I can vividly recall the first time my mother did not recognize me. Near the end of her life dementia had started to ravage her mind and she was slowly losing her sense of identity, belonging, and personality. Her existence during the final months of her life was accompanied by profound memory loss, as if life and death had decided to take parts of her away in advance. The memory loss she experienced had started making everything in her world strange, unfamiliar, and obscure. Reality and fantasy had become nearly indistinguishable for her. She had lost the story of her own life.
It is probable that my father suffered from dementia as well, though it was never formally diagnosed. In his case, his short-term memory seemed to have the greatest challenge, that is, a conversation that occurred only moments before would re-emerge minutes later in his mind as if it had never occurred. Immediately after my mother’s death he seemed to lose his will to live; there was an absence of purpose, motivation, and enthusiasm in his spirit. And then in the space of a few short months after my mother’s death he passed away.
Aging is not a cause of memory loss; it is entirely possible to move through the second half of life with an active and resilient mind. As we become older, however, normal age-related change alters the dynamics of thinking, learning, and remembering. We may experience a normal increase in forgetfulness coupled with a gradual slowing down of our ability to retrieve and recall facts and information.
Normal aging does not impair our common sense, ability to make decisions, or the insights, knowledge and wisdom we have acquired during the course of our life. Still, senescence does mean that we must accept a gradual loss in the resilience and integrity of the body. These poignant dimensions of aging, that is to say, the inevitable increase in vulnerability we are destined to experience, are both unavoidable and irrevocable.
A certain degree of forgetfulness in life is normal. It is somewhat ironic to consider that when we forget something we still retain the memory of having forgotten something in the first place. Forgetfulness does not imply complete amnesia or dementia, that is to say, inside forgetfulness remains the possibility of retrieval. Forgetfulness is, in this sense, a form of temporary memory loss.
Dementia invites a more ferocious form of memory loss in the sense that the possibility of retrieval is dramatically impaired and improbable. Dementia devastates our sense of identity, personality, relationships, belonging, and familiarity. Unlike the fleeting and temporary nature of forgetfulness, dementia attacks the possibility of retrieval and destroys the ability to realize that we have forgotten something in the first place.
Dementia is a syndrome, or collection of diseases, that attacks on the mind. The root of dementia is “dement,” which means “madness” or “out of one’s mind.” Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia and it has devastating consequences on the functional capacity of the mind. It has been poignantly described as “the great unlearning.”
When our memory begins to become unhinged our personality fragments into incoherence, our uniqueness begins to deteriorate, and our distinctiveness begins to break apart. Dementia makes us strangers to ourselves, our family and friends, and to the world around us.
My mother’s dementia revealed to me that large parts of us can die before death comes to take us away.
The profound sense of loneliness and isolation felt by a person suffering from dementia can only be unimaginably painful. In my mother’s dementia, there were moments of awareness in which she was able to come back into herself and reanimate her identity, only to be swept away once again to a realm that was inaccessible to me. There is a virulent brutality in dementia and the attendant memory loss it imposes that challenges the spirit of even the most resilient caregivers among us.
Even a painful memory is better than none at all because we are at least still fully participating in the unfolding of our life.
Although I discussed my parents’ past with them when they were alive, I now wish I had of done so with much greater sensitivity and perspective. The memories of having them in my life are now one of most cherished possessions; I only wish I had more of them to cherish.
As we become older our task is not as much to simply preserve our memories in a kind of museum of the mind, but instead to creatively shape and cultivate our memories into a sense of meaning, purpose, and ultimately wisdom for the benefit of those who remain here after we are gone.
In an important sense, we should undertake the generous and creative work of “giving” our memories to our loved ones while we still can.