Creating Moments of Joy Review

Moments of joy

In art, a memento mori is a reminder that we have to die. Jolene Brackey’s book Creating Moments of Joy, on the other hand, is a memento vivere – a reminder that we have lived. The text is full of small and simple ways in which caregivers can provide Alzheimer’s disease patients with souvenirs of happier times. One of Mrs. Brackey’s premises – though not mentioned by name in the book – is that of involuntary memory, in which cues taken from daily life, such as fishing rod, have the power to trigger past recollections even in people who have lost their short-term memory. The term was first coined by Marcel Proust in his magnus opus À la recherche du temps perdu – perhaps the single most accurate demonstration of that Latin aphorism: Ars longa, vita brevis.

However, while it took the French novelist seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages to expound his idea, it only takes Mrs. Brackey a little over 300 pages – proving that Ars can be brevis as well – to drive home the point that a taste, a smell, or a song can set people with Alzheimer’s adrift on memory bliss. I will insist on the concept of Ars because Creating Moments of Joy is a spiritual successor to the Ars moriendi, the 15th century treatises that focused on the art of dying well. This book is all about letting Alzheimer’s patients live out their remaining years in happiness and dignity (as Gene Kelly said in Singin’ in the Rain, “dignity, always dignity”), and ease their transition to the afterlife – the book is actually quite spiritual – by giving them “permission to die” and allowing then to “come home.”

Above all, though, this is an example of Ars vivendi ; that is, the art of living. The whole point is that Alzheimer’s patient and their caregivers alike can lead a full, rewarding life. The key to achieving this is to make one’s peace with the fact that the relative with Alzheimer’s is better off living in his own time, even if the present in his mind is actually the past from 50 years ago. After all, who doesn’t want to be young again? People with Alzheimer’s have managed to achieve that; why ruin that fantasy when a) it wasn’t their choice in the first place so it’s not their fault either, and b) they are happier this way that they would be if they were aware they have a debilitating mental illness (and in the early stages they indeed were). You could set the record straight for them, but that would be like killing a mockingbird.

It would seem like the smart thing to do to correct people with Alzheimer’s when they think their they have to get up early for work to support their young wife who is expecting a baby, particularly when they have been long retired, the wife may have already passed away, and the daughter is all grown and unrecognizable to them. But being correct is not the same as being right. Moreover, to paraphrase Jimmy Stewart in Harvey, “In this world, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” As Mrs. Brackey mentions several times, Alzheimer’s patients are among some of the most pleasant individuals you could ever find, as long as you don’t fight them – which is a losing battle anyway.

Another blessing in disguise that the book reveals is what I would like to call the Groundhog Day approach. Remember how in that film Bill Murray first despaired – to the point of suicide – that he had to keep reliving the same day over and over again, but then took advantage of the situation to learn new things and become a better person in the end? Similarly, Alzheimer’s caregivers may loathe the fact that they have to have the same conversations and listen to the same stories endlessly, but the same mechanism that makes an Alzheimer’s patient recount something for the umpteenth time as if it had just happened is what allows caregivers to try several different approaches in their quest to provide moments of joy. It doesn’t matter if you do not succeed at first because you get an almost instantaneous do-over; like Mrs. Brackey accurately points out, the person with Alzheimer’s is thoroughly oblivious of what transpired five minutes earlier.

There is a short story by Julio Cortázar in which the members of a family bend over backwards to keep the death of a son from his mother in order to protect her already frail health. You probably recognize the notion from sitcoms and movies. As it turns out, Creating Moments of Joy supports this approach, with the exceptions that caregivers don’t really have to go to great lengths to preserve the illusion that Alzheimer’s patients may be under, and more importantly, that carers should not feel guilty for ‘lying’ to their charges. In fact, the author advises relatives to introduce themselves as friends instead of spouses, sons, or daughters as a means of effectively getting closer to their loved one. Kind of like the plot of Mrs. Doubtfire, only much better.

The point is that the caregiver is the one who has to change and adapt, and not the person with Alzheimer’s who is pretty much stuck in a moment they can’t get out of. But it doesn’t end there. Literally it doesn’t, because one of the final chapters – which the writer admits she should’ve placed at the beginning – touches on the subject of caregivers taking care of themselves so that they can properly take care of others. As a matter of fact, this book reminded me of another one I recently read and reviewed, called Alzheimer’s: Through My Mother’s Eyes.

In that book, the author shared her frustration, anger and impotence – in addition to as many positive emotions – at losing her mother to Alzheimer’s disease. I find it interesting that Creating Moments of Joy addresses some of the issues that Through My Mother’s Eyes raises, for example how having access to a phone can affect the patient and their family, or how to go about taking car keys away from a person with Alzheimer’s. The author of TMME laments that she wherewithal to read books on the subject before it was too late. Mrs. Brackey’s text was exactly what she needed – and that’s not to say it was available at the time – and that’s how I know that all Alzheimer’s caregivers should own a copy of Creating Moments of Joy.