By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary
Brian LeBlanc, Archbishop Rummel Class of 1978, was sitting with his wife in a Pensacola, Florida, neurologist’s office on Oct. 28, 2014, when the manila folder opened and a man in a white coat started reading.
It was a strangely dispassionate monologue, LeBlanc thought, and the message from the computer printouts, jumping off the page and then vocalized in monotone in the sterile room, became Greek to him.
LeBlanc heard only one thing. At the age of 54, he had early-onset Alzheimer’s.
“He sat in a chair with his folder, opened up the folder and just started reading stuff,” LeBlanc recalled. “Never once – never – did he look up. I may not remember yesterday and I may not remember last week, but I remember that like it was yesterday.”
At one point, LeBlanc, whom no one ever accused of being bashful, tried to break through the medical jargon.
“Do I have Alzheimer’s?” he asked.
The doctor told him “early- onset” Alzheimer’s is the term for the condition occurring in someone under the age of 65.
“And then there was silence, just silence,” LeBlanc said. “He sat there looking at his folder. Those were last words he spoke to me. I sat there for two minutes. He got up and said he would be right back. I sat there for five or 10 minutes, and a nurse or a physician assistant came in with two prescriptions and said, ‘The doctor wants to see you in six weeks.’ And then they turned around and walked out the door.”
Dementia is a broad term that encompasses a group of chronic symptoms that include “memory impairment disrupting everyday life, diminished judgment, inability to plan, challenges with words and communicating, and disorientation of time and place,” said gerontologist Matthew Estrade, who facilitates support groups for the St. Tammany Parish Council on Aging for families dealing with dementia.
Estrade first met LeBlanc at a dementia conference in Georgia in 2018 where LeBlanc was a keynote speaker. Estrade, a 1995 Jesuit graduate, discovered that LeBlanc was from New Orleans, and the two hit it off.
Estrade already had begun writing a book he felt would be a spiritual resource to families dealing with dementia. He called it “The Peace With Dementia Rosary.” The book uses the four mysteries of the rosary – Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful and Glorious – to offer brief “lessons” on each of the 20 decades aimed at “improving the quality of life for persons living with dementia and their care partners.”
“Most of my exposure to the rosary came when I was a student at St. Catherine of Siena,” Estrade said. “Over different challenges in my life, I would turn to the rosary, and the last few years were no exception.”
Estrade said he had made a career change and was constantly praying the rosary for the strength to complete his master’s degree in gerontology from the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
“I really felt this experience had an influence on me and brought me closer to the faith and closer to the rosary,” said Estrade, who began to think about writing a book on the rosary to help those dealing with dementia. “I know care partners may not have time to do a 20- or 25-minute rosary, but this is not something you have to do all at once. It’s something you can do throughout the day. On the journey with dementia, as horrible as it is, it’s not the end of a person’s life. It’s something to go through with faith.”
Estrade has spoken with caregivers whose spouses no longer recognize them. Those experiences “can really hit you in the gut,” he said. That is an example of “ambiguous loss,” which Estrade relates to the first Sorrowful Mystery, “The Agony in the Garden.”
“The loved one with dementia is physically present but not the same person (or is absent psychologically),” Estrade writes. “A husband may say, ‘She is my wife, but at the same time she is not my wife.’”
Estrade offers the following intercession: “Mother of Sorrows, we ask for strength, flexibility and resilience in this confusing time. Help us to make peace with ambiguous loss to be the best care partner that we can be.”
LeBlanc, now living on disability, lost his longtime job in public relations when he no longer could cover for his advancing confusion with facts he needed to have at the tip of his tongue. He had been a communications pro, someone at ease with doing a weekly radio show and television commentary.
“I was missing deadlines, missing appointments,” LeBlanc said. “It came to light that I didn’t have all the facts straight, so they terminated me. As a public relations person, you are kind of the voice of the business.
“I didn’t understand it until I had what they term an ‘intervention.’ My wife and daughter sat me down one night. My wife had been keeping track of how many times I had been lost in the last six months. My daughter told me I would make a grocery list and then put it in my pocket, and when I got to the grocery, I would call her and say, ‘OK, what do we need?’ She had to remind me to reach in my pocket and get out the list.”
Those struggles eventually led to another great loss – LeBlanc and his wife mutually agreed to divorce. “I do not blame her one bit,” LeBlanc said. “I was the one who said, ‘Look, I’m not going to put you in a position to where this is going to be hard on you.’”
She still visits LeBlanc three times a week for coffee. She picks up his groceries. “We still love each other,” LeBlanc said. “I’m so very, very grateful that she wants to be a part of my life.”
Fear of the great unknown
LeBlanc admits he is scared.
“There’s a lot of fear,” he said. “I’m not alone in that. I talk to my friends who are like me, and then there comes a time when you lose friends to the disease. You kind of know what the end looks like, and it’s not pretty. You wonder where you’re going to be, who’s going to be with you at the time. Is there going to be anyone with you at the time?”
The agony in the garden.
In addition to finding solace in Estrade’s book on the rosary, LeBlanc said he will take with him the vision of his own mother Norma, who died of dementia.
“My mother sang in church at St. Agnes for over 40 years,” LeBlanc said. “She was also an extraordinary minister (of holy Communion). She would wake up every morning and go to daily Mass. This woman gave her life to the church and to her children and got one of the most horrible diseases you could get. Do I get angry with God? Yes, but not because of me.”
LeBlanc says in his talks at dementia conferences, he stresses the virtue of gratitude.
“I call them care ‘partners’ instead of care ‘givers’ – because when you’re caring for someone 24/7, you become a partner in their life,” LeBlanc said. “I just want to say thank you. Some people can’t tell them thank you. I am their voice.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.