The Blessing of Alzheimer’s

Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle ’59’s new book explores a unique approach to the tragic disease

by Christina Barber-Just

Olivia and her husband

Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle ’59 with her late husband, Hob.

In 1995, Harrison (Hob) Hoblitzelle, the man Olivia Ames Hoblitzelle ’59 calls “my buddy, my husband, my lover, and companion in life,” received a catastrophic diagnosis: Alzheimer’s disease. At the time, Hob was 70; Olivia, 56. They had been married for thirty-one years, and were a standout couple. Hob was a PhD in comparative literature who had taught at Barnard, Columbia, and Brandeis and had recently been ordained as a senior teacher by the world-renowned Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Olivia, for her part, is a writer, teacher, and therapist who has devoted her professional life to integrating Buddhist practices with Western medicine. Drawing on their Eastern training, the couple decided to take Hob’s diagnosis as a “blessing,” and they embarked on a six-year, eyes-wide-open journey through Alzheimer’s that ended with Hob’s death in 2001.

Olivia, who found refuge in writing as Hob’s mind disintegrated, chronicles their journey in Ten Thousand Joys & Ten Thousand Sorrows (Tarcher/Penguin, 2010). Part memoir, part self-help book, it has received the endorsement of no less an authority on mindfulness than the Dalai Lama, who says, “There is not much we can do about aging or Alzheimer’s, but, as Hoblitzelle reveals, accepting the condition in which we find ourselves can be a far more positive approach in the long run.” Here Hoblitzelle talks about her experiences.

How would you describe the nature of your marriage to Hob?

We were exceptionally fortunate in how much our interests overlapped, especially with our shared backgrounds in psychology, meditation, and the wisdom traditions. We sometimes taught or led groups together, but above all, we were fellow travelers on the path of spiritual exploration, particularly in the Buddhist tradition that dovetails so brilliantly with Western psychology.

How did your shared backgrounds help you as a couple to negotiate his disease?

Psychological training gives you the skills to handle the emotional ups and downs of any illness, and we were also fortunate to have had a very open, honest relationship. A meditation practice cultivates acceptance of whatever arises, which also involves letting go of what you can’t change. That’s a huge asset. It also develops a kind of core resilience that supports you through the hardest times. Perhaps above all, meditation helps to cultivate greater equanimity and peace of mind.

Your mother also had Alzheimer’s. Why did you vow that Hob’s experience would be different from hers?

Because my mother had Alzheimer’s in the late ’70s, the field was still very new, and she suffered more than someone would now. Unable to bear the prospect that Hob might suffer the way she did, I vowed to make this last chapter of his life as good as it could be. We were fortunate that the invaluable skills of meditation practice and psychology made a dramatic difference.

When you started looking for reading material, what seemed to you to be missing in the Alzheimer’s literature?

I couldn’t find any books that treated Alzheimer’s in a less pathological light or addressed the spiritual dimensions of this disease—or any form of mental decline—yet I knew that those perspectives had helped us to manage the enormity of losing his mind. Also given my husband’s humor and unusual level of awareness toward his illness, I felt strongly called to write this book to be of help to others. In fact, just before he died, I made a covenant with him that I’d write a book and that his humor and wisdom would be in it.

Were there some key words or phrases that guided you and Hob throughout your journey?

We made an agreement to greet the experience of Alzheimer’s “consciously and lovingly,” a phrase that invited a more positive perspective towards a heartbreaking disease. One of my meditation teachers reminded me that every situation is an opportunity for growth and said, “You can take this as a teaching, a training, even a blessing.” That’s an astonishing aspiration, but it became like an inner compass for me.

What role does faith play in coping with serious disease?

There’s a beautiful phrase, “Faith is the bird that sings in the night while the dawn is still dark.” No doubt that having faith—whatever your tradition—provides comfort and inspiration. I know for us, our spiritual orientation, basically anchored in the Buddhist tradition, but including our Christian roots, was without question the most valuable asset for dealing with Hob’s illness.

How would you like to see Westerners shift their perspectives on aging, dying, and death?

As both an age- and death-denying culture, we have a long way to come in accepting how much aging, death, and dying are in the natural order of things. We’re the losers, because cultures that respect and revere their elders have a richness that we lack. Aging and dying are not hidden away in institutions but are part of community life. These cultures accept the naturalness of death and dying, and so it’s handled with much greater acceptance and grace.

Why is it important for caretakers to take care of themselves?

At the end of each chapter in Ten Thousand Joys & Ten Thousand Sorrows, there are self-help sections that address this issue in detail. With Alzheimer’s, the risk of burnout for caregivers is very great, so we must find ways to get respite, exercise, and self-care. We need to find support and help from family, friends, and professionals and know what nourishes us so we can continue doing some of the things we love.

You write that the most challenging chapter of your life was also the richest. How so?

I think the last chapter of life is in many ways the most heroic, because we face such great challenges in the form of an illness, handicap, or major loss of any kind. I was fortunate to have the wisdom and inspiration of my Buddhist background and began to see this experience as a kind of initiation, like being burned in the fires of adversity. What shines through the adversity was the deepening of love and compassion between us. Those are blessings. Incredibly, those were the gifts of our sharing his journey with Alzheimer’s.

What’s the next chapter for you?

While continuing to do a lot of talks, interviews, and workshops to spread the word about the book’s message, I’m writing about elder issues, conscious aging, and the contemplative life. Between four grandsons, retreats, travel, and a partner, life is full.