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When my 88-year-old father Bob Sessions encounters someone, he always says the same thing: “Good morning!” For him, no matter what time of day, it is always a good morning, a good afternoon, and a good evening, even if it has rained all day and he hasn’t been able to take his regular strolls around Asbury Methodist Village, the retirement community in Gaithersburg where he and my stepmother Julia live.

Ten years ago, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. His short-term memory is almost gone but he is still remarkably healthy and is now taking part in his fourth clinical trial at Georgetown University’s Memory Disorders Program, hoping to expand what little medical science can tell us about the disease. His doctors say the average Alzheimer’s patient dies about 10 years after diagnosis. They are delighted at how well he’s doing but not sure as to the exact reasons for it.

I have some ideas about that.

First, my stepmother Julia keeps the pressure off, having assumed most of the tasks he used to do – driving, caring for the yard and keeping track of finances. She manages his pill regimen, bakes his favorite (mostly chocolate) desserts, takes him to church every Sunday – and fills in his memory gaps.

Reason number two: My father exercises almost every day, something researchers say is key to slowing brain deterioration. The third? He’s always had a clear sense of purpose, first as Methodist minister, later in college teaching. Now he sees his contribution to Georgetown’s research as an extension of what he’s done all his adult life.

But the fourth one is the sleeper — not so obvious, but a salve all the same to both my father and all of us who love him:

My father has always been and remains, despite this grave disease, a hugely grateful human being. Perhaps because he had so little in his childhood and adolescence, he expresses appreciation every day for how much he has.

[Related: Yes thanks! Six ways gratitude can change your life]

When my sisters and I were growing up, he would start each meal with the prayer beginning, “God is great, God is good, and we thank God for our food.”

Decades later, that sentiment still defines him. Case in point: Although a brave man generally, he’s fearful of some of the technology he must endure at Georgetown. Recently, when he emerged from a PET scan machine, he told the technician, “I hate you, but I appreciate what you’re doing.”

When I accompany him on a walk around the pond outside his building, he will point out deer grazing alongside the bank and say, “Aren’t they beautiful?” Before he goes to bed, a bowl of a store-brand chocolate ice cream will send him over the moon.

“This is the best chocolate ice cream I’ve ever had,” he’ll say for the umpteenth time.

Recent research  shows that gratitude for even the simplest of things – a new picture of a grandchild, a maple tree that turns a brilliant orange – is associated with “better mood, better sleep, less fatigue and lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health.”

Gratitude also reduces depression and anxiety, according to several studies, including one by Andrea Hussong, a researcher and director of the Center for Developmental Science at UNC-Chapel Hill.  All of which may help slow the mind’s decline or, at least, improve the mood and sense of well-being of both patient and caregiver.

My father’s childhood could easily have made him a bitter man. His father, a physician, died when he was three. The family, living in a small town in northwest Arkansas, split up. His mother went to work in a clothing factory in Memphis, a four- or five-hour bus ride away. She placed my father and his older brother in a Masonic Children’s Home where they remained through high school.

After high school, Dad served in the U.S. Navy which paid for much of his college education at Brown and Dartmouth Universities. After World War II, he graduated seminary and was ordained a Methodist minister and assigned his first church in a small town called Van Buren in northwest Arkansas.

[Related: Are you living your best life? Do a ‘Joy Review’ says author of Chicken Soup for the Soul]

This was in the early 1950s when segregation was beginning to be challenged by African-Americans and some whites. The Van Buren school district was resisting federal orders to integrate the high school. One Sunday in 1956, shortly after the Supreme Court ruled that black children could attend what had been whites-only public schools, “Brother Bob,” as the church members called him, delivered a sermon supporting the court ruling.

For a man who, growing up, had not had a lot of the things other boys had, it was a question of fairness.

“We will not be fooled by rabble-rousers or political opportunists who for their own selfish purposes try to stir up discord,” my father said. Accepting racial integration was “the Christian thing to do.”

This did not sit well with some in the congregation. Hooligans burned a cross on our lawn. The area’s Methodist bishop, uncomfortable with the unrest in Van Buren, transferred my father and our family to Booneville, about an hour’s drive away. A year later, in 1957, a federal judge ordered Van Buren High School to admit 23 African-American students.

My dad continued to fight for integration. He wrote an article for The Saturday Evening Post, published in May 1961, titled, “Are Southern Ministers Failing the South?” My younger sister and I remember mail trucks stopping by our house to deliver hundreds of letters from all over the country, divided between those who favored integration and those who opposed it.

Following a divorce from my mother, my father remarried  and in 1963 he moved our family to a suburb of Boston, where he pastored a small church while taking classes at Boston University. He eventually received his Ph.D. in sociology and social ethics and became a professor.

The risk he took in speaking up in others’ defense was a defining experience in my dad’s life.

One of the tragic results of Alzheimer’s is that we spend most of our adult lives building our idea of a meaningful life: acquiring an education, finding a mate, raising children, working at a job or if we’re lucky, a career we enjoy. But when we finally have time to reflect on, and appreciate, what we’ve accomplished, the memories of those achievements may no longer be accessible.

My father recalls very little. He knows he inspired significant social debates within and outside Arkansas. He’s less clear what those arguments were about.

To forget the name of a grandchild, which he does more frequently now, is embarrassing. To lose what used to be an unassailable sense of direction and placeis humiliating. But to not be able to recall how and why you once were significant in the world may be the biggest loss of all.

Even so, my father leans into each day with gratitude for what remains.

When he finishes a piece of cake that my stepmother has made, he will say something to the effect that, “I have never had a better chocolate (lemon, spice, whatever it is) cake.” When my sisters and I are present for this or some other over-the-top expression, we look at each other and roll our eyes.

But would we rather he push his food away? Complain about his stiff joints and failing hearing? Not ask us – as he does every time we visit –how each of our children are doing and would we relay to them how much he loves them?

His crusade to get rid of racial prejudice has become the very different battle of eradicating Alzheimer’s. He knows that on either front, one individual cannot do a lot. But one can and in his opinion, must, do something. And so, when the doctors and nurses at Georgetown asked him in past years to speak to the families of other Alzheimer’s patients, he did so willingly.

Some people might say he’s in denial, that he has refused much of his life to acknowledge the scope of the challenges and problems he has encountered. There may be some truth in that. But would that be such a bad thing — if  his ability to focus on what’s good  – a family that loves him, a golden retriever that stays by his side, a caring and competent medical team, and, of course, almost any dessert — has helped slow his mental decline?

One more thing: For years, in his spare time, my father composed music and wrote lyrics. After it was clear Alzheimers was closing in, he wrote a song he entitled “Remind Me to Tell You.”

He still has his sense of humor, and my family and I, on most days, are grateful for that.

 

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