Creak, Memory

Anna Hoffman Robins, 1918

My father made it to almost-98, sharp as a tack the whole time (as near as I can tell, all his very long-lived siblings did except for the youngest one, who had some sort of dementia in the last few years of her life). My mother died relatively young, but was reasonably sharp. However, my father’s mother also had dementia for as long as I knew her (I was 14 when she died, and felt deeply swindled by fate, listening to all the stories about a Grannie Annie I never got to know). 

In the last couple of years I have been spending more time with my beloved Aunt, my mother’s sister. She is 92, and lost her husband of 46 years after a long, excruciating illness. Throughout her life my aunt was always the one who kept everything and everyone organized. She had a demanding job which she loved and did brilliantly, but more than that, she was a natural stage manager, keeping track of where everything was and making everyone play well together. But in the last five years, between focusing first on my uncle, and then on her grief, plus some of the ordinary ills the 92-year-old flesh is heir to, her ability to multitask and to remember things has taken a real hit. And therefore, so has her idea of who she is. She’s a proud woman, and to have to ask for assistance in keeping her affairs in order just annoys the hell out of her.

I’m also a stage manager by nature. I discovered this, fortunately, when I was doing theatre in college. I wanted to act, but my real talent was in keeping track of every one, making lists, and keeping the trains running on time, all while keeping half-a-dozen plates spinning in the air. And I suspect my Grannie Annie, who had to raise eight kids (all the while improving her English–she moved to the U.S. when she was eighteen) and a household, making clothes, helping out when needed with the store her husband ran in their latter years, was too. You don’t do that well unless you have a certain amount of organizational genius. So I come by it honestly. My anxiety, of course, is: will I come by dementia honestly? Is it sitting there waiting in my genes?

Cancer used to be the big health terror for many of the adults I knew (adults meaning, here, people older than I was). These days, as I move inexorably and mostly amusingly toward senior-hood, the terror is Alzheimers or some other form of dementia. Every time I walk into a room to do something and *plink* can’t remember what I meant to do, the episode gets added to the collection in my anxiety box. Words–particularly nouns–which should leap to the tip of my tongue play hide and seek when I want them. (This is particularly annoying because part of my day job is as a docent at a museum, and when people are following you around expecting to learn things, it’s useful to be able to summon up the names of the things.)

I do not, seriously, at this time, think I am starting a long, slow slide into dementia. But I do think I need to find new ways of thinking, and particularly, I need to reduce my multi-tasking. I need to remove distraction. If I can find a way to think clearly about one thing at a time, and make the six other things that would like to be considered first wait their time, I think that my memory will last for another 30-35 years. I certainly hope so.


Posted in family, Memory permalink

About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Creak, Memory — 7 Comments

  1. I’m sitting here at my mother’s, after a week of my turn at mom-sitting, because she cannot be left alone day or night, and none of us can afford care. So this is our lives now, and when it’s my turn I spend my days, and nights, with a mom who sometimes is not quite sure who I am, who can talk intelligently about the past but might walk out the door at 2:30 a.m. convinced she has an appointment somewhere, or at four a.m. bright and early, meaning to be helpful, put silverware in the microwave and crank it to an hour, apparently thinking it’s the dishwasher.

    I don’t think the fear of cancer has died down. At least, not in any family who has had to watch someone die a slow, painful death. But we’ve added another fear.

    • Yes, the fear of losing ourselves. On the other hand, maybe we don’t: maybe we just disappear deeper into the layers of our selves. Maybe it’s just everyone else that we lose—and they, us. So our fear is really being left on the outside, trying to see in, but not being able to make anything out.

      One of the unfortunate tradeoffs of living longer. With any luck, we’ll be able to work out an antidote.

  2. Yes, caring for my husband, whose dementia worsens daily, has made me doubt my own mind. I am tired a lot, trying to keep writing, and so on and so forth, but every time I forget a name or detail, I start to panic. I stop and remind myself that no, someone half my age would be forgetting things if they lived in my little world.

    Carry on. It’s all we can do.

  3. One small comfort: losing words is apparently just a function of getting older, and not necessarily a sign of creeping dementia. At least, that’s what I’ve read. It happens to me all the time too. Maybe it’s just extra scary because we’re writers, and language is supposed to be our forte.

    Sometimes I think that there’s a little imp inside my brain that sabotages me just for the fun of it: if I try to force a name or a word, it disappears. But if I relax and let it slide, it comes back to me. It’s like looking sideways at the stars—sometimes they become brighter and easier to see than when one stares at them directly.

    Mind, I also have to keep reminding myself that I’ve always relied heavily on my thesaurus, and I’ve never been good at speaking off the top of my head. So not all of this is entirely new…

  4. My father died of Alzheimer’s. I took care of him in the last few years of his life, though fortunately he moved into a senior community before the serious onset and was able to move from that to assisted living and then to the “memory” unit, where he was well-cared for. I recall that I resisted his move to the memory unit and yet, once my sister visited and made it happen, I was so relieved because I knew someone was looking out for him 24 hours a day.

    It took a toll on me nonetheless. The stress of losing someone before they’re completely gone is hard. But I also share your fear. I take after my father in many ways, including various physical issues. In the past, I used to joke that I was subject to every illness or condition my father ever had except an enlarged prostate. I don’t find that funny anymore.

    I don’t worry that the screw ups that happen every time I decide to get really efficient and do a lot of things at once are a sign of dementia, because they are the same screw ups that happened when I was in my 20s and tried to do the same thing. I never have been able to multitask.

    But I still worry.

  5. I think part of what’s so worrisome/terrifying is that it’s still not clear how much of this is genetic, how much is environmental, how much may be due to a frayed gene somewhere.

    Those of you who are dealing with this on the front line–Kit and Sherwood, in particular–have all my awe.