Thursday, December 9, 2010

Our Mind's Best and Last Gift

Berkley, c. 1924

In the course of the decline of my mother’s health, I’ve learned some surprising things. The easiest thing to notice is the shortening of the attention span. This becomes evident when you start repeating stories just a few minutes after you last told them. Your children and the other people around you can become frustrated, even angry, about this. But over time they adjust and recognize that something’s going on with you, that maybe they have to keep a little closer watch on you. (And by all means, take away the car keys!)

My mother wasn’t always an easy person to be around. She carried the baggage of some tough personal history heavily. She was on a first-name basis with depression. She nursed grudges for decades. Her choices cost her comfort and relationships. But she marched on defiantly to the beat of her own drummer, searching for answers and explanations for her life.

Rather than these behaviors becoming more extreme as she aged, though, advancing senility washed a lot of the hostility away. An ever-shortening attention span narrowed her focus and memory. No longer the proudly independent and fiercely reclusive person that she was for much of her mid-life, dementia made my mother into the sweet little old lady that everyone at the assisted living facility liked to stop in and chat with. That she’s held onto her good looks made her a favorite among some of the older single guys at the facility who still have a few stirrings of romance.

My mother’s condition has recently declined seriously. She’s at the center of a perfect storm of adverse health conditions, any one of which could be fatal, but none of which has quite tipped her over yet. It’s really quite sad, especially because even the most humane approach to her treatment has the potential to be more arduous than a person of her age and condition should have to suffer.

But it turns out there’s something of a silver lining to this stage of life. I’m not an expert on these things. But I gather than senility gradually transitions into dementia. It’s not an insane thing, but rather a deterioration of cognitive capacity that makes thoughts bounce around the head like ping-pong balls rather than follow a logical path. Names come into conversation that you haven’t heard in years. She sees and has conversations with people who haven’t been alive for decades. Sometimes if you walk out of her room and then back into it a few minutes later, she’ll greet you as if she hasn’t seen you in ages.

This can be a little disconcerting the first few times you experience it. You can easily become frustrated that the important conversation you just had with her has just as quickly left her verbal mind. But over time I’ve come to recognize that dementia might just be our body’s last and best gift to us as we approach the end of life.

My mother’s dementia prevents her from feeling the cumulative weight of all she’s been through. She lives in the moment, and as long as she’s comfortable in the moment she has no fears about the future. When you’re preparing to leave her room she remembers the manners her mother taught her and thanks you for coming to visit.

In describing the way dementia is protecting his mother, a good friend writes:

“… she would certainly be severely depressed at her condition and prospects if she could think beyond the moment. I would never have thought such a thing was a blessing, but I do now.”


I was not around in 1924 to take the confused picture shown above. (I suspect it was taken by my maternal grandfather, who would himself leave the scene not long thereafter.) It shows my grandmother with her three children and what may be her sisters and their children in front of her house in the Berkley section of Norfolk. The double (or triple) exposure seems a good metaphor for the slipping memory of old age.


  1. Oh, what a poignant post, Chris! So lovely. And yes--I agree--that photo is a perfect accompaniment to it.

    Your words remind me of an incident with my paternal grandmother: at the end of her life, we knew she was slipping away cognitively, but one day she really took us by surprise. My dad was on the phone with her. She had been an immigrant to the US, and she was always nervous on the phone. No one should waste their good money on her using the telephone, you know. But on this occasion, she and my dad had chatted about various and sundry things for quite some time. He was congratulating himself on catching her in a very lucid moment. Suddenly, he described to us that there was a long pause in their conversation, and she asked, innocently, "'s your mother?"

  2. Chris,

    Having been through and going thru similar experiences I totally get what you are sharing. Thank you for putting it all so poignantly. For me, these experiences allow us (if we choose) to grow beyond our self-imposed boundaries. We learn that we still have much to learn about life from our parents even in their "declining years" such as living in the present moment (for it truly is all we have - even when we are vibrant and healthy). It is wonderful to see it all put so succinctly...thank you for sharing what is in your heart so openly.

  3. I second Sue's comment about the poignancy of this post and the appropriateness of the photo. There's nothing else to say except to wish you and your mother good luck.

  4. You perfectly describe our experiences with my father as he progressed through dementia and into Alzheimer's. I think you're right about it being the last and best gift.

  5. In the category of aging parent, I appreciated this post. Time's a'comin' for us, too and I thank you for your insight.

  6. You really having amazing abilities to notice and capture life in many different forms, a deep personal story about your Mom or the life you see in a tree or building.
    With your Mom I see a picture in your words beyond the older photograph. I see a man with the eyes of a boy looking at his Mom and seeing her heart and found pieces of his own life. Keep looking. Your presence to her is priceless. Your courage to be there will continue to be life giving to yourself.