One Woman's Travels with Alzheimer's

"The experience is solitary and personal"

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Courtesy Patti Davis Family

Patti Davis in a family photo, with her father, former President Ronald Reagan

There is an underlying truth to losing a loved one: everyone loses that person in his or her own way. It's particularly true in families. You may be gathered around the same bedside, but the experience is solitary and personal. I can't tell you how my brothers or my mother or my sister Maureen (who died before our father) experienced his slow, inexorable slide into Alzheimer's. I can only tell you what it was like for me.

I lost my father as a daughter. I lost him as a small girl who had gazed up at him and believed he could do anything. I lost him as a teenager who had craved his attention, who had eventually figured out that if she roiled the waters, unleashed enough battle cries, he would have to notice her. Ultimately, I lost him as a woman who had asked his forgiveness but still couldn't quite forgive herself for the wounds she'd inflicted.

I've noticed that women metabolize the reality of death and dying differently from men. Particularly with a disease like Alzheimer's, in which parts of a person die off gradually, it's been my observation that men tend to back away in discomfort. Women, on the other hand, inhabit the experience fully, with its sorrows, its calm stretches, its dramatic explosions and even its humorous moments. Women bend over bedsides, listen to repeated phrases and fragments—a strange haiku those with Alzheimer's use. We choose when and where to shed tears, usually in private. We learn to live moment to moment, because they do.

Mostly we learn the hard lesson of acceptance. It does no good to ask why. Just be there. Show up and listen, even to the silences. Beneath the surface of the disease is a soul that can't have Alzheimer's, a soul that still wants to be heard.

Davis has written eight books, including The Long Goodbye, which is about her father, former President Ronald Reagan