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Jan 31

Chronicle from the Old Folks’ Home—Part 5

In Brief—Musings on dementia and what the author sees and thinks on his forays down the corridor.

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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.

Sign (head-on)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.

16 comments

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  1. Dave Meyers

    I had a million things to do. In my head I was trying to organize my day in the most efficient way possible. A little work in the shop, and then off to run some errands. As I started out in the car to my first destination, I reached the end of the block, turned right on to the boulevard as I had done countless times before, and went completely blank. Where was I going? What was my mission? Why am I going in this direction?
    Is this how it starts?

    1. Don Bay

      It can start that way, as it did with Alice, or simply be a momentary lapse that could have occurred when you were twenty. Far more likely is that it was a sort of self-hypnosis that afflicts everybody on the planet regardless of age. You have done this so many times over the years that you were acting on impulse. I wouldn’t worry if I were you. I have experienced this in the past. It is as common as dirt.

      The old folks down the corridor are often so out-of-it that they barely respond when I walk by. With them, it’s a long-term thing. The point I hoped to be making was that these folks are still human and entitled to the love we all want. It could be that I failed to convey that.

      Everybody should have your mental acuity. The world would be a better place…or at least there would be fewer mistakes.

  2. Brenda

    Great recognition of others. I loved my Senior programs for this very reason. As I looked at each one, I knew that one day they had been my age. As you looked into their eyes and they looked back, they, too, were thinking “I was their age one day.” I learned so much from them.

    When someone could not do what we were doing that particular day, I always looked to see if there was something else they could do that would make them proud, and almost always, there was another function. And sometime, those who were doing the project or activity that this individual could not do, the others often came over and got involved in the new activity. Amazing. My delight was to see them smile and to see them back again to keep trying. They often gave me much encouragement in their own way.

    I think that you are a great asset to “The Old Folks Home,” for you have encouraged many to come out of their shell, and even tho you may not realize so, they know someone has looked in their eyes and has seen their soul. They want to come out of that shell more than you know.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Don Bay

      I didn’t always look at the residents in the next department as the complete persons they are. I was just expressing myself and my belief that all of us appreciate being recognized. Had it not been for a remark from one of my friends, I might still be seeing only their surfaces.

      After pondering the remark, I began asking the personnel for more information. It has been a process that has expanded me at the same time as some of the residents see more than just an old guy waving and smiling at them. Still, I fear doing more because I am untrained in how dementia patients and plain old folks need to be treated. Despite this self-imposed limitation, I continue waving and smiling on my daily walks.

      I genuinely admire you and others who bring light into lives that might otherwise be drab.

  3. Shelley Stockwell-Nicholas, PhD

    Dearest Don
    Love this article. May I reprint it in the Hyp News.
    I may add that I lost my mind years ago but can’t recall exactly where!
    Love Shelley

    1. Don Bay

      Thanks for the validation. Feel free to share this piece with others who may learn that we are all humans who need validation regardless of our ages and problems.

      I’m with you: I lost my mind years ago and haven’t yet found it.

  4. Dave Meyers

    Oh, I fully understood your point….I was being a bit facetious. It is a serious thing and not to be overlooked by any means. I think my message was, as we get older and those events happen, we can’t help but pause and think….Hmmm, is it starting?

    1. Don Bay

      This is part of the problem with flat words free of attending body language and facial expressions. As well as I know and love you, those words are always taken seriously. To assume facetiousness is risking the possibility that the words are written in all seriousness.

      Yes, it is true that age might be a factor, but overwhelmingly a lapse such as you experienced is a common experience throughout life. Why didn’t I register the miles that slid past? The answer is that other thoughts and priorities occupied my mind. Alice had the lapses recur enough that she finally sought a medical confirmation. In your case, you experienced a lapse that is shared by every human on Earth regardless of age.

      Thanks for sharing the experience and for giving me the chance to bloviate a bit.

  5. Susan Harris

    It makes me truly so happy that you are wondering about the people in the care facility. The two things you mentioned, wondering about their past lives, and imagining what you would be like if dementia happens to you are very compassionate views to embrace.
    Love to you and your peeps petting their precious stuffed animals😘

    1. Don Bay

      In my response to Brenda, I explained that my interest in the other residents here evolved. Had it not been for the remark of a friend, I might still be seeing only the surfaces of my fellow residents. Fortunately, I was compelled to think about the whole person, not just the facade. And so it goes. I am fortunate that my condition gives me the opportunity to think while being fed. I found the pony in all that manure.

      That said, my walks, my waves and smiles will continue. I hope they bring a measure of solace to those folks in the next department. They do to me, too.

  6. Jim Newton

    Reading “Still Alice” brought me back to my dad’s total loss of his mind and total personality change, and my mother not having lost a brain cell when she died 13 years older than my dad’s age at death. Many years wondering who I would follow. For now it seems to by my mother, but I’m still a year younger than the age at which my dad died. I remember my grandmother being in an old folks home when I was a teenager and the many fellow residents who told outlandish stories and obviously had dementia. In some sense this story has been a part of my life for a very long time. For now I lose only the words and not the concepts so I can say to my wife “what is the word that describes this situation, experience, reality, etc. and know it’s only the word I’ve lost. What must it be like to lose the concepts?

    If your readers are over 50 I think it’s very important to read “Still Alice.” Knowing how it went for her can help us to know what to look for and at least be aware.

    1. Don Bay

      You have raised the conflict between a weak mind in a strong body versus strong mind in a weak body. In a perfect world, the autonomous individual must be the one who makes that decision, particularly since we can’t know the future. However, we don’t live in a perfect world but one in which our loved ones or circumstances determine the outcome. In a worst-case scenario, personal autonomy goes out the window.

      I have written in this blog of my belief in personal autonomy, but I find myself trapped by the beliefs of my loved ones and by the blindness of the presumably-caring nanny state. It now seems I am reduced to either ending life in an undesirable way or waiting to see what the fates bring.

      As for “Still Alice,” she had early-onset Alzheimer’s, knew what was coming, planned suicide but forgot it before she could carry it out, a not-uncommon feature with Alzheimer’s patients. The problem is that looking for signs of approaching dementia doesn’t help. Ultimately, that leaves a person having to decide if it’s the real thing and what to do. The answer simply isn’t there. Once again, the autonomous person or circumstances will determine the outcome. Put simply, there’s no easy answer.

      I hope the answer is easy for you.

  7. Jim Newton

    Well, I keep saying to my wife, “If this happens to me, please kill me.” Where “this” is all sorts of things that could happen. And I never get an ok to that but I never get a “no way” either, so who knows?

    1. Don Bay

      I assume you are kidding, but I feel compelled to say that were your wife to kill you as requested, she could be charged with murder. Never say “kill me” seriously.

      The trick is to recognize the mind stealer and “other sorts of things” in time for you to do something about it.

  8. Donna Boe

    some of the symptoms you describe in yourself and in the care facility exist in all of our lives if we are over 70. I find myself forgetting words, but being able to describe what I mean -like playing “20”Questions” I also find myself with less energy, balance, and slower response time than 20 years ago, and my peers here seem to have similar signs of age. The big difference in ones I know are accidents (usually falling) or a terminal illness, but even those persons are pretty sharp mentally. Most of my friends are very involved in community activities or the non-credit university classes which I think helps to keep you mentally and physically active.
    Roger and I saw the movie “Still Alice” – very moving and awareness raising. -small signs of brain deterioration getting more and more until she and her husband had to recognize her dysfunction.
    My mother was in a care facility for a couple of years before she died. At the end, she could only recognize my father, but would “light up” and smile when she heard familiar music. I hope that nursing homes now days would offer more stimulation than the one in Albuquerque did, but when the aides are barely paid, and the rates for patients are so high, it’s doubtful. Be glad, Don, that you are in an “Old Folks Home” in Sweden, and not in the US
    You are correct in that the old folks you speak of are more than what they appear to you now on the surface. Locked in there are memories of their probably meaningful life. Sometimes when you really look into their eyes you can see the whole person, what they once were, and what they sometimes, occasionally, are now.

    1. Don Bay

      All humans deteriorate as they age, some more than others. I am no different albeit I went from uncommonly healthy for my age to suffering from an array of disabilities practically overnight. A small tumor and an unlucky operation were the culprits. To say I was shocked, even depressed, is to understate it. The depression rears its ugly head from time to time as the disabilities continue or grow with advancing age.

      The worst two are the inability to swallow and severely reduced hearing ability. They say deafness is worse than blindness. I don’t know, but it certainly tends to isolate the deaf person. I can hear a bit, and the dual hearing aids help, but I notice that I either miss something entirely or really have to focus on what a person is saying. The telephone is a challenge. TV and music are luxuries of the past.

      Do you realize how much of our social life revolves around eating? Family meals, dinners with friends, larger gatherings. Before, I enjoyed meals and conversation with my wife; now she eats alone or with others. Watching others enjoy eating became pure torture for me…so I absented myself at mealtimes. Now I’m fed through a tube into my stomach. The gift in this is that the hour it takes at each feeding gives me an opportunity to think, to solve the problem du jour, to plan my next blog piece. And the constant spitting to avoid drowning in my own saliva. There’s good and bad in every situation.

      Yes, I am lucky to be in an Old Folks’ Home in Sweden where my care is subsidized (although they’re cutting back these days to save money) instead of in America. Aside from my computer, my books and my little blog, my daily exercise behind my walker lets me bring a little light, a little change, into the narrow lives of the old folks down the corridor. What I have learned makes them more complete. It’s small, but at least it’s something.

      I envy the old folks who can eat and socialize, hear better and get around. Do I like my situation? No! But I cope. And I have my computer and distant friends, my blog, my books and my daily walks. The fears I have are that my mind is sharp despite momentary lapses and my genetic “gift” of longevity will guarantee awareness of my situation until the train reaches the end station. I find myself hoping that the end station is just around the next turn. Until then…

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