom sported a heart-warming smile when he saw me in the mornings. He chuckled in happiness as he stopped to watch children scamper about the streets. He banged on his chair loudly during prayer services, and when someone feigned piety he repeated out loud, "It is meaningless." I was amazed how Sholom, bereft of ability to read or intelligently communicate, could nonetheless pick up the incongruity of someone else's behavior. It was the only time I saw him get mad or frustrated.

I also learned from Sholom how to be patient. I learned how things are not in my control. I learned how to pray, as I asked God to help motivate my heavy friend to try and stand up so we could leave the synagogue and go home. I learned that earnest prayers are answered, and insincere ones are not.

But the most important lesson I learned still sends me shivers, nearly three decades since Sholom's passing.

I learned from Sholom that our true identity is only what we have truly incorporated into ourselves.

The rabbis say that a person can be recognized by his "wallet, anger, and alcoholic beverage." These are the times the individual's true priorities are apparent. What does he spend his money on? What makes him angry? How does he behave when under the influence of alcohol? Stripped to the core, it's the practical actions that define the person.

Alzheimer's also robs the intellect, leaving the base soul intact. I learned from Sholom that our true identity is only what we have truly incorporated into ourselves.

Soon it will be Rosh Hashanah. God peers into our heart, and assesses our inner drives and motives. Are we where we want to be? Are we really even what we think we are? Are we attempting to bridge the gap, to reconcile our ambitions and reality?

As we stand stripped of our exterior veneer before our omniscient God, the question of who are you really is answered in the Heavenly court. Let's hope we will not be embarrassed. It's still not too late to consider the question and work on making necessary changes.

Published: September 20, 2008


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Visitor Comments: 7

(7) stroke survivor, October 3, 2008 2:16 PM

Thanks for an article about the disabled at this time of year

As a stroke survivor, I've been frustrated by some of the articles I've seen recently discussing the Yomim Noraim -- there are things that my disabilities prevent me from doing, even including tefilah (in shul), teshuvah (I can't apologize if I don't realize or remember if I've done something wrong) and tzedakah (because my income is so limited and I'm still paying off huge medical bills.) This article helped answer a question that's been bothering me as I davened at home on Rosh Hashanah -- are my efforts good enough? Thank you, Rabbi, for reassuring me that Hashem will look past my inability to do certain things and accept what I do offer, as best I can. And I am so grateful to Hashem for all his goodness to me, and I know that He will continue to be with me thru these challenging times.

(6) Linda Pyne, September 29, 2008 8:07 AM

journey with my mum and Alzheimer's.

I hepled look after my mother who had Alzheimer's. When so many of her family gave up on her and believed her to be already 'dead' I found a new relationship with her. Just before she died my son had come to visit her and after he sat talking to her for over an hour, mum looked as if she were just staring into a nothingness, but she said as clear as anything to her grandson whilst looking at him. "G-d bless you for coming." I learned so much from my mum and others who suffer from this disease. They helped me to understand that the true self, the inner core doesn't die with alzheimer's, its the framework of reference of communication that changes and it was upto me to find a new way to communicate.

(5) Anonymous, September 28, 2008 10:47 AM

The Soul Shines Through Alzeheimers

My experience for several years contact with Alzeheimer patients has revelaed clearly the strength of the Soul that is even more apparent when the surface parts of the personality gets rubbed away. Yes there are mainfestations of changes that are obviously not consistent with the person's normal personality and these negative changes seem to manifest themselves when the person is overcome by pain or some disturbance. I was told of a woman who didn not know any day of the week but she always knew and felt when it was Shabbos. I have seen people who cannot always tell you their name of where they live but they can still daven. Medical professionals will explain this is possible because there is a differentiation between losing old memories and new memories but they are wrong. Whatever has become a part of someone's Soul, like their praying does not distingegrate or leave them and remains their strength even when their conscious memory is falling away

(4) Chaya, September 24, 2008 12:42 AM

Rosh Hashannah goals

Its not so much what you are, its what you WANT and how you sincerely desire to grow and what doors you want opened for you this year. If you think its just what you are, you may despair because, well, you are a certain way- you have your personality and your tendencies and your lot in life. But Hashem, on Rosh Hashannah, is looking at what you WANT. Do you want to be close to Hashem? Do you want to bring Him into your life, to help you and guide you? By bringing Hashem into your life, you are making Him part of you and part of what you are- but it all starts with WANTING it- and then, with Hashem's help and blessing, He becomes part of your life. You have to WANT it (and pray for it) and then He does the rest. Don't feel bad because you are not a "tzaddik" and seem to have not done much in life- Hashem gave you the life you have, today, so that you can reach out to Him on this Rosh Hashannah and say, I want YOU, Hashem!

(3) Shmuel Zev Hakohen, September 23, 2008 10:09 AM

author's clarification

I don’t want to go beyond the purpose of the article. After 5 years of additional experience with a close family member stricken with Alzheimer’s, it indeed becomes easy to understand how frustration leads to anger when communications and actions are hindered by inability and confusion. Notwithstanding that, something else must be clarified. It would seem there are three categories of characteristics. Let’s use anger as an example. 1. Some people are born calm. They never or at least rarely ever loose their temper. 2. Others have worked on themselves to the extent that they uprooted anger from their nature. This can be done partially, so that they never get angry at their spouses, for example, or it can be done totally. 3. Lastly, there is the largest group of individuals who may be able to suppress anger and have not yet succeeded in removing that characteristic from within. Clearly, most of us are in the last category. We are work in progress, as we go through life’s exercises, meeting the various challenges that allow us to labor on improving our character. The experience with Sholom taught me how hard I have to work to become something I want to be. To be honest, it prompted me to make an effort to avoid remaining someone I do not want to be. People can change, if not totally than at least incrementally. In the final analysis, we are rated by our honest effort, not by our success. Nonetheless, the Rabbis have taught ‘in the way a person desires to go, he is guided (by heavenly assistance)’. That was the purpose of the article. We can not judge people who no longer have the ability to restrain themselves. In fact, we should respect them for how great their efforts were in their days of good health, when they managed to control their emotions. The Rabbis, in referring to disabled individuals, have taught us that ‘the tablets (of the 10 commandments) and the broken tablets were both placed in the holy ark (in the temple)’.

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