Transcript for Alan Dienstag — Alzheimer's and the Spiritual Terrain of Memory

April 22, 2010

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "Alzheimer's, Memory, and Being." My guest, psychologist Alan Dienstag, has led support groups and a writing group for people in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. We explore the human and spiritual terrain of this illness, what it might teach about the nature of human memory and identity, and what remains when memory unravels.

Dr. Alan Dienstag: Memory is always a creative process. We're always constructing it. You know, the internal experience is one in which we kind of dip into the memory bank and pull out the memory in its full form, right? But the more we learn about this the more we realize that in fact it's scattered. It doesn't exist in one place. It gets pulled together.

Ms. Tippett: This is On Being. Stay with us.


Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett. Alzheimer's disease has been described as "the great unlearning," a "disease of memory," "a demise of consciousness." But what does it reveal about the nature of human identity? What remains when memory unravels, and how might such insights help Alzheimer's sufferers themselves? We'll explore these questions with a psychologist, Alan Dienstag, who has led support groups with early Alzheimer's patients as well as a writing group which he co-designed with the novelist Don DeLillo. Alan Dienstag has observed the early stages of Alzheimer's as a time for giving memories away rather than losing them.

From American Public Media this is On Being, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, "Alzheimer's, Memory, and Being."

Alzheimer's disease affects about one in eight Americans 65 and over, and the probability of developing it increases dramatically with age. By the year 2050, it may afflict more than 100 million people globally. In one recent survey, U.S. adults said they fear Alzheimer's disease more than heart disease or stroke. My guest, Alan Dienstag, believes that this fear gets in the way of early diagnosis as it extends even to psychologists and physicians.

Dr. Dienstag: I can't tell you how many times I've interviewed people who've started having trouble with their memory and the first stop is kind of the family doctor. And, you know, when you're talking about this generation, that may be someone who's known them for 20 or 30 years and may even be the same age. And, you know, the doctor's saying, "Well, I'm forgetting as well. Everybody forgets." There's a kind of denial there on the part of the doctor that's being driven by that fear, you know, and not wanting to see it.

Ms. Tippett: Alan Dienstag is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York, and he believes that ever-earlier diagnosis is opening important new possibilities for the holistic care of Alzheimer's patients in the initial stages of the disease. Support groups provide life-giving networks for Alzheimer's caregivers. And in 1996, Alan Dienstag began to bring that model and a writers group to the care of early Alzheimer's patients themselves. He's written: "For people in the early stages of the illness who are experiencing impairments, but still entirely cognizant of the dissolution that lays ahead, the challenge is to construct a life in the shadow of an advancing darkness: to answer the question, 'What is the point?'"

When we spoke in 2009, I asked Alan Dienstag how he thinks about his role as a psychologist for people with this disease, given that there is no cure nor any linear psychological progress possible as even the memory of his time with these patients will be erased.

Dr. Dienstag: Well, you know, this is something that the writing group really changed for me. I mean, I think that my role is to help them remember, to help them experience themselves as remembering people. And that we're talking — I think it's important to specify, you know, we're talking about people in the early stages of the illness now …

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: … who are cognizant of what's happening, you know, who are having real deficits, experiencing real deficits, but who can convey their experience and who can talk about it. And in those instances, that's what I'm doing. I'm also encouraging them in whatever way they are comfortable with to not waste time and to take these opportunities that they have to say what they want to say to the people that they want to say those things to. It really slips away quickly, and you see it slipping away, you know, week after week. And I think part of the value of being diagnosed and going to the trouble to be diagnosed and sort of being identified, which a lot of people resist, by the way.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right. Because — mm-hmm.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah. Well, because of that …

Ms. Tippett: It's terrifying

Dr. Dienstag: … sense of hopelessness. Right. It's precisely that, you know, that you can manage it in some active way, and you can take a look at what lies ahead and think about what you want to do.

Ms. Tippett: You've written that previously — prior to the writers group you realized that if you thought about memory at all in terms of your Alzheimer's patients you thought about the loss of memory.

Dr. Dienstag: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: And the writer, Don DeLillo, who it sounds like his mother-in-law was suffering from Alzheimer's …

Dr. Dienstag: Yes. Yes.

Ms. Tippett: … which was his exposure to this. And he opened your mind up about that, didn't he, into a different way.

Dr. Dienstag: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: Tell me about that.

Dr. Dienstag: Well, I was running this group, this support group, for people in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and I got a call from someone who ran the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association and who told me that there was someone who wanted to speak with me about a writing group for people with Alzheimer's disease. And I immediately thought it was a bad idea.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Dr. Dienstag: I just did not — I didn't see it. I didn't see how it could work. I thought that it was going to be stressful for people too dependent on a kind of facility for writing, and I just didn't think it was a good idea. I think I had blinders on. I think I was really kind of limiting — I was limited in that respect. And when I got on the phone with Don, I asked him what his idea was. And he said, "Writing is a form of memory, and perhaps it would be helpful for these people to have access to that form of memory as well." And that really struck me, because I never thought about writing that way.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: I never thought about different forms of memory, even.

Ms. Tippett: Right. I mean, the mysterious thing about writing, too, when I read this story about you is that you — at all times in our lives, you're able to write something down you didn't even know you knew. Right?

Dr. Dienstag: Yes. Yes. Right. Right. Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And didn't know you remembered. You didn't remember in that …

Dr. Dienstag: Of course.

Ms. Tippett: … mental way until you wrote it.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah. You think differently when you write.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Dienstag: You don't think the same way. If I ask you to think about something just in your head it's a different process and you use different parts of your brain.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: So it really is different. It really is different. And so that just got me thinking about, well, you know, if there are different forms of memory and we're only using one of them in this way of working with these people, maybe that's just too limited and maybe we ought to really open up our minds a little bit to this and what the possibilities are that are inherent in this. And in thinking back to that as well, I think it's really important for those of us in health-related professions to talk to people who are outside the bubble, as it were.

Ms. Tippett: OK.

Dr. Dienstag: You know what I mean, it took an artist to point out this truth about what I was doing and what I could do for these people. You know, a writer understood that in a way that I was not going to understand, certainly not initially.

Ms. Tippett: Something else that intrigued me that you've written about that and what you realized is that when you write something down, again, it's not just a mental activity; you actually leave a physical mark on the world.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: You kind of entrust it. You give it over beyond yourself.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, I mean, that was one of those things that until I was in the room — I don't know, sometimes, you know, something happens and you realize how right it is and you never could've thought of it …

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: … but there you are doing it. Right?

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: And, yeah. I mean, there we were in the room and they would write and they would finish writing and they would read and then they would — I asked them to give me what they wrote every time we met, and I did that because I knew they'd lose it, or I was afraid they'd lose it. I thought there was certainly a good chance they'd lose it. So there was a kind of a practical anxiety that was behind that technique, if you will. But once that pattern got established, I saw that there was an enactment of something else going on there that was very profound and that was that they were turning their memories over to us and these were people who might come back next week and not remember what they had written. So it's a very therapeutic activity in that respect as well. And it was comforting to them.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Dr. Dienstag: No one objected. No one said, "Oh, no. I want to hold onto it." They tuned it over.

Ms. Tippett: You wrote of your own grandmother. You said, "As she neared the end of her life, my grandmother seemed to understand that if you can give something away you don't lose it."

Dr. Dienstag: Right. Right.

Ms. Tippett: And that's something that people were able to enact.

Dr. Dienstag: Yes.

Ms. Tippett: Which is actually taking a form of control, right?

Dr. Dienstag: Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's not a form of control that you can take if I sit you down and I say, "Well, I want to tell you something that I remember." It's different. There's something about the verbal exchange, it just goes into the air. You might say to me, "Oh, I'm never going to forget that."

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: That doesn't usually happen. But, you know, verbal memory it's different. It's different. It's invisible. It's not tangible, and there's something about writing that is enormously helpful in this context. You see it on the page. You know it's there. You can turn it over to someone else for safekeeping. You know it lasts.

Ms. Tippett: Psychologist Alan Dienstag. I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being from American Public Media. Today we're exploring Alzheimer's disease and the nature of memory and identity through Alan Dienstag's experiences leading support groups and writing groups with early Alzheimer's patients.

I came into this conversation with my own formative experiences in this area. While I was studying theology, I spent 18 months doing fieldwork as a chaplain on an Alzheimer's and dementia floor of a home and hospital for the elderly. I have written about that time, which was heartbreaking and wonderful at once, on Pertinent Posts from the On Being Blog, our staff blog at And my own memories of it wove through my conversation with Alan Dienstag.

Ms. Tippett: You realize when you see someone going through this that all that memory holds — I mean, really, this is bigger than memory, isn't it? But …

Dr. Dienstag: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: So people lose their ability to present themselves. They lose their credentials, the way we've presented and defined our identity and worth in this culture. Like who I am, what I do.

Dr. Dienstag: Absolutely. Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Or even people talking about all the things that get lost, like not being able to drive and how that affects people's identity.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: You've sent along some of the things people had written in your group, and they were just very striking. One woman describing how she tried to mask this, I suppose the early stages, and how very uncomfortable and painful it had become to be in the world, I think as you said, I think that's the phrase. And then her relief at finding this group. And then the man named Saul who said, "Having been a leader most of my life, I now find myself extremely dependent on others."

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Which in this culture especially is a heartbreaking sentence.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah. He was a leader in the group.

Ms. Tippett: Was he?

Dr. Dienstag: He was, yeah. He was a leader in the group. He was one of those people who — he was the last one to stop driving.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: You know, Saul had a car and he would drive to the sessions and he continued in that way. He had that spirit, absolutely. But he also was very, very mindful of how dependent he was on his wife and on other people to continue living his life the way he wanted to live. Yeah. But they were so happy, and they are so happy to find one another, and, again, that's the only way to break through the isolation. You know, that sense of commonality is very, very powerful. I can't give it to them, and their family members can't give it to them. It's only in finding other people who you recognize and who recognize you. That's so important, because isolation is ultimately the destination that this illness brings them to, right?

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: It's more and more and more isolation. So whenever it's possible to be in a group — and not just any group, because there are lots of ways in which people with dementia congregate, but they're not conscious. You know, you can be still alone in a group.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Dr. Dienstag: The thing about the writing group and the thing about the support groups is that they're there and we are talking about why they are there and who they are there and that's by definition what we're doing. We're meeting as a kind of group of people with something in common. They need that. They really need that.

Ms. Tippett: I want to ask you, you know, we invited listeners a couple of months ago to write to us if they had an experience with this illness. I don't think we heard from anybody who has Alzheimer's, but from people who love someone who has Alzheimer's.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: And this is something I wondered about also when I was knowing people with Alzheimer's and I want to ask you. I think that some people, but certainly not all, by the later stages believe that the core of this person they love or who was a part of their family, that what is left is the core of this person. And there are some people who say, "The gentleness, the kindness, the joy that was always at the heart of my mother is now there, and it's a beautiful thing even as it's hard." But that's not the story everyone tells.

Dr. Dienstag: No. No.

Ms. Tippett: And there's also this hard edge to this, the paranoia, the violent behavior, the loss of boundaries that comes at different stages in the disease. I just want to ask you from the experiences you've had, how do you think about that, what is left after so much is unlearned?

Dr. Dienstag: Mm-hmm. Yeah. It's a really tough one, you know, because it's hard to …

Ms. Tippett: You don't want to romanticize it, either.

Dr. Dienstag: No. No. And there are people whose experience with their family members in this illness is just full of despair and pain. You know, that happens. That happens. And I think that the history of the relationship is important here.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about that.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah. I think that the story goes on in some form or another is what my observation is. I've seldom encountered circumstances where there's an absolute discontinuity. You know what I mean? So the gentle person turns into a violent, paranoid person. And I think it's also important to say that that's not a common outcome for people with Alzheimer's, but I think that to the extent that you can make some sense of it, it's within the context of some relationship …

Ms. Tippett: Of what has come before.

Dr. Dienstag: … preceded that stage. But it's hard. It's hard because there are times when you look and you just don't see — you can't find anything. You just can't find it. So where is the person? And then there are times when you or I could go and look and we would see nothing, and the family member is seeing something. Or the caregiver, the paid caregiver is there and seeing something and relating to a part of this person inside there that is still alive and still somehow sending out a dispatch that they hear.

Ms. Tippett: Right. Right.

Dr. Dienstag: And it's extraordinary. It's extraordinary when you see that. But a lot gets lost. I've had a woman recently describe it to me as invasion of the body snatchers.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Dienstag: She said it looks like him, but it's not him. He's not in there. Somebody took him out of there. And that's her experience with her husband now. Very, very difficult.

Ms. Tippett: Psychologist Alan Dienstag.

Ms. Tippett: Are you familiar with Gisela Webb? She's actually a professor of religious studies who wrote an essay that was quite beautiful about her mother's struggle with Alzheimer's …

Dr. Dienstag: No.

Ms. Tippett: … and how she drew on different texts, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to Muslim's texts and St. Augustine's confessions. And she called this the "great unlearning." It felt very important for her to observe what was left. And, you know, it's easy to put our finger, as we are, on memories go and lots of features of identity go — but she felt — I just want to know what you think about this — that intuition, feelings are still there, emotion is still there even when there are no words to put around it.

Dr. Dienstag: Mm-hmm.

Ms. Tippett: That intuition is there. She felt that humor is something that stayed with her mother.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah. Yeah. I think a lot of those basic things are still there. And so when you talk about feeling, feeling is there. And we express feelings nonverbally.

Ms. Tippett: Yes.

Dr. Dienstag: So I've walked up to people who've just looked at me and started crying on an Alzheimer's unit. Well, what are they crying about? I don't know. I don't know what they're crying about, but I know that they're sad and I know that they're crying about something. The same thing with laughter, absolutely. It's there. I would go even a little bit farther than that. There are flashes, there are moments that I've had, where there's wisdom that is apparent, and it hits you like a ton of bricks. This is an element that I think has a kind of spiritual component, in my experience anyway, with people like this.

Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm. Can you give me an example?

Dr. Dienstag: Well, my favorite is I was working with a woman who actually first came to see me — she brought her sister to see me. Her name was Ann, and she wanted, actually, her sister to join one of the writing groups; her sister wasn't right for the writing group. And so I saw her and they left. And about two years later, she came back, and she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. And so I started to work with her, and she joined one of my support groups.

She was in the group for a long time, and then it just became impossible for her to participate. The conversation was moving too fast. She just didn't have the language. She couldn't string together more than a sentence or two, and it just wasn't working. And so she had to leave the group. Her husband, who was just extraordinarily devoted to her, really wanted her to maintain her connection with me. It was very helpful that I had known her before. And she would bring photo albums in. She would do a little tchotchke tour of my office. You know, when it wasn't really possible to talk about things, she would kind of walk around and we would look at objects. She was very taken by the birds outside the window. I mean, that was the kind of time that we spent together.

And then even that became difficult. She was one of those people who started to kind of retreat into almost a mask-like blankness. It was harder and harder to access her. And so we were reaching the end of that time, and I was talking to her husband, telling him that I just didn't think that it was a really fruitful way for her to spend her time and so on. And so it was around that time, and I was going on vacation, and she loved the beach and I loved the beach and this was something that we used to connect about. And I said to her, as I was leaving I said, "Ann, I'm going to the beach. I'm going to be away for a while." And she smiled and her face kind of lit up. I said, "What do you love about the beach?" She kind of drifted away, as she did, and she got very quiet. And again I waited and I thought, well, you know, she can't really answer that question. And she turned to me and she said, "There's some kind of music that lives there." And I thought, "Oh, god. That's the best answer."

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: That was just a wonderful answer. And not a summer has gone by that I haven't thought of that at some moment at some beach. So to me that's like a prayer. Where does it come from? You know, in this A.J. Heschel sense of prayer, this sense of wonder, this sense of place between knowing and not knowing and the mystery of things. So that's in there too. And you never know when it's going to kind of come out.

Ms. Tippett: In past months, as I mentioned to Alan Dienstag, we asked our podcast and radio listeners to share what they've learned about memory and humanity if they've had experiences with Alzheimer's disease. We found Alan Dienstag in this process, and the many responses we received informed my conversation with him and led us to a fresh way of thinking about Alzheimer's, not just in terms of loss of memory, but as an occasion for remembering. On we've produced an interactive map with all those rich reflections. The caregiver perspective is an important topic, one worthy of a show unto itself. And in my unedited interviews with Alan Dienstag as well as religious studies scholar Gisela Webb, who cared for her mother with Alzheimer's, and author David Schenk, we speak in much greater depth about the caregiver role. You can find these free downloadable MP3s and this program on our Web site. Look for links on our home page,

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Ms. Tippett: After a short break, the miracle of memory and human connections that defy erasure. I'm Krista Tippett. Stay with us. On Being comes to you from American Public Media.


Ms. Tippett: Welcome back to On Being, public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "Alzheimer's, Memory, and Being." We're exploring some of the human and spiritual terrain of Alzheimer's disease, what it reveals about the nature of memory and identity, and what remains when memory is gone.

I've had a personal interest in this since I spent some time while studying theology working with Alzheimer's patients. My guest, Alan Dienstag, is a New York-based psychologist. He was an early practitioner to integrate support groups into his work with Alzheimer's patients. He also created a writing group for early Alzheimer's patients, together with the novelist Don DeLillo, that met for three years.

Ms. Tippett: Something you wrote, this is you making sense of what you learned, just continuing what I think you were just saying. You said someone had said to you, "I feel like a picture that is fading." And you note that's true for all of us. And you wrote: "Watching the group members in their struggle to remember, write, and read their work is a moving experience on many levels. One of these is surely our awareness that the picture is fading along with the sparks of recognition. This awareness lends a poignancy and triumph to the work with which one can identify. We all know what fading is like, and we all know that our fate is not so different from theirs. The triumph is temporary, it is of this moment, but it's the triumph of life over death."

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah. Yeah. You know, when we first listened to the work that people were producing in the writing group, I was really kind of astonished by how profound it seemed. And I sort of couldn't believe it. Like, I thought, "Well, what is this? Are they great writers? Do these people have a particular talent for writing? What is actually going on here." And in the end I think it's that they were making a statement about who they are, and the moment that they were in with such that it has this kind of resonance that feels familiar to all of us on some deep level, which is that we don't have an unlimited amount of time and we're going to run out of it. We're going to run out of it. And when you watch these people, you see people who are running out of time. So there's almost something heroic like, "I'm going to tell you who I am before it's too late. I'm going to tell you this story about picking lilacs from a tree with my mother." Whatever it is. You know, a simple story like that somehow has this kind of — it's elevated. It's elevated by the circumstance. I think Don in his book …

Ms. Tippett: Don DeLillo.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah. Yeah. He writes about the group: "They summoned the force of final authority. No one new what they knew here in the last clear minute before it all closed down." He was writing in this book that he wrote called Falling Man, about a group, not unlike the group that we ran, a writing group for people in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. But I think that that's what gets conveyed through the writing, and it's remarkable how it reads in the rereading when you encounter it. And I think we're not that different from them. We're not.

Ms. Tippett: There's that one line from one of the people in your writers group: "I can remember picking a fig from a tree in Athens. My lover watches me with delight."

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: That's two sentences that tells a story, that paints such a vivid picture.

Dr. Dienstag: Yes. Yes. Now, you have the page in front you, right? You see the effort there, also, in that page.

Ms. Tippett: Oh, where she's crossed it out and started over again. Yes.

Dr. Dienstag: She's crossing it out, and she can't quite get the spelling right.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: The letters are backwards. And when she read that, it was like you just wanted to stand up and applaud.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Dienstag: First of all, because it was so lovely and — yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Something that really formed me and made me think about what a kind of linear, verbal idea we have of memory and communication. And certainly I'm completely word-oriented. There is body memory that I think we're learning more about in the 21st century even than we knew a couple of years ago. How eye contact and touch and just presence and indulging simple pleasures like — you know, there was one woman who I could wheel her outside to sit in the flowers, and she would be so sad and withdrawn when I arrived, sitting in that common room. And she would come to life. I could just imagine what stories were behind that. And, I mean, I think that was also about body memory. I'm imagining this woman who wrote about picking the fig from a tree in Athens, if you could somehow take her to that place in Athens, even long after she could write those sentences, she would feel that story.

Dr. Dienstag: I think she did. I think she did feel that story when she wrote that. And I think she felt that story when she shared it with us. She was delighted to share that with us. It's still with us. She's gone. She's gone; she's been gone for a while and here we are, talking about her lover and that fig tree.

Ms. Tippett: And that delight.

Dr. Dienstag: And that delight. I just, you know, for me there's a deep sense of satisfaction in that and comfort in that.

Ms. Tippett: And now we're talking about it on the radio.

Dr. Dienstag: And here we are. Yeah. Yeah. It's remarkable.

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Ms. Tippett: If you found out today that you or your spouse were in the early stages of Alzheimer's, what would be your reaction?

Dr. Dienstag: Hmm. I'd be very sad. I'd feel a sense of grief and mourning for what I knew that I was going to lose. I think that's where I'd be at the outset of it.

Ms. Tippett: Would that be very different from how you would've reacted if you hadn't done all this work?

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah. I don't think I'm as scared of it, actually, as I used to be. I'm not scared of it, I don't think. Now I think that before I worked with people with Alzheimer's, I mean before I was immersed in it in this way, I would've been much more frightened.

Ms. Tippett: And why are you not as scared?

Dr. Dienstag: You know, I don't know. That's a good question.

Ms. Tippett: See, I haven't done as much as you have, but I felt exactly the same way after I had spent that year and a half with people with Alzheimer's. You do hear about how this is the disease that people in the United States are more scared of than anything else. This is what no one wants to happen to them.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: But you don't feel that way, having done this work.

Dr. Dienstag: No. No. I find other things much scarier. I mean, pain — we could go down the list, I'm sure we …

Ms. Tippett: Yeah.

Dr. Dienstag: But, no, I don't. It's tragic, so the grief would be hard to take, but I'm not afraid. It slips away, you know? It slips away. And I guess the other thing that you learn is that for the people who go through it, they're not generally aware of it on this level. I had this experience doing a workshop, and there were people with Alzheimer's in the room. There were about 20 people in the room and we were kind of going around the circle and people with early Alzheimer's were talking about their lives and what they do to kind of give their lives meaning, find stimulating things to do and so on. This man started talking about his experience as somebody with early Alzheimer's, and he was painting a very kind of benign picture of it all. He said, "Well, you know, it's difficult not to be able to remember, but I get up and I can do this and I can do that." Basically he was just saying he's fine, he's OK. And over his shoulder, sitting behind him, was his wife. And she was crying. She was crying. And I knew just how much he'd lost, how much she had lost.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: But there he was. He wasn't uncomfortable. He really wasn't. And so I think we project our feelings onto them, and we assume that they are suffering some terrible thing, but in fact that's not necessarily the experience of it.

Ms. Tippett: Psychologist Alan Dienstag. You can see images of the pages that emerged from his writing group — including the lines about the fig tree in Athens — and read an essay Dienstag wrote about what he learned through such experiences, at

And here is a conversation that was recorded between two sisters and their father, Ken Morgenstern. They interviewed him as part of StoryCorps Memory Loss Initiative, an oral history project that uses audio technology to capture memories so that memories might be given away rather than lost. This conversation was recorded in 2006 in New York City, five years after Ken Morgenstern had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Daughter: All right, Dad. I'm going to ask you a bunch of questions.

Ken Morgenstern: All right.

Daughter: And you'll answer them the best you can from your memory. So you came out here to New York, and then somehow you met Mom.

Mr. Morgenstern: Right here in New York?

Daughter: Yeah, you did.

Mr. Morganstern: Don't remember how, when. Mom would remember.

Daughter: She would've remembered, yeah.

Daughter 2: ur mom passed away about four and a half years ago. Do you recall dating her?

Mr. Morganstern: Oh, yeah. I remember dating her. She was a sexy gal.

Daughter: She was? So let's talk about your kids a little bit.

Mr. Morganstern: We had four kids. Is that the right number?

Daughter: Yes, it is.

Mr. Morganstern: Good. They were great.

Daughter: Who are they?

Mr. Morganstern: You. Who else?

Daughter: There's Priya, Bhavani .

Mr. Morganstern: Priya, Bhavani. And there's a man in there.

Daughter: David, Dad.

Mr. Morganstern: David. Yeah.

Daughter: David's not going to be too happy when he listens to this, Dad.

Mr. Morganstern: Huh?

Daughter 2: Who was the best kid?

Mr. Morganstern: David.

Daughter 2: He was actually the best kid. No, he definitely was.

Mr. Morganstern: He was.

Daughter 2: And you see us all a lot still, right, Dad?

Daughter: Dad?

Mr. Morganstern: What?

Daughter: Priya was asking you if you still see us a lot.

Mr. Morganstern: See you a lot?

Daughter: Yeah. Are we in your life?

Mr. Morganstern: Sure. What are you talking about?

Daughter: We're just asking you a question.

Daughter 2: Dad, was there anything that you wished you had gotten in life that you didn't get?

Mr. Morganstern: Anything I wish I had gotten in life?

Daughter 2: Yep.

Mr. Morganstern: I'm sitting here thinking I have no regrets on anything. The important thing is I have a family that I love and they're loving people. That's the biggest thing you can leave, as a …

Daughter: Legacy.

Mr. Morganstern: Legacy. Yeah.

Ms. Tippett:When Ken Morgenstern passed away 21 months after this interview, his family played it at his funeral.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: I'm Krista Tippett, and this is On Being from American Public Media, today exploring "Alzheimer's, Memory, and Being" through psychologist Alan Dienstag's experiences leading support groups and writing groups for early Alzheimer's patients.

Ms. Tippett: This is kind of a huge philosophical question, but how do you think differently about the distinctions between, or overlap between memory, thought, consciousness? I mean, is consciousness the same as memory? Some people call this "a demise of consciousness."

Dr. Dienstag: Mm-hmm. I guess, you know, I almost hesitate to say this because I feel like it sounds corny, but I guess I have to start here because that's the first thing that comes to mind. When you've seen the unraveling of this consciousness that we have — and that is definitely a word that I would use — when you've seen the unraveling from beginning to end, you can't help but recognize what a miracle it is, this mind that we have. This conversation that you and I are having, you know, the fact that I'll leave here and, you know, just kind of put myself out there into the world and think about a hundred other things. So I have come away, certainly, with a renewed appreciation of that. And I guess that does sound a little bit like the near-death experience and now I really appreciate life, but on the other side of the coin, I realize how ungrateful we are. We don't notice it, really. I mean, I don't want to generalize too much.

Ms. Tippett: No, it's true.

Dr. Dienstag: I think we tend not to notice it unless it doesn't work. And then we get all bent out of shape, "Oh, I can't remember this. I can't remember that." But for moment to moment, it's a miracle. It's really a miracle that all of this works and that it works in the way that it does and that it has the richness that it does, that it takes in so much and that our internal lives and the lives that we can build as a result of what's inside are so rich. So I absolutely have been touched in that way.

Ms. Tippett: I do remember how striking it was — and I've since read other accounts of this — when I was working on the Alzheimer's floor, how people who could not string a sentence together, I mean, who maybe didn't even ever talk, the chaplain would come in and they would say the Lord's Prayer or they would sing a hymn.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: Or, I don't know, the 23rd Psalm. And the words came out perfectly.

Dr. Dienstag: Yeah.

Ms. Tippett: There was something so mysterious about that, that these things seemed to be rooted so deep down and they were indestructible when nothing else seemed to be out of bounds. I mean, have you experienced that and how do you explain that?

Dr. Dienstag: Sure. Well, they're well — I mean, the scientific term, they're well learned, right? You know, that's how people describe that. That you've learned something so well, that you've repeated it so many times it's almost like muscle memory. Right?

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: It doesn't require this kind of conscious effort to repeat and so there it is. But I still think it's mysterious whether you explain it that way or not. There is something that is mysterious about that. And it highlights the ways in which memory is always a creative process, to me. That's the other thing that I take away from that. So that we're always constructing it. The internal experience is one in which we kind of dip into the memory bank and pull out the memory in its full form, right?

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: But the more we learn about this, the more we realize that, in fact, it's scattered. It doesn't exist in one place. It gets pulled together.

(Sound bite of music)

Dr. Dienstag: I was working with a woman whose husband was in a nursing home. And there's that period of time when people with Alzheimer's begin to not recognize their family members, and it's wrenching and it's painful and it's awful. It's just awful. And she was in that period of time, and so it would happen every so often. The first time it happened, she came back to me in kind of a panic and just, you know, she was distraught and said that she didn't want to live anymore if he wasn't going to recognize her. What started to happen was that she would go and see him, and the first thing she would say is, "Do you remember who I am?" And I was trying to convince her and trying to help her to kind of back off of that.

Ms. Tippett: Right.

Dr. Dienstag: I was suggesting to her that there are other ways that she could see that he recognizes her. And there are, in fact. Even when someone can't answer that question, you can see on their face, you can see in their body language. There are lots of ways that you can tell. But he got to a certain point where he just couldn't answer the question. And one day, she went in and she asked him, and he looked at her and he said, "I don't know who you are, but I love you." And I thought, oh, you know, he thought of the right answer.

Ms. Tippett: He did. He also understood what she needed to hear.

Dr. Dienstag: He totally understood. And, again, you know, I just — that was very wise. That was very wise. And on another level, I thought a lot about it and I thought what endures? What endures? Does the name endure? Does the recognition endure? To me, that's a statement that love is enduring, actually. Right? That you can hold onto that sometimes even after you've lost all the other things. So that one has stayed with me. I mean, some of these things just feel to me like, I don't know, principles for living a good life. Right?

Ms. Tippett: Right.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: Alan Dienstag is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York.

(Sound bite of music "Our Love is Here to Stay")

Ms. Tippett: In closing, here are some lines from the poet Sean Nevin, who has also led writing groups with Alzheimer's patients and lived through his own grandfather's struggle with this disease. This is an excerpt from his collection of poetry about those experiences, Oblivio Gate.

The moon            is the rice-paper lantern  		               left burning in the garden    Long after the last house light            is put down.  		               Wind sweeps its circles    across the empty lawn            and back again.  		               All night    I search you            for signs of recognition—                   Solomon? Solomon?    I float your name             out into the darkness:          		       a word, a flame,    A silver prayer kite rising,            rice paper,  		               balsa,  	  twine for the rigging,            remember this.                   Remember.

(Sound bite of music)

Ms. Tippett: You can read the text of Sean Nevin's poem on My producers and I have also blogged about the production of this program on Pertinent Posts from the On Being Blog. I wrote about my time working with Alzheimer's patients, and our online editor reflects on the gift of giving memory away, after viewing photographer Phillip Toledano's moving visual reflection on memory and relationships, absence and loss, and on the frail tender love between family members. See all this and gain insight into our editorial perspectives at

Last but not least, the Alzheimer's Association has an extensive Web site,, along with a 24-hour hotline that offers referrals, resources, and support in multiple languages. Their phone number is 1-800-272-3900. And if you would like to conduct an audio recording of a loved one with Alzheimer's, reach out to StoryCorps Memory Loss Initiative at You'll find these and other links, readings, and resources on our Web site,

On Being is produced by Colleen Scheck, Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Shubha Bala. Our producer and editor of all things online is Trent Gilliss. Kate Moos is the managing producer of On Being. And I'm Krista Tippett.

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is a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City and Westchester County.