There was an old advertisement that asserted, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I’ve often thought of those words as I have seen more and more individuals afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Watching someone who once bore a quick wit slowly but surely become less and less aware is one of the saddest and most difficult aspects of growing older. It is especially hard on the caretakers of those individuals.
I used to possess a photographic memory. I was literally able to recall the exact page number and positioning of a fact from a textbook. I once answered a question on a history test while visualizing the caption under a photograph that contained the information. Back then I took my ability for granted, assuming that I would always be able to pull information from my brain with little or no effort. I have unfortunately learned as I age that I am less and less able to quickly find the information that I need from the recesses of my gray matter.
I’ve read that exercising the brain is as important as keeping the body healthy. Experts claim that performing mental activities regularly helps to keep forgetfulness at bay. That is partly the reason why I write daily and tutor young people in mathematics. Such activities force me to push my mind as much as working out on the elliptical activates the muscles in my legs. Nonetheless I all too often find myself groping for a familiar word or having to review a geometric definition for the umpteenth time. Just as my gait has slowed, so too has my mental acuity.
I don’t generally worry that I will somehow become less able to function with my mind because my genetics seem to be less inclined toward senility and more toward broken bones or gastrointestinal diseases. My grandfather was still reading and discussing lengthy history books at the age of one hundred eight and my mother was sharp and witty until the moment that she drew her last breath. I haven’t seen evidence of diminished brain capacity even among my aunts and uncles. Still I worry simply because I have seen so much of it in the families of my neighbors and friends.
There is a man who lives near me who is my age. He recently began to frighten me a bit because his behavior became erratic and he was making inappropriate comments. I found myself avoiding conversations with him because I truly wasn’t sure that I was safe around him. Soon enough another neighbor revealed that the unfortunate soul was suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. His wife had asked that we not drive him to the store for cigarettes and wine as we had unwittingly been doing.
Not long after hearing the reasons why the neighbor was acting so strangely his wife asked my husband to drive her to the scene of a car accident in which he had been involved. She tearfully recounted how he had stolen her car keys and snuck out of the house in an attempt to run away. He only got a few blocks down the road before he had wrecked the car. He could not remember how to call home but luckily his wallet contained the necessary information to alert his frantic family. As my husband drove her she literally begged for advice as to how to deal with the situation. She has been attempting to work which requires leaving him home alone. She was beginning to realize that he probably was no longer able to fend for himself in her absence.
The plight of those who have brain disorders along with the members of their families are heartbreaking. I have a dear friend who cannot leave her husband without finding a kind soul who will watch him in her absence. Her life has become far more insulated that it should be at her young age. One of my aunt’s lives in a retirement community with a husband in his nineties who is mostly unaware of his surroundings. She and her sister care for him without complaint but I know that they are the kind of women who love getting out and about, a freedom that they rarely enjoy these days.
A woman that I have known for years now lives in Georgia in a small apartment caring for her husband whose mental and physical health has been severely stressed by multiple strokes. Her days are repetitive and she is far away from friends and family. She is very much alone in her labors save for the visiting nurses who come a few times each week to give her an hour or so to herself. I talk with her via Facetime as often as I can but she really needs so much more support and it is not very abundant.
Still another friend visits her ninety something mother at a nursing home multiple times every single day just to be certain that her mom is getting the care that she needs. My longtime friend is a true angel who rarely complains that she must schedule her days to include those regular visitations. When she does have to leave town she has to find people who are willing to perform her duties. Sometimes that means hiring strangers and hoping that they will fulfill the responsibilities properly. In truth her trips are tainted with worry because few people invest the level of loving care into the duties as she does.
None of us ever really know when we or a loved one might begin to slowly lose mental capabilities. There are foods that we might eat and physical and mental exercises that will help, but in many cases the onset is simply inevitable. As more and more baby boomers age the epidemic only grows, impacting so many lives. Paying for care is increasingly expensive and usually results in families spending the victims into poverty. Some care facilities will accept Medicare once the individual is literally dead broke, but others are reluctant to deal with the multitude of paperwork involved. Many of those with brain disorders therefore stay at home, taxing the resources and patience of family members.
We hear a great deal about the medical needs of young people which is as it should be, but the stories of the elderly often remain hidden and forgotten secrets. We don’t often think of the individuals like my neighbor who spend their days in a kind of confused state. He was once a rather entertaining fellow who enjoyed attending parties and regaling us with funny stories. Now he barely makes sense as he reaches into the recesses of his mind for words and ideas. He is incredibly healthy aside for his Alzheimer’s. He might otherwise have been out enjoying his retirement with hobbies and trips. Now he is confined to a life so unlike his personality and even our attempts to visit with him seem to fall on a kind of blankness in his mind. It is so difficult to communicate with him on any meaningful level.
As more and more people enter the years when such diseases begin to show their symptoms we need to fund the kind of research that will result in improved memory or even a cure. It is not just the afflicted who suffer but their families and friends as well. Perhaps it is time that we have a month dedicated to learning more about such debilitating diseases. Maybe our sports teams need to wear special uniforms to remind us of those who are suffering. Yes, the mind is indeed a terrible thing to waste and yet somehow we have so many whose essence is being slowly erased and we do so little to talk about what we might do to help.