My father made it to almost-98, sharp as a tack the whole time (as near as I can tell, all his very long-lived siblings did except for the youngest one, who had some sort of dementia in the last few years of her life). My mother died relatively young, but was reasonably sharp. However, my father’s mother (seen left) also had dementia for as long as I knew her (I was 14 when she died, and felt deeply swindled by fate, listening to all the stories about a Grannie Annie I never got to know).
In the last couple of years I have been spending more time with my beloved Aunt, my mother’s sister. She is 92, and lost her husband of 46 years after a long, excruciating illness. Throughout her life my aunt was always the one who kept everything and everyone organized. She had a demanding job which she loved and did brilliantly, but more than that, she was a natural stage manager, keeping track of where everything was and making everyone play well together. But in the last five years, between focusing first on my uncle, and then on her grief, plus some of the ordinary ills the 92-year-old flesh is heir to, her ability to multitask and to remember things has taken a real hit. And therefore, so has her idea of who she is. She’s a proud woman, and to have to ask for assistance in keeping her affairs in order just annoys the hell out of her.
I’m also a stage manager by nature. I discovered this, fortunately, when I was doing theatre in college. I wanted to act, but my real talent was in keeping track of every one, making lists, and keeping the trains running on time, all while keeping half-a-dozen plates spinning in the air. And I suspect my Grannie Annie, who had to raise eight kids (all the while improving her English–she moved to the U.S. when she was eighteen) and a household, making clothes, helping out when needed with the store her husband ran in their later years, was too. You don’t do that well unless you have a certain amount of organizational genius. So I come by it honestly. My anxiety, of course, is: will I come by dementia honestly? Is it sitting there waiting in my genes?
Cancer used to be the defining health terror for many of the adults I knew (adults meaning, here, people older than I was). These days, as I move inexorably and mostly amusingly toward senior-hood, the terror is Alzheimers or some other form of dementia. Every time I walk into a room to do something and *plink* can’t remember what I meant to do, the episode gets added to the collection in my anxiety box. Words–particularly nouns–which should leap to the tip of my tongue play hide and seek when I want them. (This is particularly annoying because part of my day job is as a docent at a museum, and when people are following you around expecting to learn things, it’s useful to be able to summon up the names of the things.)
I do not, seriously, at this time, think I am starting a long, slow slide into dementia. But I do think I need to find new ways of doing my thinking, and particularly, I need to reduce my multi-tasking. I need to remove distraction. I know that goes against the current trend that valorizes juggling (look! she can parent, work a 40 hour work, decorate cakes, and invent cold fusion in her spare time!) as heroic. I was always proud of my ability to keep balls dancing in the air. But I don’t think it serves me well now. So if I can find a way to think clearly about one thing at a time, and make the six other things that would like to be considered first wait their time, I think that my memory will last for another 30-35 years. I certainly hope so.