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Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle | g Force

A positive from a negative

January 31, 2011

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Q. Why did you want to write this book about this “journey through Alzheimer’s,’’ as you put it?

A. My husband and I shared a very strong background both in psychology and meditation. I knew it gave us skills that helped us and we really needed to share what we learned from this journey. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was a very experienced teacher, so he made these really quite remarkable comments about what he was going through. We called them his “reports from the interior.’

Q. It seems like you were able to maintain a positive, constructive view of the disease.

A. Of course, I didn’t all the time. [But I wanted] to not focus all the time on the losses but to see what can you find in even the most difficult experience — the gift, even the grace of adversity. Along with the losses and the heartbreak there were really treasured moments. The love between us deepened.

Q. Did your meditation practice help you hold onto that positive view?

A. You learn how to let things go and move on and be in the moment and not be preoccupied with “Where are we going from here? What awful thing is going to happen next?’’

Q. Even with that, it couldn’t have been easy to watch his demise and to care for him.

A. Illness is always an immense challenge. It’s tremendously wearing. It’s tiring. It’s boring. It’s tedious at times. And you think: “Can I get through this?’’ That’s where the support of family and friends and professionals is so important.

Q. You say that your husband, whose nickname was Hob, had a certain amount of self-awareness even after he’d had a severe stroke and was just weeks from death. Can you give an example of that?

A. [A friend came into the room where he was lying and said,] “Oh how are you today, are you happy?’’ In his best [imitation of an] Indian accent, he said to her: “Be happy only.’’ Those were the last words I heard him say. That had been a real theme in his later life — how do you experience happiness in this moment because this is the only moment we have. It was as though he gave that very central teaching if you will in his last words. I found that amazing.

Q. At 73, you’re about the same age now that your husband was when he was diagnosed. Soon you may be faced with major health problems yourself.

A. I really think about that. About how do you move into this stage of life, which involves being able to do a little less — how do you keep going in a way that’s engaged and vibrant and positive and growing? That intrigues me.

Q. Your husband had been a professor of comparative literature and you said that his poetry stayed with him through most of his illness.

A. A week before he had the major stroke, he came out with these lines — I don’t know where they came from — “I warmed both hands against the fire of life, it sinks and I am ready to depart.’’ He was basically telling me “I’m ready to go.’’ That’s remarkable to me.

Q. So that was his attitude toward death?

A. Our culture is so phobic about illness and death and dying. He dealt with [death] very openly and easily. The fact that he was so open about it was a great relief.

KAREN WEINTRAUB

Interview was edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at weintraubkaren@gmail.com.

WHO
Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle
WHAT
Author of a new book called “Ten Thousand Joys & Ten Thousand Sorrows,’’ about her husband Harrison’s final years.