We sat behind a couple in church this morning who we have known for a very long time. They are older and we see them frequently at local restaurants where they eat breakfast every day. We always stop at their table to say hi, and they are a friendly and kind couple.
Martha is in the early stages of dementia – we recognize the signs because JB’s mother suffered (and also our family, collaterally) from it for many years. This morning, during the time when we greeted each other with a passing of the peace of Christ, Martha wandered a little too far in the sanctuary – across to the next isle. A friend brought her back, saying “Here’s Don” as her husband stepped aside so she could slide into the pew. Martha was returned to him about two seconds after I saw the panic in his quick scan of the area because Martha wasn’t where he had left her as he said hello to friends around him.
Martha was really pissed. As she sat down she mumbled, sarcastically “Are you Don? Like I don’t know who you are!” And she seemed to stew for quite a few minutes. When she first became disoriented, I’m sure she felt some fear but by the time she was guided back to where she wanted to be the fear had morphed into anger.
I think I can understand this type of anger, now that I’m experiencing some of the losses that come with becoming old – understand it from my heart and gut, not just in my head from reading it in a book sometime along the way to here. My hunch is that Martha was angry because she was embarrassed, felt the shame of not being who she knew she was, of not being mentally competent enough to… Find her way back to her seat in church.
I didn’t see the scene of when Martha became confused but I would guess that she looked confused and asked, almost to herself, “Where’s Don?” Her friend could have pointed Don out, but because the friend had been sitting in front of them, she took Martha’s hand, walked her the few feet to where they had been sitting, and said, “Here’s Don.” I can see myself doing the same thing for Martha. But Martha knew what had happened and her sense of self fought back. Her memory had failed her in a way that shouldn’t fail adults – people who have always been competent and capable – especially of finding their way back.
I grieve for Martha, and I am vigilant. I am aware that I am loosing small, itty-bitty pieces of myself in a slow but steady pace. I worry about small signs that I see in my aging loved ones, those signs that may or may not be leading to serious loss of abilities.
When I am with friends we talk about whether it would be harder to loose mental or physical functioning. We wonder if people with dementia ever reach the happy place where they don’t recognize that they have lost their ability to make decisions about the most basic of human being. We worry about becoming socially cut off, left out of social gatherings, if we become physically disabled. And of course we worry about becoming dependent on others for our most basic needs – like being fed, and bathed and toileted.
What seems strange about these musings is that I have been reading about what to do to help myself remain vibrant and “youthful.” I work puzzles and keep active, both socially and physically. I usually eat healthy. But the truth is that I am going to lose mental and physical capacities – I already have. And I don’t know what the future will bring forth. All I can do is have faith that I will adjust in a mostly graceful fashion, and will find meaning and pleasure in my remaining days. I sure hope so.