It was a beautiful August morning in Winston Salem, North Carolina, three years ago when my wife, Rebecca, then age 59, and I were engaging in our morning ritual of sipping coffee on the back porch. Without warning, the awful moment I had long dreaded finally arrived: Rebecca, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) six years earlier, looked at me and said, “I have no idea who you are.” Her blank stare confirmed she really meant it. “But Sweetie, I am your husband, Ed,” I replied. “You are my wife. We’ve been married for 33 years.”
The pain of that moment drove me from the porch into the house. I tearfully stood before a recent family portrait, looking into the faces of our adult daughters Erin, Leah and Carrie. I wondered how 37 years of a relationship and a third of a century of marriage could disappear from Rebecca’s memory overnight. I also wondered how, in the absence of her knowing us, the girls and I would be able to convey our love to her moving forward.
The 5 Love Languages came to mind.
Authored by pastor and marriage counselor Dr. Gary Chapman, the book “The 5 Love Languages” describes how individuals communicate and receive emotional love using the metaphor of literal languages.
The 5 Love Languages include:
1.) Words of Affirmation: unsolicited words of affection and appreciation
2.) Quality Time: giving someone your full, undivided attention
3.) Gifts: a visible symbol of love such as a purchased, handmade, or found tangible gift
4.) Acts of Service: doing helpful things for another person to lighten their load
5.) Physical Touch: deliberate touch conveying your presence to another
For couples and families on the AD journey, The 5 Love Languages provide tools that make it possible to sustain an emotional connection with a memory-impaired person. With progressive cognitive decline, the person with AD gradually loses the ability to manage his or her side of the relationship, yet their deep human need for love does not disappear, and their ability to experience love is retained until the end of the journey. However, the healthy partner must repeatedly make intentional, sacrificial “love by choice” decisions that exceed what is required in relationships unaffected by dementia.
Each member of our family had a special way of communicating our love to Rebecca during her AD journey. Erin loved spending quality time sitting with her and sharing a cup of coffee. Leah would play her guitar and sing to Rebecca words of affirmation. Carrie deployed physical touch while enjoying a snuggle with her mom and resting her head on Rebecca’s shoulder. Although Rebecca never was a person who valued material gifts, she expressed great joy when receiving an ice cream cone from me for dessert every night, evidenced by a “yum”— she had few intelligible words late in the journey— and a toothy grin.
Rebecca lost her battle with AD a few months ago. But because of The 5 Love Languages, our family has many memories of sharing our love with her. I hope “Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade: The 5 Love Languages and the Alzheimer’s Journey,” a book I co-authored with Dr. Chapman and health education specialist Debbie Barr, M.A., enables other families experiencing AD firsthand to enjoy the rewards of staying emotionally connected to loved ones with dementia.
Edward Shaw, M.D., M.A. was a practicing radiation oncologist for 23 years and a world-renowned brain tumor expert. Inspired by Rebecca’s journey, his medical interest shifted from cancer to dementia diagnosis and treatment. With additional training in mental health and grief counseling, he founded the Memory Counseling Program at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Keeping Love Alive as Memories Fade: The 5 Love Languages and the Alzheimer’s Journey, a new release from Northfield Publishing, is available on Amazon.com.