Mike’s many years as a physician in family practice, and Mary’s as a Mennonite pastor, have added to their familiarity with Alzheimer’s and its impact on individuals and their families. This familiarity has lessened the shock of a diagnosis and opened channels for God’s grace to reshape their lives while accommodating to the presence of this illness.
Both are grateful for the gift of early retirement that gives them treasured time together. The 2010 addition of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease to a list of expedited disabilities put Mike on a fast track to receiving benefits from Social Security Disability Insurance, which he has appreciated.
“I certainly miss the relationships I had at the office,” Mike noted. After twenty-five years of practicing medicine in Goshen, giving up the daily contact with colleagues has been a major loss. In day-to-day life, Mike finds his biggest frustration to be a loss of short-term memory. “It can be gone if I turn around,” he remarked.
Some months after Mike retired, Mary, too, took early retirement from her position as pastor at Assembly Mennonite Church. “I did not stop working to take care of Mike; I wanted more time to be together,” Mary explained. “Caregiving will come later, but it’s not here now.”
The couple now has time for simple pleasures, for example, cooking together. “We still cook together as we always have,” Mary noted, “we just do it differently.” Mary takes care of checking the sequence of the recipe, and Mike finds other ways to assist.
Mike and Mary Lehman Yoder
Mike and Mary give thanks for God’s grace provided through a support group from Assembly Mennonite. The group meets with them regularly over shared meals. Mary notes that God is also present to them in the gift of attention to the present. “This is an illness where, over time, you become present to the moment. The past slips away, and we’ve found it’s not useful to anticipate the future. Nobody wants to learn being present to the moment through an illness like this, but it gives you that opportunity if you can receive it.”
When asked how his illness has affected his relationship with God, Mike responded thoughtfully, “I don’t feel it’s a punishment.” On the contrary, Mary added, picking up on Mike’s thought, “Why should we be gifted with such a wonderful life, so many resources and such a supportive congregation?” “It’s a medical question and not a theological crisis,” Mike continued. “My father and two of his brothers developed dementia as well. I’m working to accept what my genes have given me.”
Mary encourages those who want to be supportive of people affected by dementia to speak to the affected person, not just to the spouse. When people who are uncomfortable with the diagnosis avoid talking to the affected person directly, it leads a person to feel invisible. Mike adds that it is always better to ask questions rather than hang back in fear of saying the wrong thing.
Music has always been a big part of the couple’s life and faith, and they look for it to remain a blessing. They continue to find joy in attending a wide range of live musical performances together. Assembly Mennonite welcomes Mike’s musical gifts. Simple adaptations accommodate his disability and smooth the way for his ongoing role as a song leader. Another musician gives the starting pitch and calls out the number of the second song any time he leads two in a row. Mike finds regular get-togethers with another couple for singing familiar hymns to be a meaningful spiritual practice he shares with Mary. “The words of a rich variety of hymns sustain us and feed our souls,” Mary affirms.
Christine Guth is Program Director and newsletter editor for ADN.