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Living well with Alzheimers

After the success of the letter exchange between Pope Francis and children from around the world resulting in the New York Times bestseller Dear Pope Francis, the Elder Project has been initiated by the Pope in order to give older people an opportunity to share their wisdom with upcoming generations. Irish Jesuit Communications and Messenger Publications are once again taking part in the project and Messenger Publications will be publishing their own edition of the book in Ireland. Pat Coyle from Irish Jesuit Communications, has submitted a series of interviews with ‘elder’ figures in Ireland, who have agreed to share a slice of the wisdom they have learnt over their life journey as well as the story from the heart behind the learning.

In this interview submitted to Loyola Press, Irish Jesuit Des O’Grady shares his experience of living with Alzheimer’s disease and the learning he is gleaning from it. Des is a chaplain in the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum. He offers much wisdom for Pope Francis to respond to, should his piece be chosen. As with the Dear Pope Francis book, people from all around the world have been contacted to share their wisdom stories through interview, video or the written word. The Pope will be given a selection by Loyola Press and he will make the final choice about the topics and insights he wants to respond to.

Seventy-five-year-old Fr O’Grady entered the Jesuits in 1959 and was ordained a priest in 1972. He worked as a lecturer in philosophy in the Milltown Institute for three decades.

Talking about his relationship with God, Fr Des says “I don’t talk to him much but I’m aware of him all the time. It’s just like a sick child holding on to his mother’s arm. The mother can’t cure the disease but I still keep trusting. My life as I’ve lived it has become more and more precious to me every day and the people I live with and the world I live in has become more glorious”. He now lives with his Jesuit brothers at Gonzaga Community in Milltown Park in Ranelagh, Dublin.

On a positive note regarding his Alzheimer’s, Fr Des says he now operates more at the affective level. “In many ways, I’d be much freer now than I would have been before because I would have focused more on the knowledge before. Now I just see people and the whole sense of the relationship, not in terms of the acts or the deeds but in terms of the affection, the ease, the enjoyment and so on with people. That’s there, very clearly”. Referring to a downside, he tells Pat Coyle of the prospect of not recognising her any longer or the many cherished people in his life. That he admits will be very tough. Since being diagnosed with his condition, he has found much support and consolation from being an active member of the Alzheimer Society of Ireland and has just recently been nominated for membership of the Irish Dementia Steering Group

Fr O’Grady discusses his work running retreats throughout the country entitled ‘Mindfully at Home in the Cosmos‘. “What we’re hoping to do through the practice of this type of retreat, ideally a 6-day retreat, is that mindfulness will bring people to some sense of themselves and the goodness of being who they are, a peace and a quiet within themselves. We need to be fully mindful of the air we breathe and of our relationship with others. And then we begin to realise that the cosmos is a huge mystery, which came out of nowhere billions of years ago, and I think the source of that cosmos is God”.

Among the many words of wisdom, Fr Des says to Pope Francis, “Living in the present moment is the most joyful and important thing we can do to find our joy and it means living with the people you’re with, being aware and responding. Living in the present moment is the core”.

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