To a young athlete, sports experiences are often at the center of family bonding. Kids may cherish the fact that their grandparents attend their sporting events and are in the stands to cheer. They may also have fond memories of sitting around the TV on a Sunday afternoon watching a Packer game with their loved one, or attending a ball game and reminiscing about great teams of the past.
But what happens when that loved one no longer can remember who is playing, or even that YOU are playing?
Such is often the case when living with a loved one that has Alzheimer’s disease. Martin J. Schreiber, my uncle, wrote My Two Elaines which provides insight as to how family and friends of those with Alzheimer’s cope and adapt when their loved ones are afflicted with this disease. A recent athletic event made me think deeply about this book, how it deals with sports, and why it should be in a school library.
This spring, the local high school hosted a major high school track meet. After a few events, on the award stand at the 50 yard line of the infield, was an athlete waiting to collect his award on the podium. Near the podium the meet manager stood waiting to hand out the award. In the stands there were hundreds of people, including the parents and grandparents of the athlete. On the track itself, competition continued.
As the athlete was about the receive his award, his anxious grandfather began making his way to an opening in the fence at the 50 yard line. The gentleman wandered out onto the track as the 100 meter dash was set to begin. The meet manager, sensing disaster, waved off the race and made his way to the grandparent.
At that very moment, everything could have become unglued.
Instead, what transpired was something that will resonate for a long time.
The meet manager, instead of becoming frustrated, gently went up to that man,
“Sir, we are in the middle of a race.”
“I am leaving and need to say goodbye to my grandson, Jim” he insisted.
The athlete's father, trailing powerlessly behind, could do little to stop the grandfather from accomplishing what his mind was set to do. The father looked anxiously at the meet manager as he followed behind.
“My dad has dementia”, he whispered apologetically. “He won’t leave until he talks to his grandson, Mike,” he pointed towards the podium.
The athlete, who was witnessing his grandfather crossing the track, leapt off the podium and met his grandfather on the track.
“I wanted to say goodbye, Jim,” the grandfather said
The athlete put his hand on his grandfather’s shoulder.
In front of the entire crowd, Mike hugged his grandfather.
“I’m happy that you came to see me today,” he said, “and I'll see you soon.”
With that, the meet manager and the father led the grandfather off the track, Mike returned to the podium, and the races resumed.
I tell you this story because there were so many things that went right in a situation where everything could have gone wrong.
The challenges Alzheimer’s presents can impact life events in unpredictable ways. But still, when reacting to the unexpected world of this disease.........
The impact of Alzheimer's extends far beyond the individual who suffers from the disease. In athletics, does this mean that a parent or grandparent should not attend an athletic event for a loved one? Should a young athlete be embarrassed by having his/her loved one with Alzheimer's show up to watch a competition? It can be very confusing to a youth who is used to seeing a loved one in a healthy state of mind, now function as a different person. How do they cope?
I think that it is important that we have our young athletes understand that with some maturity and understanding, a recently diagnosed loved one can still be part of their lives. For this reason I wanted to recommend adding My Two Elaines to your library.
Schreiber, whose wife suffers from Alzheimer’s, wrote the book from personal experience to help those who care for a person with Alzheimer’s. The book speaks to the reality of Alzheimer’s--not in scientific terms, but in terms of everyday life. Marty speaks to the reality that the person who suffers from Alzheimer’s is no longer the person they once were. Instead, there is a new reality--a new person so to speak, that requires a new understanding. There is, in a sense, a person before the disease, and the person after the disease. In addition to talking about the how the person with Alzheimer’s has changed, Marty focuses on how caregivers and family around that person can cope and exist with their loved one who is now functioning within the disease.
What does this have to do with sports and kids? Everything. More and more middle school, high school, and college athletes are dealing with parents or grandparents suffering from Alzheimer’s. Many are confused on how to deal with the fact that someone like a parent or grandparent, who has been so supportive of their athletic careers in the past, now doesn’t function as they used to or remember what they used to.
My Two Elaines will help these kids better understand the disease and give them strategies for keeping their loved ones in the game. It will help them realize that important relationships don’t have to end, but they will need to adapt and change. It’s not an easy topic for a young athlete, but an essential one to tackle.