Family connect with mother

It was a beautiful August morning in Winston Salem, North Carolina, three years ago when my wife, Rebecca, then age 59, and I were engaging in our morning ritual of sipping coffee on the back porch. Without warning, the awful moment I had long dreaded finally arrived: Rebecca, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) six years earlier, looked at me and said, “I have no idea who you are.” Her blank stare confirmed she really meant it. “But Sweetie, I am your husband, Ed,” I replied. “You are my wife. We’ve been married for 33 years.”

The pain of that moment drove me from the porch into the house. I tearfully stood before a recent family portrait, looking into the faces of our adult daughters Erin, Leah and Carrie. I wondered how 37 years of a relationship and a third of a century of marriage could disappear from Rebecca’s memory overnight. I also wondered how, in the absence of her knowing us, the girls and I would be able to convey our love to her moving forward.

The 5 Love Languages came to mind.

Authored by pastor and marriage counselor Dr. Gary Chapman, the book “The 5 Love Languages” describes how individuals communicate and receive emotional love using the metaphor of literal languages.

The 5 Love Languages include:

1.) Words of Affirmation: unsolicited words of affection and appreciation

2.) Quality Time: giving someone your full, undivided attention

3.) Gifts: a visible symbol of love such as a purchased, handmade, or found tangible gift

4.) Acts of Service: doing helpful things for another person to lighten their load

5.) Physical Touch: deliberate touch conveying your presence to another

For couples and families on the AD journey, The 5 Love Languages provide tools that make it possible to sustain an emotional connection with a memory-impaired person. With progressive cognitive decline, the person with AD gradually loses the ability to manage his or her side of the relationship, yet their deep human need for love does not disappear, and their ability to experience love is retained until the end of the journey. However, the healthy partner must repeatedly make intentional, sacrificial “love by choice” decisions that exceed what is required in relationships unaffected by dementia.