It’s not politically correct to be unfair and unjust and prejudiced toward anyone. But you can get away with it with mentally handicapped people. Or you think you can. Really, they can sense your attitude even if they don’t understand your words. In the case of Alzheimer’s patients, they may understand your attitude and your words very well, but be unable to talk to you about it. So we think we can treat them as we find convenient.
In that sense, an Alzheimer’s patient is like someone who doesn’t speak English very well. I live in a college town, where hundreds of very intelligent people may have trouble impressing me with their intelligence. When I hear halting, broken English, I instinctively associate that with toddlers or severely retarded adults. But if they spoke about genetics or cybernetics in their native language (if I could understand their native language), I would quickly realize how smart they were. I have to remind myself, over and over, that my perceptions and assumptions are wrong. I can’t judge someone’s intelligence unless we’re both communicating on the same wavelength. And an Alzheimer’s patient, as my grandmother often said about herself, may not “have the vocabulary to express” themselves on the same wavelength. The old wisdom is still there, but she can’t share it.
Even if deep wells of understanding aren’t hidden by the disease, even if you could get away with treating them with prejudice, Alzheimer’s patients still deserve respect. But what kind of respect? Respect comes from the Latin words “to look again.” It doesn’t mean overestimating their abilities, but that isn’t usually a problem with Alzheimer’s patients.
We take away their self-respect by doing things for them that they could, and want to, do for themselves. When we prevent toddlers from doing things for themselves, we get a reaction, sometimes a violent one. I can still react strongly to disrespect. Have you ever seen that with an Alzheimer’s patient?
The difference between dealing with your toddler child and dealing with an Alzheimer’s patient is that someday you may have to depend on the toddler to take care of you. It’s hard to imagine, sometimes, but everything that the toddler will be as an adult is already present. The person who will earn respect in the future exists in the present, right there in that high chair. With Alzheimer’s patients, you will probably not see increasing recognition and alertness. Unlike the toddler, you probably don’t need to fear that they will treat you with disrespect when you’re old, because they will probably be gone by then. But the person who earned respect in the past exists in the present, right there in that wheelchair.