I was terrified. Looking back, I can say nothing in my life frightened me as much as this.
For a short time, many years ago, I worked in an Alzheimer’s ward in a large retirement complex. Part of my work was to encourage social interaction and group activities. Sounds easy, but in fact almost impossible for me. This was my first encounter with Alzheimer’s. The ward was pleasant and bright. The large television was always on. At first glance the aged patients looked normal. But they weren’t. They didn’t know who they were or where they were. Their memories were gone, and they were lost. I was told that two of the most mobile, and seemingly alert, were doctors. Not only that, but they were also husband and wife. However, they no longer recognized each other. Horrors! It prayed on my mind and kept me awake at night.
Then I lost my car keys.
That was it. Panic! I was on the slippery slope which leads to Alzheimer’s. My wife ridiculed the idea, but I dismissed her comments. What did she know about such things? Hesitantly, I asked the ward doctor was Alzheimer’s ‘catching’. He said it was not. But he smiled as he said it and I had trouble believing him. The car keys were found and in a few days my panic had subsided. However, the dread of this terrible progressive disease has never left me.
Now back to organising group activities. I was used to engaging with older people. Usually, I could interest them, spend time with them, they could interest me, but my best efforts were met with blank stares. However, almost accidentally, I hit on something that worked. They liked to sing - not any songs, but songs from their childhood. The national anthem and God Save Our Gracious Queen were favourites. Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Away in a Manger and Jesus Loves Me were favorites. How is it that when all else fades, these songs from their early years remain? I don’t know the full answer, though my studies do help me understand. What is very clear is that their blank faces light up when they sing or hum these old tunes. Some know every word when they can’t even remember their name.
Now, as I move into my senior years this matter of memory loss and/or Alzheimer’s is upfront and personal. How embarrassing it is when I meet a person I have known for years, and I can’t remember his/her name! Or what about when I sit down to do something routine on my computer and I can’t remember where to start. Eventually, the answer comes, but the recall, which used to be instant, is slow.
Actually, this is rather like my regular experience with computers. Principally, I work with one computer. Sometimes, the speed slows down and there is reluctance to follow my commands. When this happens, I call in a friend to help me sort things out. This sorting out process involves three things – 1) Discarding files that are of no value; 2) Storing interesting files that are not needed at this moment in folders off my hard drive; 3) Placing the files I am currently working with front and centre on my screen.
That’s what I need to do now with my brain; evaluate the matters that are relevant and important to me now and put them front and centre. As far as possible, discard matters, memories that have no present relevance to me, especially those which involve resentment, failures (my own or what others have done or not done to me). Memories of loved ones, deceased and marvelous life adventures, are certainly to be stored, but not in the front of my consciousness.
I guess what I am saying to myself at this stage of life is SIMPLIFY. Focus on things that matter now. My brain is still working, maybe a bit slower, but then again maybe with more insight. And above all, I tell myself, don’t panic.
Recently, I attended a formal function where certificates were awarded. During the certificate ceremony, they play some appropriate old songs - songs of my youth. Believe it or not, but as I sang along, I cried. I didn’t mean to, but I did. Hey, maybe, there’s a clue here. As we get older, we should sing more.