The Light Inside Mrs. Watt
Ailie Watt loved teaching young children how to read.
Although she taught English and Art at Trinity Western University in the 1970s, she still remained committed to ushering five-year-olds into the world of literacy at a local elementary school. For more than a decade she taught both kindergarten and university students, daily seeing both ends of the educational spectrum.
Mrs. Watt’s daughter, Janet Martens, says people who knew her mother saw her as an intelligent, capable woman. She raised three daughters on her own when her first husband died at the age of 31. “She was able to handle a fairly heavy workload and still enjoy life.”
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease
So, when Mrs. Watt was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, it was difficult for her family and friends to watch her vital personality shrink away.
In the case of Mrs. Watt, the process was slow but obvious to those who knew her intimately. As a well-spoken, educated woman who had a lifelong passion to learn and educate, withdrawing from social situations and showing signs of memory loss was just the beginning.
Dementia carries with it a whole host of complicated scenarios and issues. When Janet first noticed that her mother was acting differently, she had difficulty getting her mother to take her concerns seriously. And, to make matters worse, Watt’s physician took her side. “She was so articulate, she was so able to defend herself. The doctor didn’t believe us,” says Martens.
Thus began a long journey that the families of Alzheimer patients often have to endure as they perform a balancing act trying to maintain their loved one’s dignity while being conscious of practical safety and health issues.
“At first she resisted my attempts to help her because she thought I was taking over,” Janet recalls. “She couldn’t accept the role reversal that was needed.”
As Mrs. Watt moved through the stages of the disease, she needed more and more help. And as she lost parts of what made up an identity that had been fostered over her lifetime, her family began to see her differently.
“We suffered a lot of sorrow just seeing her slip away,” says Martens.
Reaching her spirit
But there was one significant bright spot. Though the process was painful, Janet gained a deeper understanding of her mother’s spiritual identity. During the latter stage of the disease in particular, when Watt could no longer talk or move around, the most evident part of her was her soul.
“We knew that, as a Christian, the Holy Spirit still indwelled her,” says Martens. “Even though she couldn’t pray, her spirit was still being ministered to. The Lord was not going to abandon her at this stage.”
Martens says the spiritual elements of her mother’s life – hearing hymns, listening to scripture or hearing someone praying – brought out a special side of her that existed even after most of Mrs. Watt’s cognition was gone. She perked up when she was being ministered to as if, even for only a few moments, she was able to step out of the shell that the disease had closed around her. This motivated Janet to continue to nurture her mother’s spiritual side.
“Things that spoke to her spirit reached her,” she says.
So Janet Martens maintained her mother’s dignity by fostering the side of her that the disease was powerless to touch. A person who seemed vacant to the rest of the world, still had an identity that mattered – there was a bright light left on in the house.