My Alzheimer’s Shadow: A Journey from Anger to Trust
by Patte Earley as told to Betty J. Johnson
“I am so angry. I’m fifty-one years old and my husband, Bill, has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Where do I focus my anger?” I cried.
“Are you mad at God?” Mary asked.
“No, I’m not angry at God, because I don’t believe this is His choice. And I can’t be angry at Bill, because he certainly didn’t want the disease. I’m a Christian, and I want to act like a Christian,” I answered.
My inner volcano of anger erupted. The fury smoldered during the early stages of Bill’s disease — those days of increased confusion and forgetfulness. Then the pendulum of feelings swung toward pity as I watched Bill stare at the calendar, stumble over simple tasks, and search for common words. I knew we had a serious problem, but facing the diagnosis frightened me.
Nevertheless, Bill visited a neurologist. After a series of tests, I heard the dreaded words “Your husband has Alzheimer’s disease.”
Unshed tears choked me. I needed help, so I called my long-time friend and Christian counselor, Mary. We talked — and I sobbed.
“Patte, you’ve spent years in Bible studies. Dig out your old journals and notebooks. Consider them preparation for what you’re experiencing now,” Mary suggested. “You have a reservoir of trust in God. Draw on that reservoir.
“Also, let me reassure you,” she went on. “Those angry feelings are natural and normal. If misdirected, anger can wound and destroy, but if expressed honestly in healthy ways, it can help us heal. Try focusing your anger-energy at the disease.”
“Where . . . where do I start?” I stammered.
“How about getting acquainted and involved with the Alzheimer’s Association?” she responded.
A Call for Help
The following day, my hands shook as I dialed the Rocky Mountain chapter’s office. “My husband has Alzheimer’s. What should I do?” I asked the volunteer.
“Join an ‘early stage’ support group,” she answered. “Become a member of a family of friends who understand and care.”
“I’m only fifty-one. Are there special groups for people my age?” I asked innocently.
“At fifty-one, you’ll be one of the youngest in any group.”
My anger surfaced. This shouldn’t be happening to me! I silently screamed. How can I possibly relate to older caregivers? I need people around me who are my age!
Then Mary’s words echoed in my mind: Focus your anger at the disease. It was time to get acquainted with my adversary.
Bill and I attended the suggested support group, and I met Barbara, a young woman who radiated a positive attitude. Because of her influence, I registered for seminars, studied brochures, and joined the national and regional Alzheimer’s Associations.
Mary’s advice worked. I became a member of a family of care-givers and, like a bombarded battleship, anger retreated.
At our next meeting, I told Mary, “I know I can trust God with certain things, but everything? I usually do all I can first. Then, when I can’t do more, I turn it over to God.”
“Remember those years of Bible studies? Dip into that reservoir of trust,” Mary reminded me.
Soon the inevitable happened: Bill needed outside activity and I needed time alone. We enrolled him in an Alzheimer’s Day Program. The night before his first day, questions haunted me: Will Bill be happy there? Will he want to continue in the program?
I looked for help in the Scriptures and found Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
“OK, God,” I prayed. “If I lean on my own understanding, I’ll fill my day of freedom with worry. So I’m going to trust You. Will You take care of Bill?”
Twenty-four hours later, I realized I hadn’t worried. Bill’s first day was perfect. I trusted God, and He faithfully cared for my husband — and gave me a day of rest.
Several weeks later, while flipping through the Bible, I discovered the verse “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
“Now there’s a challenge,” I muttered. “Lord, help me find at least one blessing every day,” I prayed.
This daily thanksgiving search forced me to focus on God and on positive events instead of on caregiving problems. One evening, after Bill had shadowed my every move and called my name incessantly, I dragged myself into bed and prayed, “Lord, help me see what I can be thankful for tonight.”
Then I knew. “The sun did shine today, Lord, and I’m thankful for that,” I whispered as I dozed off to sleep.
My watch-for-the-blessing game taught me to give thanks in all things, not for all things. I learned thankfulness for a God who loves me, who cares about my every move, who wants to help me. This thankfulness is not dependent on the circumstances I’m in.
On particularly stormy days, like a forlorn child, I’d nestle in our big recliner and pray, “I need You now, Lord. Please comfort me.”
Then I’d hear in my heart God’s reassuring voice: “Patte, you are not alone. Remember, nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (see Romans 8:39). This experience alleviated any doubts that the Scriptures are true.
Trauma and Guilt
As I faced the trauma and guilt of previewing care centers for Bill’s eventual home, my need for trust and comfort increased. I dreaded that decision. But how much longer can I continue this existence of remembering for two? I argued with myself. Bathing him? Dressing him? Having him shadow my every step? And the sleepless nights, up and down, dressing and undressing. Do I have a choice?
“I can’t believe this is real,” I mumbled as my friend and I turned into the driveway for our first care center preview. “It must be a nightmare.” My voice broke, and the tears streamed down my cheeks.
“I will trust in God,” I finally said, wiping my eyes and gulping back the unwanted anger. I thought about the shadow of a man who sat at my table and the shadow of a man who shared my bed. “This is just a visit. Hopefully, I won’t have to face the final dreaded decision of placement for months.”
I took a deep breath, opened the car door, and marched toward the care center.
Within a week of that visit, my father died. Bill couldn’t travel, but because of our recent previewing session, he had a place to stay. When I returned from Dad’s funeral, Bill’s doctor suggested I leave him there permanently. Again, I trusted, and God’s faithfulness prevailed. The dreaded placement decision was over; God had made it for me.
Winning the Battle
My adversary, anger, isn’t defeated, but God and I are winning the battle. God is teaching me that even when He doesn’t offer explanations for our situations, He enables us to triumph in them. Last year, I focused my energy at the disease and raised over $3,000 through the Annual Alzheimer’s Memory Walk.
Today, I live with the ongoing grieving process connected with Alzheimer’s. I’m a widow, but not quite a widow, living in a never-never land. I have a husband by law, but not in the meaningful areas of life: companionship, as well as physical and emotional support.
During a recent trip to visit Bill, I gazed at the Rocky Mountains and thought about my personal mountain of anger and how, with God’s help, it’s becoming a reservoir filled with trust. As I pulled into the driveway of Bill’s current home, I turned off the ignition, leaned back, closed my eyes, and whispered, “I don’t know what awaits me inside that building, Lord, but I’m choosing to trust in You. I know I’m not alone.”
Scripture quotations were taken from the New International Version.