The fact that there is a greater incidence today of Alzheimer's disease than in previous centuries has not gone unnoticed by some observers who seek to account for its increased presence among the aging, one that occurs at great personal cost and with grave consequences for families and loved ones.
The primary cost of Alzheimer's disease lies in the loss of 'presentness' it brings to the one so afflicted - an increasing absence of the known and familiar self from awareness, reflection, and memory, and an increased departure of the interactive self from relationships that have been significant in the past. Indeed, the loss of presentness that comes with Alzheimer's disease is so great, and the sadness it brings to those who feel they are losing a dear parent, friend, or partner so pervasive, that it is important to try to find a spiritual meaning and purpose for the sequence of deterioration that seems to strip one down to the bare bones of humanity, with sometimes even that being in question due to the deterioration of physical as well as mental and emotional functioning.
All that is known about Alzheimer's today has given us some hope for modifying the disastrous effect of its course and for making the passage gentler, with less distress to those who remain in loving relationship with the one who is ill. Yet, these modifications are far from offering an understanding of what spiritual good might come from such an illness - what gain to the soul might equal the significant loss of the familiar self which the disorder creates.
The truth of the matter is that the spiritual world in which Alzheimer's plays a significant role is a very different world than what appears on the outside. It is a world in which the play of imagination takes precedence over the function of rationality, and in which the mind becomes the playground of random thoughts, inner events, and memories. These inner movements arise from various places - some from bits and pieces of the past; some from wishes that have never been expressed; and some from a place that can only be called the dream-self - the self that the unconscious mind projects upon the physical plane in order to bring something that has been hidden into the light of day. Because of the fragmentation of the images, thoughts, and emotions, as well as the uncertainty concerning their validity, the outside observer can generally never really tell what is real and true and what is fantasy about what is being communicated by someone with Alzheimer's disease. What the outsider witnesses is a unique world, a world of one, and others, often to their great sorrow, feel that they are locked out of it.
Here, in the center of this very private world is a great garden of spiritual flowers - not flowers of reason or of clear thinking, but flowers of impulse and imagination, flowers of emotion that were never given exposure during childhood, during dreams, or during other lifetimes. These now wait to be experienced and expressed. Because the rational element of communication is largely absent, the imaginings and voices of the unexpressed self are revealed mysteriously, without any seeming meaning or coherence. And yet in the midst of the absence of coherence, a great tree is being given shape. Beneath its branches are the flowers, leaves, and seeds of the collective past of the person who is witnessing them. They are the particles and parts of the unrealized self, the rejected self, the wished for self, the hoped for self, that are being gathered up in an apron in order to be looked at and evaluated imaginatively by the one who sits beneath this tree catching the leaves that float by - the wisps of thought that float through the inner landscape.
The fragmentation that occurs does so because in the time in which these mental and imaginative fragments were created, the need arose to keep them hidden in order to create barriers of reason and logic around the functioning of the effective personality. And so they remained part of a floating and unstable world of inner possibility. And not just a world of possibility, but a world of fragmented possibility. For among the central features of Alzheimer's are the strangeness of its thought patterns and the sudden changeability of their focus. Both features are present in many with Alzheimer's, and both serve the purpose of dismantling the rational element of functioning in order that the emotional and imaginative elements be given freer reign.
Despite the great loss of outer functioning that Alzheimer's brings, one may say that within the secret inner world a transformation is taking place. Where mental functioning may have been a priority before, now the functioning of a child begins to appear. Where judgment and critical analysis may have been valued heavily, now innocence begins to be given space and room in which to breathe. And where unrelatedness to the spiritual world may have been present, now the absence of self-definition creates a greater sense of oneness with life and a kind of innocent spirituality which accepts all that is.
And what of those for whom Alzheimer's brings anger, irritability, and extreme outbursts of rage? These, too, are fragments or aspects of self that have been previously dormant. In their manifestation, they offer the opportunity of being experienced by the inner witness. As upsetting as these outbursts often are, they nevertheless produce a kind of self-confrontation with aspects of consciousness that have previously been restricted from awareness.
For those who seek to understand the greater spiritual good that comes from a situation whose external features appear to involve great loss, limitation, or hardship, it may be said that accompanying the loss of mental functioning which Alzheimer's brings is a reorganization of the basic personality structure so that a new birth can take place - one that will have positive consequences for the soul in their future development and evolution. This new birth does not come without a price. And yet it comes because of the soul's deep wish for healing and wholeness and for a bringing together of the fragments of self into a new configuration.
For those who must stand and watch the progressive deterioration of the personality of a loved one, there is a need to be gentle with oneself, for many feelings are possible and are evoked by this situation. Yet it is important to note that in the midst of sorrow and of progressive loss, there can also be a view of the emerging new self that is being born. If the eyes of the heart can be focused not only on the pain of loss or on the difficulties of care, but also on the unfoldment of the new, it may be that the inner Tree of Life can be seen under which the loved one sits, gathering the leaves and petals of their own imaginative process in order to meld them together into a new fabric of wholeness at some future date.