In Brief—Musings on dementia and what the author sees and thinks on his forays down the corridor.
A Death Before Dying—
Fritz is an expert on Civil War history having won several awards for his books on the subject. At 67 and still in fine physical shape, he doesn’t give much thought to forgetting the name of the battle when teaching his entranced students about the losses that day. He has become a legend on campus for making history entertaining.
When Fritz’s wife notices that he is wearing mismatched socks instead of his usual impeccable attire, she merely points out the oversight. She becomes more concerned when, as a staunch vegetarian of many years, Fritz orders the braised lamb at their favorite restaurant.
The final blow is when Fritz forgets the way to his daughter’s house after a family dinner at which he had been uncharacteristically argumentative. The following week, the examining doctor tells them that it is probable that Fritz is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Carol forgets the chemical formula that had won her international fame. Later in the day the formula was abruptly clear in her head allowing her to finish the paper she had been writing. As the head of the department at the prestigious university, it was essential that she justify that position with the publication of cutting edge material. When the memory lapses became more frequent, Carol reluctantly realized that it was time to step down. The diagnosis was developing dementia, possibly early-onset Alzheimer’s. Further tests confirm it.
During my daily exercise walks, I have observed the old men and women who are my companions here at the Old Folks’ Home. So many of them sit hunched over staring into space, petting a stuffed animal or sleeping with mouth agape. At first, they ignored my friendly waves, staring at me as though I were an alien with three heads. Now, they return my smile and waves with feeble smiles and waves of their own. Progress.
Here in my section there’s a woman who once started and ran a popular restaurant. We often ate there, seeing her preparing food or at the cash register. Now, the woman asks me my wife’s name for the umpteenth time. She repeatedly mistakes me for the husband of another of the residents. She is paranoid that the personnel and other residents dislike her. This behavior is becoming more frequent.
Being a somewhat solitary soul who can’t speak clearly and is less than fluent in Swedish, I usually spend much of my time in front of the computer. One of my practices is to explore the content of Pinterest users’ boards. Last week, I was checking out what another Pinterest user was reading when I found “Still Alice” about a linguistics professor who suffered from Alzheimer’s. The movie starred Julianne Moore who won an Oscar portraying Alice.
That set me to thinking about the people I see on my walks. What were they like before they slipped into dementia? Were they intellectually talented? Were they teachers or doctors or executives? Were they athletes or actors? Were they loving mothers, fathers, daughters or sons? Did they contribute to society? What did their loved ones feel when they slipped away? Were the loved ones embarrassed or angry? Were they relieved when the demented one moved into a care facility?
After reading the book “Still Alice” and learning more about Alzheimer’s I looked at my fellow residents, especially the dementia patients, in a different way. Their past lives loomed larger in my mind. They grew more complete as human beings.
Then I pondered what my future may hold. Words I used to know draw a blank only to suddenly reappear minutes or hours later. The names of some of the people I knew casually don’t come easily or have disappeared entirely. Will I be one of those residents who must be fed and wheeled about? I hate the thought, but the future is hidden in the fog.
What thoughts about your fate flit through your head? Did you love? Did you dance? Did you run barefooted through rain puddles? Write it down now so when you arrive in your Old Folks’ Home your history as a full human being will be there for your loved ones and others to appreciate. The unknown future waits to unfold.