When Jim developed dementia, I thought it would be a good activity for us to put jigsaw puzzles together. I set up a table and we worked on a 750 piece puzzle. Jim always felt good when he could fit a piece into the puzzle. Sometimes, he bent pieces trying to force them into places where they “almost” fit.
I went to a Business Women of Missouri conference this weekend and was particularly impressed with speaker Mary Gage’s comparison of life to a jigsaw puzzle. She gave some blog-worthy information in her motivating session. One of the things she talked about that I thought was relevant to my life was how sometimes a piece don’t seem to fit, and we just have to lay it aside and put it in later when we find where it belongs.
She asked if anyone ever tried to put a puzzle together without looking at the picture. Not a single hand was raised. No, we all want to know what the picture looks like before we start putting the pieces together. Besides, if we are honest, it makes it a whole lot easier. We don’t waste time trying to place a piece of grass at the top of the puzzle when we know from the picture that it goes at the bottom.
As with many conferences, my “ah-ha” moment didn’t come from the speaker, but rather from a stranger sitting across the table from me. We had a puzzle on our table, and as a group, we were asked to put the puzzle together. Well, it wasn’t a jigsaw puzzle, or I’d still be sitting at that table trying to do my part. It was one of those children’s puzzles with probably less than 30 pieces in it.
We chatted while we put the puzzle together, and the woman said she was a “puzzle person” and that one time she had planned an exercise with puzzles. She had taken two puzzles with the same picture and mixed them together. The idea was that the pieces would be interchangeable and make two puzzles when they were done.
I’m not sure what the point of the exercise was, but she learned that just because two puzzles have the same picture, doesn’t mean the pieces are interchangeable. What she discovered was that the pictures were identical on the boxes, but pieces were shaped differently.
So where is my “ah-ha” moment in this story? People with Alzheimer’s have the same picture on the outside that they had before they developed the disease, but they are trying to fit pieces from a different puzzle into their life’s picture. It’s like they’ve been handed a different box of puzzle pieces to fit into the puzzle they already have. The pieces no longer fall into place, and even if you put one aside, you won’t find a place for it later.
We all know from past experience, that unless the pieces are a perfect fit, you can’t force them into place. A misfit piece leaves a gap, and you know immediately it won’t work. Occasionally, you will find a piece of a puzzle that seems to fit, but it may stand out from the surrounding pieces because it is the wrong color and doesn’t complete the picture.
While Jim and I worked on our puzzles, he would sometimes pick up a piece and walk away with it in his hand. He would lay the pieces down in out of the way spots and sometimes I couldn’t find them. In the completed puzzle all the pieces we had fit neatly together, but sometimes as many as five pieces were missing.
We know where we want our lives to go, and we plug away at the pieces until we find where they belong. But isn’t our personal life’s big picture fuzzy and not a finished image? I believe that our pictures change and our puzzle pieces are constantly adapting to the uncertainty.
When a person has Alzheimer’s, he struggles every day to fill in missing pieces of this puzzle called life. By being supportive, you might help your loved one find some of the misplaced pieces and fit them where they belong.