Even when people have Alzheimer’s or dementia they don’t ever lose their humanity. My grandma had really bad Alzheimer’s in the end and even though she didn’t know any of her family anymore she was so kind and gentle with my baby nephew. It means something, I think, that caring for others is so ingrained in our psyche that not even disease could make us lose that￼
One of the most profound moments of my life was when I was walking with one of the Alzheimer patients through the gardens at the assisted living home I worked at a few years ago. He was a scientist, he was from out west. He’d done foundational research on the aftermath of the Mount St. Helens eruption. He looked up at one of the pine trees and misidentified it, thinking it was a California pine tree (yeah, apparently there are east coast/west coast variants) and as we got closer, he sort of frowned and said, “No, that’s <insert scientific name here>.” And he looked at me and asked, “Wait, am I in the South?” And he looked so confused and scared and I nodded and said, “Yeah, you moved here a couple years ago.” And his face got all serious and he didn’t say anything else for a minute. I could see the panic and the dread and the embarrassment starting to rise.
So I asked him about the plants, about their scientific names, about what role they played in the ecosystem, what the shape of their leaves said about their evolution, what kind of bugs lived on them, whether or not small animals made nests and homes in them. And he just talked and talked, told me everything I wanted to know.
If he forgot something, he didn’t get embarrassed because he was just thinking about some old plants, just some old plants, who can keep track of all those latin names anyway? He’d think of it later.
And it didn’t teach me to “respect everyone no matter their mental ability,” and it didn’t make me realize that “all people deserve respect,” because I was already there, I already believed that. But, as he started smiling, telling me all he knew, rolling his eyes when I didn’t understand something, thinking carefully about how to explain in lay-terms, as the stress and fear that threatened to crush him evaporated as quickly as it appeared, I received an absolutely critical life lesson like a ten-ton epiphany:
We were made to help each other.
As cheesy as it sounds, the absolute true meaning of life, outside of religious beliefs, scientific theories, political movements, outside of all of it, the only thing that matters at all is whether or not you made a real, tangible difference for the better in someone’s life. Big or small. Permanent or brief.
Make a difference, be the change you want to see in the world; it doesn’t make you Gandhi, but it might help someone have a better day, and isn’t that nice?
“…humans were made to help others. And when we do help others — or help them to do something — we’re doing what we were designed for. We perform our function.”