Many of us have reached the age in which we have parents who are, obviously, at a much more advanced age. And due to the fact that medicine has made great strides in keeping the human body functioning for much longer than ever before, often the human mind tends to falter before the body is ready to throw in the towel.
And, as many of us are learning . . . this is not always a blessing.
I have good friends and many acquaintances who are dealing with the heartbreaking reality of dementia and its big brother, Alzheimer's Disease. I've now joined this not-so-exclusive club. And it's not pretty.
To have known someone your entire life and - in my case, having had great respect and admiration for this person - to see him slip into a vulnerable and sometimes humiliating state of being is humbling and confusing. I still want my dad to tell me what to do in a tough situation; I want him to comfort me when I'm sad; I want him to give me solid business and financial advice. These are things my dad did for me without question or judgment. Hopefully I've learned my lessons well.
Dad isn't removed from us yet. He knows who's who and what's what. But he has trouble with the details - like how old he is or what his father's name was. He can still comfort me if I'm sad . . . but it's pretty much the same dialogue as we may have had 20 years ago. He looks good, retains his manners and is the consummate gentleman. But he may forget your name if you've only met him in the last couple of years. And whenever he's at a loss for words or catches himself in a tricky situation, he resorts to humor. It usually works and lightens the mood. And his dignity is restored.
It's an insidious and demeaning condition. And I'm aware that doctors and scientists are working on finding the causes - environmental and genetic - of this overwhelming malady. But it probably won't happen in my dad's lifetime. And it might not happen in mine.
So - here's what I plan to do for my own self to keep the mental juices flowing: Read, study, learn, write, talk, laugh, argue, sing, cultivate, create, dance, play ... and I may even frolic. Because if you play and frolic, who's really gonna know if you've got all your marbles or not?
All kidding aside, I hope that someday the powers that be - who are people much more educated about brain activity than me - can find a way to keep the brain functioning as well as the body for as long as the two need each other.
In the meantime, let the people dear to you know how you feel. There may come a time when they don't remember your name, but they know that you are a person that makes them feel loved, happy and safe. And don't be a stranger. See them often and hold their hands. Imagine how you might feel drifting in a hazy reality that offers more questions than answers. Now's your time to step up and be strong for them. If it's one of your parents, let them know they raised a child with love and dignity - and show them the same.
On a related note, I read a long and involved article in the November issue of Esquire magazine entitled "The Brain That Changed Everything." The story doesn't address Alzheimer's Disease specifically, but it's a good story that may, some day, be instrumental in figuring out some of the mysteries of the brain. If you've got a little time on your hands, check it out here
Now . . . I'm going to call my dad.