After Alzheimers: finding joy and meaning in a simpler life

Ann Davidson went looking for books, pamphlets, anything to tell her what would happen next, after her husband Julian was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

What she found were titles like "The Thirty-Six Hour Day" and "Endless Bereavement," and phrases such as "the never-ending funeral" and "the living death."

She pictured her husband, a brilliant physiology professor at Stanford Medical School who was only 59 when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, soon lying in a fetal position in a nursing home. Or drooling on himself and wandering through the neighborhood at night.

Though her nightmarish imaginings haven't come to pass, the dire warnings in the literature she read have been accurate, she said in a recent interview.

But they missed something.

"It's a long way from diagnosis to oblivion," said Ann Davidson, whose 1997 book, "Alzheimer's: A Love Story," describes one year in her husband's decline.

It was a year in which he learned to find joy in a simpler life, with a simpler mind. "I couldn't see how one could live from diagnosis to oblivion in total despair," she said. "A lot of what I read were very useful, practical things. But they didn't show how to get through, and what you did in your head."

The book covers the summer of 1992 to spring 1993, two years after he was diagnosed, when his symptoms were still mild to moderate but increasingly evident.

"It was significant because it was the year he actually had to face what was happening," Davidson said. "We couldn't keep up the fiction of the usual life.

"You can hide it for a while, keep up the fantasy of regular life. We did that for a couple of years. But then you have to come out, like coming out of the closet."

During that year, Julian Davidson had to retire from his job and dismantle his old life. Then he and his family had to address his new identity.

"Who would Julian be, stripped of his precise and articulate speech?" Davidson writes in the introduction of her book. "We were wordy people: reading, discussing, writing, analyzing, comparing. Arguing, sharing. We didn't go fishing, work in gardens, build bookcases, play cards or make music. We talked."

That particular question drives the book as the Davidsons learn to enjoy life together, even as his world grows smaller and smaller.

These days, the 66-year-old lives in a residential care facility in Castro Valley. Ann Davidson, 59, still lives on the Stanford campus.

He can barely talk, cannot carry on meaningful conversation and understands almost nothing. His wife communicates through her tone of voice and through singing.

Because childhood memories become stronger as a person descends into Alzheimer's, Julian Davidson takes great pleasure in the religious songs of his Orthodox childhood, even though he was not religious during his adult life.

One of the last things he was able to do in public life was sing with the Jewish Folk Chorus.

Ann Davidson is comfortable with their new-found ways of communicating, having learned what "I couldn't see at the beginning."

"As devastating as the loss of intelligence and memory is, there can be incredibly deep and meaningful times of connection, and happy and joyful moments." Though her husband lost the intelligence and language that had defined him professionally, "we learned how much of a person remains even after that person loses what we thought was his essence," she said.

"We learned how to connect to the part that was present and stop grieving over parts lost."

A year after his diagnosis, Julian Davidson described himself as a "free and simple man," said his wife. "He said things like, `I'm not smart anymore, but let's enjoy our life while I can still talk.'"

A couple of years further along, she would find him sitting on the floor, surrounded by a pile of socks, weeping because choosing which to wear was too difficult a decision. But with less intelligence came fewer inhibitions. She would also find him listening to Vivaldi on the stereo, waving his arms wildly, conducting the "Four Seasons."

The couple is still exploring the nature of their relationship, though he has decayed to an extremely demented state, she said.

"There are ways in which we are still connected. It's the paradox of letting go and staying connected: how to let go of needing the person to be who they were in your life, and accepting them as they are, letting them go but not throwing them away. There is enormous meaning coming to me out of being connected, even though it's primitive and simple."