Oliver: Balancing the present with the past and the future proves key to coping

Life is a bit of a balancing act. We have many things to balance: needs versus wants, work and the rest of our lives, and so on.

For caregivers like me, it’s also important to keep the past, the present and the future in balance.

As we get older, the past can exert a powerful influence. For instance, many of us are still dealing with the consequences of what we did in earlier years. Somehow, we have to make peace with the past in order to keep going. What’s done is done. Our future doesn’t have to be dictated by past events.

Then again, sometimes our best years, our “glory days,” were in the past. For some people, they live with feelings of disappointment when their present isn’t as good.

For me, the past gives me a reason to keep fighting. As my beloved husband, Tony, enters his eighth year since his Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, he isn’t the man he used to be. His illness, something that we’ve named Fred, has exerted an ever-greater influence.

Fred has robbed Tony of his ability to read, write and express himself in full sentences. Fred makes Tony lash out at me often without warning for things as simple as asking him to take off his shoes. Tony no longer can be left by himself, and he needs help with the most basic daily tasks.

Those sweet memories of the past, when Tony was Tony, remind me of the man I married. They remind me of the deep, strong love that we have for each other.

When I reflect on even the past few years, I can be proud of the way Tony has handled his illness, and I still marvel when I see him trying to fight Fred, even if that’s becoming less and less.

On the other hand, I can’t spend too much time clinging to the past, lest it make me depressed over how much has changed. Sadness can easily lead to paralysis. It requires a delicate balance.

When dealing with a disease for which there is no cure, it’s best to keep the future in balance as well. Perhaps that’s why I don’t dwell on the details of late-stage Alzheimer’s. However, I know enough to do everything I can to be prepared.

That’s what Tony and I have done since his diagnosis in 2015. The first thing we did was get our plan together. We talked about how he wanted to be cared for, and I assured him that I would abide by that plan as well as I could. After all, he had seen me care for my mother, who had vascular dementia, from the time she came to live with us in 2014 to when she died in 2018. He had been by my side.

I know Tony used to think about the future, but I also know he didn’t dwell on it. When we would talk about it, we spoke of what we could do, not about how it would end. We knew we couldn’t stop the Alzheimer’s disease, but we weren’t going to allow it to commandeer our lives.

In the short term, I know how this disease will end. I know that the road ahead only will get darker. However, my faith tells me that in the long term, I can still have hope.

That brings me to the present. I’m always reminded of a Jack Nicholson line – “What if this is as good as it gets?” – from the movie “As Good As It Gets.”

There are two ways to look at it. Knowing that Tony’s condition will only worsen could make every day something to fear. Or it could mean that there’s reason to find the best in each day that I still have with my best friend.

Sure, there are hard days, the days when dealing with Fred makes me overwhelmed and frustrated. The days when I can’t seem to communicate with Tony, and he seems distant and foreign to me. Happily, those days pass, and I’m able to see glimpses of the past in his eyes and in his smile.

There’s a saying I also try to keep in mind, particularly on those hard days. “Every day is a gift. That’s why they call in the present.”

When I try to keep it all in balance, I can focus on what matters with gratitude.

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at jolivercolumn@gmail.com.

Joan Oliver

Joan Oliver

A 30-year newspaper veteran who has been a copy editor, front-page editor, presentation editor, assistant news editor and publication editor, as well as a columnist and host of an online newspaper newscast.