By Stuart Greenbaum
“Does she know what she’s having?” Mom asked.
“Yes. A girl,” I answered.
“Ooh, that’s wonderful! All the other great-grandkids are boys,” she said with a big smile.
“That’s right. Everyone is excited for a girl,” I agreed.
Several minutes later Mom asked, “Does she know what she’s having?”
“Yes. A girl,” I again answered.
“Ooh, that’s wonderful! All the other great-grandkids are boys,” she said again with a big smile.
“That’s right. Everyone is excited,” I again agreed.
Barely another minute passed, and Mom asked again, “Does she know what she’s having?”
“Yes. A girl,” I answered
She smiled and exclaimed, “Ooh, that’s wonderful. All the other great-grandkids are boys.”
“That’s right. Everyone’s excited,” I admitted.
This tragicomedy continued for another rerun or two until I introduced a non sequitur to switch up the storyline. If possible for a moment to set aside the heartbreak of witnessing a loved one — in this case my 92-year-old mother (of three, grandmother of six and great-grandmother of seven) — go down the rabbit hole of cognitive decline, it is fascinating to consider the incomprehensibility of memory.
Some individuals experiencing dementia are fortunate to retain and access a sturdy reservoir of personal and practical history. For a few their compromised brain even manages on occasion to make room for new thoughts and actions. But more often, the manifestation likens to a child catching and releasing the same fish over and over. Luckily, the brain seems to graciously reconcile and adapt to diminishing reality. The upside, a sort of guilty pleasure, at least my mother was happy each and every time I told her she was getting her first great-granddaughter.
BEFORE IT WAS WONDERFUL
My mother’s now blissful memory lapses were preceded by a mercifully brief, but anguished stage of pre-dementia limbo. As with other families, we tried to make peace with her months-long journey on the lonely road through memory-loss purgatory — winding down and around the serpentine path leading full-on dementia sufferers from awareness, to anxiety, to apathy, to their inevitable final destination, oblivion.
Every so often she had the wherewithal to concede she was disappearing — and could only imagine how much she’d forgotten. “Thank you for being so understanding and patient with me,” she would say, as we would attempt to conceal our sorrow.
Daily reminiscing sessions in search of lingering nuggets from her purposeful longevity helped for a bit. Her youth was a fun topic, even if the confabulated stories and timelines of her “second childishness,” so named by Shakespeare, were cartoonishly elastic. The hodgepodge of dates and locations and experiences were entertaining if nothing else. But the toll of her progressive disorder and fragile, hiccupping mentation was insurmountable. And the mindless succession of losing battles devolved to a futile war of attrition.
MORE OR LESS STILL HERE
Two years on, today Mom needs to be reminded of the names of her first and now second and third great-granddaughters. At first the misfiring synapses were bothersome to her. She would acknowledge our subtle prompts with an unassuming smile or awkward laugh. Nowadays there is no longer any effort to recall; she simply asks matter-of-factly.
Sooner than later, the ravenous disease claims all memories — first the immediate, short-term stuff; gradually, the entire trove. Family and friends, we must be determined all the while not to show our despair as the degenerative process slowly devours our loved one’s mind and history, inevitably including their relationship with us.
Empathy is our saving grace. It encourages us walk a mile in another’s shoes. Not to judge or necessarily understand, simply to accept the way it is. To appreciate that for individuals living with dementia it is positively wonderful to relive moments of real joy over and over.
Stuart Greenbaum is a veteran public relations counselor. He is the editor of Longevity Rules, a compendium of authoritative essays on aging well, as well as lead writer for the Humble Sky culture blog and author of the new novella, also titled Humble Sky. He lives in Sacramento, California.