'Tis the season to think about our ancestral homes and aging relatives. Not that I don't think about them at other times, but in the past few weeks I have been mailing packages and cards and such to various relatives who live in or near the place where I grew up, far from where I live now.
My similarly-aged colleagues and I are at the point where, when we meet at conferences or elsewhere and the topic turns to Life, Family etc., a common element of the conversation is the declining health (or, in some cases, the decease) of parents. In recent years, on more than one occasion, collaborative research and planned research visits
have been postponed owing to a colleague's parental health crisis.
With time, I am sure more and more of us will be talking about and dealing with our own declining health, but for now, many of us are focused on our parents. Because most of us are academics who took whatever jobs were available, wherever those happened to be, most of us do not live geographically close to our ailing parents, adding another challenge to the situation.
As I am writing this (a few days before I will post it), it is my mother's birthday. She is physically very healthy, but, as I have mentioned in a few posts over the years, she has long been showing signs of some sort of dementia. I started noticing it quite a while ago, and, not surprisingly, the signs have gotten more obvious over the years.
Years ago, when it was clear to me that she was not going to mention her symptoms to her doctor, I talked to him. Instead of taking my concerns seriously, he was offended. He told me that (1) he is such an excellent physician that he would not miss signs of a problem, even if they were subtle, so who was I to tell him that she had a problem?, and (2) if I really cared about my mother, I would quit my job and move closer to her. This was a disturbing conversation, but my mother would not listen to a single word of criticism about her awesome physician.
Later, when the signs were impossible to ignore and I kept insisting that she talk to her doctor (the same doctor that I talked to), she finally did. He did some tests and prescribed Aricept.
She isn't going to get 'better', of course. And for now, she is enjoying life, despite having to stop doing some activities that previously were a major feature of her days. She can't process a lot of new information or complex ideas or concepts, and this also makes it difficult to have a conversation with her. For example, we can talk about liking or not liking a book or movie, but we can't discuss what about them we liked or disliked. To her, something is either "wonderful" or "dreadful", and there isn't really anything in between.
She can no longer keep track of new details of my life -- career milestones, travels, even my health. She asks the same questions over and over, tells the same stories over and over. She remembers little incidents from years ago and forgets major recent events. For now, this is all still in the realm of manageable, and just requires a lot of patience by those around her.
One of the strangest aspects (for me) is that she seems to be forgetting some aspects of who I am. That is, she still clearly remembers major facts that have not changed recently -- my name, where I live etc. -- but she seems to remember me as a different kind of person than I think I am.
To explain with an example: I have always loved to travel and I have always loved having adventures. My brother does not like either. He has to do some travel for work, but mostly he stays home, and that is what he prefers. This is not something we each developed as adults; these are traits that have been apparent since we were children. And yet, my mother 'remembers' that my brother is the adventurous one and I am not. When I tell her about some place I have been or something I have done, she gasps and says "But that's not like you! It's your brother who does things like that." Well, no, actually he doesn't. I do. There is no way to convince her of this. And then she forgets it all anyway and doesn't even remember that I went anywhere or did anything in particular, until the next time, when she is surprised again. It doesn't help to send her photographs or detailed descriptions; new information that she can't absorb just goes away.
That is a benign example. It doesn't really matter if she thinks my brother is adventurous and I am not, but other examples cut a bit closer to the heart in terms of who we are and who we have been to our mother. This, too, will never get 'better'.
What is she remembering and what is she forgetting? Is she making things up out of nothing? Are her memories rooted in the way she thinks people should be? How she wishes we were? Or is it all random, dependent on physical and chemical changes in her brain, not anything related to her real thoughts and memories? In most examples of her 'remembering' things as they aren't, I don't fare too well in terms of her perceptions of my personality, interests, and past actions. Where does that come from?
This year, as I selected gifts for her for her birthday and Christmas, I thought constantly about the state of her mind, as there are some gifts, including some books, that she would no longer enjoy. We used to exchange joke gifts, but now these just confuse her. She actually can't keep track anymore of who gives her what gift (this has been the case for the last few years), so I select things with the general hope that she will like them, even if she won't know who gave them to her a few minutes after she receives them.
Sorry if this post is a bit of a downer at a time when most academic types are decompressing and hoping to have a relaxing week or two with family and friends. I plan to enjoy the next few weeks as well, but I would like to extend a wish for peace, patience, and support to those facing similar issues with parents, relatives, or friends.