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FIRST-PERSON: A visit with Alzheimer’s patients: from anger & confusion to faith

SALT LAKE CITY (BP)–She was seated in a chair in the lobby when I walked in. She turned her head toward me, our eyes met for a brief moment and she smiled.

The group I had accompanied to minister to the Alzheimer’s patients proceeded down the hallway to an assembly room.

We were at a nursing home in Salt Lake City during the Winter Olympics and I was observing a team from Action Ministries International who volunteered to take time out of their regular activities to sing and share their faith.

I returned her smile and she diverted her eyes to observe the commotion. I saw her watch everything through watery blue eyes shaded by a pair of rose-colored glasses. She left her chair and approached me.

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“Where are they going?” she asked in a tone of childlike curiosity.

After I explained what was occurring, I invited her to accompany me. A look of deep concentration covered her face and after great consideration, she accepted. I took the old lady’s arm and led her down the hallway. She walked slowly and deliberately and stood a full foot shorter than I. On our walk I discovered her name was Dagnee.

When we reached the room, she told me it was “too loud” and that the noise “killed her ears.” I encouraged Dagnee to stay and hear the message, but she was adamant about returning to the lobby with me tagging along.

I slowly walked her back down the hallway and we began talking. She tried to tell me something that was obviously very important to her by the intent look on her face, but her clumsy tongue stumbled over the syllables.

Dagnee had trouble hearing and I had to repeat my questions into her ear four times. Often, she countered with irrelevant answers.

I asked her if she had any children and my heart broke with her reply.

“I don’t remember,” she said softly after a contemplative pause with a sorrowful look in her eyes.

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Although my first reaction was pity, my second reaction — anger — followed quickly and with a great ferocity. How could God let anyone suffer like this?

As I began observing the other patients, the burning fire of indignation grew in my chest. I choked down tears as I watched an elderly gentleman stumble around with his belt on backward, one foot bare and the other dragging a baseball cap. Another gentleman sat and stared at the ceiling incessantly. Yet another patient muttered unintelligible syllables continually under her breath. The more I watched, the angrier and more confused I got.

When we reached the lobby, a worker told Dagnee to go back down and watch the presentation. She agreed but gripped my hand and insisted that I go with her.

Once again, we made our walk down the hallway. This time, Dagnee agreed to stay but only on the condition that I sat by her. In the middle of the ministry, I felt a hand on my arm and turned to look at her.

“You’re a nice person,” Dagnee said as she smiled up at me. My heart was torn. She was probably five times my age, but looked up at me with the admiration children show for adults.

She tolerated the noise as long as possible and then told me she just couldn’t handle it any longer. I walked her back to the lobby yet again. When we arrived, I told Dagnee I would have to return to the assembly but promised to visit her again before I left.

Later as the ministering was over and we were leaving, I spotted Dagnee in the same seat I had left her in. As soon as she saw me, her face lit up with a smile and she waved to me.

The front receptionist had watched the entire affair with a sharp, skeptical look. I leaned over to her and asked if Dagnee remembered me. She said Dagnee never remembered anyone or anything, including me. I stood there disappointed when I felt a hand patting my arm.

I turned and looked down into the smiling eyes of Dagnee. She had that same look of childish admiration and trust on her face.

“I’m just patting you because I know you and you know me!” she said with a pleased look on her face.

That statement shot through me as I smiled back at her. All the anger dissipated as I came to the ever-painful realization that I had everything wrong. I was wrong to question God and even more wrong for being so presumptuous as to be angry with God over what I saw as an appalling injustice.

He had to have a reason to let this happen to his children. The more I thought about it, the more reasons I found. Maybe they had a sorrowful life and it was God’s way of alleviating that pain for them. Maybe they were meant to teach the rest of us a lesson in compassion.

I certainly learned this last lesson, but more importantly, I learned a lesson in faith. Who was I to question God? Yes, it did seem on the surface as if the suffering was useless, and yet, the experience provided me with a priceless lesson in faith.
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Fry is the news editor of Wingspan, the student newsjournal at Henry County High School near Atlanta.

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