My first big clue that something was very wrong came in February 2009. I was on a Christian mission trip to Costa Rica, meeting with a small group of women. Suddenly I couldn’t understand a word they were saying.
I didn’t let on, but I was totally at a loss. All I could do was make a comment every now and then and hope it was all right. I got some puzzled looks, but somehow I made it through the next hour. Afterwards, I reverted to normal.
Things weren’t normal, though, when I got back home. I cried all the time without knowing why. In my job as a high-level statistician, I found myself struggling to analyze data and needing to delegate my work to other analysts.
“Could be menopause,” a friend suggested. I was fifty-six and had already gone through that stage, so it didn’t seem likely. “Stress,” thought someone else. I took a month off from work, but things only got worse.
A nurse practitioner urged me to see a doctor, and so began two years of medical tests. Early on, after a psychological test revealed “significant” mental impairments, one specialist noted: “probably Alzheimer’s disease.” If I ever read his comment, I dismissed it right away.
That diagnosis wasn’t confirmed until May 2011. By that time, because of my increasing confusion and forgetfulness, I had left the job I loved. And I was wrestling with God in a very serious way.
But I’m Your Bride! For most of my adult life, I’ve lived “single for the Lord” as part of an ecumenical group of women who have chosen not to marry in order to dedicate ourselves to a life of prayer and Christian service. And so, though we work at various professions and don’t take religious vows, I see myself as a bride of Christ, deeply loved and deeply in love with Jesus.
Every day before work, I used to get up to spend an hour with him. I loved it. I’d praise and worship God—singing, reading Scripture, reflecting, and writing down things that struck me. But as I felt myself declining, I became very angry with the Lord.
“Is this the way you treat your bride?” I’d ask him. But he was silent.
Deep down, I knew that if I refused to choose “your way, not mine,” I was the one who was going to be the loser. Still, for nearly two years I fought and struggled. I denied what was happening, tried to cover up, refused to discuss it. With all my heart I wanted to believe that my problem was sleep deprivation, stress, or even depression—anything but Alzheimer’s.
This wrestling went on and on, but at least I kept talking to the Lord. Then one day, during my prayer time, he gave me an unexpected grace. I suddenly realized that I could really trust him with my future. “I accept this,” I told Jesus very simply.
The peace I felt got me through the final medical consultation, which left no doubt that I have progressive dementia: Alzheimer’s disease, according to one last test. Sherry, a close friend who is also single for the Lord, was with me as I got the bad news.
“Myriam, you’re too quiet,” she said, when we were back in the car. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m okay. I worked it out with God last night. And I told him it’s okay, whatever it is.”
Sherry couldn’t believe what she was hearing. I could hardly believe it myself. It was pure grace—and so freeing to be able to admit what was happening and to talk about it.
Loved and Loving. After a couple of weeks, I felt like the Lord was asking something more: Thank me. Again I wrestled. Accepting my situation had been hard enough. Did I really have to do this too? It was hard, very hard, but again there came the grace to say yes.
Months later, I realized that I was truly grateful for some of the changes I saw in myself. “I’m relating to people differently, in a softer, more loving way. Thank you, Jesus, for this opportunity.” And as I prayed, I sensed a call to go deeper—not just to accept and give thanks, but to embrace the journey with trust in God’s love and wisdom. This time my response came easily: I embraced it like a gift from heaven.
This may sound strange, but even as I’m losing my abilities, I’m seeing the “gift” side of what’s happening. More and more, all I can do is love and be loved. And I feel so much love from so many people! They’re praying for me, telling me what I mean to them, thanking me for ways I’ve helped them.
And God is still using me to speak words that people need to hear. When women I’ve counseled over the years call and ask my advice, I usually know what to say. I say it more directly, too, because along with Alzheimer’s comes a lessening of inhibitions! I noticed this recently, when a woman in my Zumba exercise class said how worried she was that her husband might have dementia. Not only did I tell her how to get medical help, but right there, with other people listening in, I prayed with her. “I feel so much better now,” she said afterwards.
Suffering Servants. Don’t get me wrong, though. Embracing this journey isn’t the same as embracing the disease. I’m doing all I can to stay fit and slow my decline—speech therapy, exercise, social contacts, a good diet. If God chooses to heal me, I’ll be ecstatic. And although I’ve arrived at a basic peace, there are still struggles and tears.
I loved being a statistician, being savvy and capable. Now I can’t even count. I can’t tell time without a lot of effort. If people talk fast, I can’t understand what they say. I have a hard time focusing to pray. It’s hard to accept help, too, hard to let go.
An experience I had at the airport last year drove home this sense of loss and helplessness. I was traveling with Sherry, but she went through security just ahead of me, so she couldn’t help when I got confused at the guards’ directions. I couldn’t understand where they wanted me to place my luggage. I didn’t know which hand they wanted me to raise. “Don’t you know one from the other?” one guard jeered.
I stumbled out of the checkpoint crying. I felt so humiliated. “This is what’s coming,” I was thinking. “This is the way I’m going to be—all the time.” Explaining it to Sherry later, I could only say I’d had a taste of what it was like for Jesus, when he was stripped of everything and people were mocking him. I take comfort in the fact that I am being conformed to him. As I wrote in my journal, “As time goes on and I lose all I have—the ability to communicate, my memory, being able to do my daily functions—I see that all this is making me more like Jesus, the suffering servant.”
St. Ignatius Loyola put it more eloquently in words that I now pray from the heart:
Take, O Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my will, all that I have and possess.
You have given all these things to me. To you, Lord, I return them. All are yours. Do with them what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace, for that is enough for me.
Myriam Torres is a lay pastoral worker and founding member of Bethany Association, an ecumenical group of women living single for the Lord. She told her story with a little help from her friends.
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If You’re Dealing with Memory Loss
Myriam Torres has some practical tips.
Ever since receiving my diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, I’ve very actively looked for ways to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible. I’ve also become very up front about sharing my findings with anyone who might benefit! The following suggestions are not comprehensive and, because circumstances vary, not all may apply to your situation. But I hope some of my tips will be helpful to you or to someone you love.
Get to a doctor. If you’ve noticed troubling changes (like the “10 early signs and symptoms” on the Alzheimer’s Association Web site: www.alz.org), but you haven’t looked into the cause, go get tested. The sooner you know what you’re dealing with, the more time you—and your caregivers—will have to plan and prepare.
Keep moving. Physical exercise helps maintain good blood flow to the brain and has lots of other benefits. I like to go for walks, often with a friend. I’ve benefited from exercise too. I especially like Qi Gong, a gentle exercise that helps maintain flexibility, balance, and stability and—my number one favorite—Zumba, a Latin dance fitness program. I attend two classes a week and love it!
Eat well. Get those fruits and vegetables, fish, lean meats, and nuts. Enjoy a treat every now and then, but don’t overdo it. You’ll feel so much better if you have a healthy diet.
Get a pet. Something small that won’t be too much work to care for. Mine is a Pomeranian named Zoe. I’ve never had a dog before, so I’m amazed at what good company she is—fun to play with and alert to anyone at the door. With Zoe around, I never feel alone.
Join a support group. They can be found almost everywhere. Mine is sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center, and it’s been a tremendous help for understanding what is happening to me. There are about ten men and women in the group, and the social worker who coordinates it is wonderful. We usually share about our daily lives, our questions, struggles, and triumphs. Sometimes we have a speaker—like a pharmacologist who can answer our questions about medications. It’s always stimulating and informative. (There are support groups for caregivers, too, by the way.)
Get together with friends. See them as often as you can. Laugh a lot. Have them over, or go out for dinner, a film, a concert (personally, I think music is good for the brain!).
Find a fashion consultant. Maybe it sounds silly, but one of my biggest fears is that I’m going to look ugly. I never know what to put on any more, or what colors go together. When I mentioned this to a good friend one day, she offered to take over. Now she reviews my wardrobe, keeps my closet organized so that I can easily find things that match, and takes me clothes shopping twice a year. She advises me about my hair, too. What a relief!
Ask for help. I’ve noticed that many people are reluctant to accept help unless they have a way of paying them back. But in my background, which is Puerto Rican, we tend to be more direct about expressing our needs. We also expect that family and close friends will help us out even if we can’t repay them. I’m not saying that this makes everything easy. Especially in certain areas, I find it very challenging to accept help and relinquish control. But what a blessing to have people who will step in when you need them. So if you have them, ask!
Do crossword and jigsaw puzzles. They’re good stimulation. I‘m not so good at crosswords any more, but I can still handle a 550-piece jigsaw puzzle and enjoy the challenge.
Look for prayer helps. Keep talking and listening to God every day. Never neglect him. But find ways of making your prayer time simple and focused. I like going through the daily Mass readings in Abide in My Word (available at The Word Among Us bookstore). For awhile, I used a preloaded mp3 player and booklet that contains 31 days of 15-minute prayer times (http://kairos-na.org/iPray). You could also put on some worship music or an audio recording of the rosary.
Know that God loves you, is with you, and has a plan for your life! It’s hard—very hard—but you have to make your peace with God. And trust that he loves you and knows what he’s doing with you.
So stir up your own love for Jesus. I often do this by looking over my old prayer journals. I have about five of them, and they’re filled with words I’ve felt the Lord speaking to me in the past—words like: “I want you to put your hand into mine. I will go before you and will hold you tight and lead you. You will know from where your help comes.” I also have a book of about 600 inspirational quotes that I started compiling in 2001. They’re strong words—from saints and other spiritual writers—that gripped me in the past and still call me on.
In all this, my biggest help is my love for the Lord and the continuing experience of his love for me. And so, every day, I want to live out one of his more recent words to me: “Be grateful. And use this to help others. Make love your aim.” That’s my last piece of advice to you, too.