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  • Writer's pictureKristen Cole

Laying Down Cards: Learning from Alzheimer’s


I sat playing UNO with my 3-year-old and was transported back in time. My grandmother and I were especially close. As she grew older, she began showing more and more signs of Alzheimer’s Disease. Eventually, she ended up in a long-term care facility, one step from living with my grandfather in the residential portion and one step from total nursing care.

I used to visit her and we would play UNO, followed by my painting her nails a beautiful bright pink, standing out like rubies amidst the white institutional walls of the care facility. I remember watching her hands trying to shuffle the cards, then, pausing as she could not determine which card she needed to place on the top of the game pile. I helped her a lot. She wanted me to explain the game. And once I did, she wanted me to explain it again…and again. Eventually, there were no more rules and we just laid down cards. I realized, as I reflected, that playing UNO with my three-year old was very similar.

I remember looking at her glassy blue eyes, those kind of eyes that would stop and make anyone take a second glance. She had a twinkle in them, often accompanied by her mischievous giggle as she made some comment that was just ever so slightly off-color. I see that twinkle in my Lindsay Jane, that UNO playing 3-year-old, the one who is named for my grandmother. It too, is accompanied by a bit of rascal, a bit of headstrong…as she momentarily “gets it” and happens to lay down a blue 2 on top of a yellow 2, just as I was getting to lay down that last yellow winner card…

I remember looking at my grandmother’s hands and her eyes the most, especially in the last years. Her eyes were often filled with fear as a part of her realized her declining mind.  I remember the blank stare that would sometimes accompany the fear and I wondered how much more I was losing of her. Her eyes were also quite frequently filled with that twinkle I mentioned…that twinkle that kept me hoping, kept me coming back to visit, for one more shuffle of the cards, one more painting of the fingernails, one more wet grandma kiss that no one else’s kiss could match.

And then there were her hands, worn from the years, spotted with age, strong…they sometimes reached out to touch things that weren’t really there…but then, they came back around…they cooked green apples, macaroni and cheese and the best fried chicken around.

How often I have a faith that doesn’t remember. A faith that has to be told about the love…again…and again. Sometimes my faith twinkles, like bright stars in the sky and I share it, the light illuminating not only my path, but others through me. Other times, I don’t know where I am. I am not sure how I even got here. I don’t know what card to play next. And I get stuck in a fog of fear.

Sometimes while my eyes are filled with this fear… I slip, an almost amnesia…who is this God that I serve and just where is He when it hurts so bad? Tell me again, and tell me again.

Sometimes my hands reach for things that aren’t there. They reach for security in status, for love and acceptance from things of this earth…things that are shifting like sand as the wind rips across the coastline beneath my very feet. My hands reach for understanding, for human knowledge to explain away violence, hatred and evil.

Watching a loved one with Alzheimer’s Disease is heart wrenching. The in and out, the lucidity and the fogginess combined all within a single second of time…and just how I relate to that existence… how do I see so clearly one minute and not at all the next? How often do need to be reminded? And just how grateful I am that I am surrounded by a cloud of witnesses who point me back…back to the word that is always there to remind me, over and over again.

I am grateful for my loving Father who takes my hand, leading me in a path I may not recognize, and whispering to me, time and time again, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).

What would it look like if we realized our confusion and our helpless plight. What if we just surrendered, just “laid down cards” as they came into our hands and passed through our fingers…what if we became more vulnerable, more real about our hurts, not thinking much about the next card to play…just focusing on the one right in front of us. What if we really trusted that God had the perfect next one in store. And, not only would it the perfect play, but we didn’t have to give it any thought…we just laid it down as it came…and actually let God do the rest.

My grandma could do it and my 3-year-old can do it. The elderly Alzheimer’s patient, forgetting… and the young child not yet taught… both without the influence of the strategy inflicting, criticizing and debilitating, judging world around us…

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)

Thinking about this has challenged my heart to surrender…in a different way than every before. Laying down cards, one at a time, enjoying both the game and the company allowing me to play…my heart smiles, remembering her…not the winning, not the losing…just her.  Thanks Grandma, for encouraging me in my faith again. Let me see HIM in each card I lay down.

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