After two years of experiencing rapidly progressing dementia, my cognitive difficulties seem to have stabilized. I know it just might be wishful thinking, but my problems have remained the same for several months now.
That’s not to say I don’t need help with still too-frequent memory lapses or when I find myself in some unfamiliar situations, but I welcome the lack of further regression.
There is a certain monotony to dementia’s near-constant presence. Many writers have described the malady as a thief or a robber of memory and cognition. My dementia bandit strikes unpredictably, but is predictable as to regularity, often invading everyday conversations. Friends don’t always realize they have found a memory hole when talking about past events.
It happened recently when one of my closest friends who I thought had always lived in Orangevale reminded me that I helped him install an antenna on his home a few years ago when he lived in Folsom.
I have learned to live with, and occasionally laugh at, forgetfulness, or needing to rely on the wonders of computerized directional assistance to find my way to places I’ve visited many times. And I am getting used to losing things despite attempts to maintain order by having a specific resting place for hearing aids, rings, glasses, television controllers and other routine items.
That doesn’t help, though, when you’re traveling. On a recent trip to the East Coast, I left a windbreaker in the trunk of an Uber car, left my sunglasses at an airport checkpoint and a hotel lobby, left my regular glasses in a rental car, and was momentarily lost walking the streets of New York City, where fierce-looking officers carrying assault rifles are actually friendly and helpful to tourists. I got my sunglasses back from airport and hotel security, my friend gave me his windbreaker, and the rental company informs me every three days that it has not yet found my glasses.
These are occurrences many friends attribute to “senior moments” that they, too, experience from time to time. I blissfully want to believe that routine aging is what I am experiencing. I love that concept so much better than the alternative.
Prior to a doubling of my medication, I experienced moments when I didn’t remember where I was or why I was there. The confusion was deep and complete for several minutes on a number of occasions. Now my symptoms appear to be limited to severe short-term memory lapses, major memory “holes” from throughout my past, anxiety over unfamiliar places or routines, and an occasional inability to “think straight” or mentally sort out what should be simple problems.
Call it aging or, like my doctors, call it “cognitive dementia.” Whatever it is called, it’s not a lot of fun. One in nine Americans experience dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, and 80 percent of them develop Alzheimer’s disease, dementia’s most horrific form.
Reader responses to this column paint an overall dementia landscape of harsh, sometimes tragic and emotional realities among dementia sufferers and their loved ones.
“My husband had a stroke in early 2012 and has vascular dementia as well as diabetes,” wrote one woman. “He is currently in the hospital facing losing a couple of toes and he doesn’t entirely understand why.”
But love also exudes from many reader responses. “It is sad that she cannot remember so much of our rich history together, or when I have just visited,” wrote a daughter. “She is still happy to see me. I can still make her laugh. She loves listening to my stories and I love listening to the ones she still remembers. She still loves me and I still love her and that is all that matters in that moment. And when she forgets that we just had a wonderful conversation or visit, it’s OK. We’ll just have another one”.
Learning to go with the flow of dementia clearly helps many people cope. “She has entered into sort of an ‘ignorance is bliss’ phase. She seems content and at peace to remain at home doing what new routines suit her,” wrote a reader. “Her old worries and anxieties are gone. All she remembers to eat is Neapolitan ice cream, and she just wants to sit in the sun on her porch all day. Instead of arguing with her about getting a haircut, allowing a cleaning lady in her home … or forcing her to go out to family events because we think that’s what will make her happy, we have just let her do the simple things that make her happy. Why not? She’s 91. If she wants to eat nothing but ice cream, I say let her.”
Another reader shared a story about the now-deceased Pastor David MacMurdo, founding pastor of St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Sacramento. “When he was in his 90s and struggling with dementia, he went on a cruise with his wife. The next time I saw him I asked him how it went. He replied, “Don, I don’t remember one thing about it, but I know I had a good time every day.”
That’s a philosophy that can enrich everyone’s life.
Kent Pollock is a retired journalist and journalism professor. He was formerly the assistant managing editor of The Sacramento Bee and editor of the Anchorage Daily News. Please share your perspectives, insights and comments with him at firstname.lastname@example.org