July 1st, 2010



I was home last week, visiting my 98-year-old father. He was doing well until February of this year. Since then he’s seriously declined physically and mentally. The mental changes are the hardest to take. Things he’s known for years are gone or only there intermittently. The confusion shakes his confidence. He thinks it’s morning but he’s never quite sure, and for some reason looking out the window doesn’t resolve his doubts. Numbers are now mostly a mystery. He called to tell us he’d just received a check for $2,100. He was right about receiving a check, but it was for $72—the $2,100 was the premium amount. I replaced his broken watch band with one just a bit different than his old one. Mastering how it worked took most of one afternoon.

He’s still with it enough to know that his thinking is flawed, that he makes mistakes and can’t do things he’s been able to effortlessly for years. I try to imagine how he must feel. My mind still works, so I only get glimpses. When I got home I picked up a knitting project I hadn’t worked on for a month. It’s a big, huge thing I’ve been working on since shortly after Christmas. But I couldn’t remember which way the yarn-overs went. I tried to figure it out from the pattern, but the more I thought about it the more confused I got and the more wrong yarn-overs I made. Even this minor mental confusion was totally frustrating. No wonder Dad is stressed, frightened, and depressed.

I tell myself that Dad is old. His mind has been a good and reliable guide for many years. What’s happening to him now should not be a surprise. That helps in my head but not in my heart.

But I did come home with a renewed appreciation for learning—what I have learned and use regularly and what I can still learn. The capacity to learn and to use what we’ve learned is one of those things that makes life worth living. When the mind delivers what we need or helps us understand something new, we take it for granted, unable to imagine its absence. Like so much else in life, learning is a gift to be used and enjoyed. But it is also one of those gifts that sometimes wears out.

  • Elizabeth Baile

    I am deeply touched by your words, as they match recent and ongoing experiences of my own: my 91-year-old mother, my life-long model of intelligence, common sense and wit, is in a rapidly descending spiral of dementia. And just this week, she's fallen and broken her hip-or perhaps broken her hip and fallen. The downhill slide seems inexorable, either way.

    You describe the loss of faculties, the puzzling, dismaying and frightening awareness that what was once so simple and automatic is now a void. We are grieved to witness this in the aging, yet it still seems part of the natural way of things. But when it strikes even closer to home, it's unsettling. This spring I was working on my income tax declaration, nerdily using paper and pencil for the math calculations, and I suddenly realized I couldn't be sure that I was subtracting correctly. My heart skipped a beat: was this a sign of things to come?

    My mother is forgetting how to remember, forgetting how to think, how to converse, how to tie her shoes, to manage a fork and knife–eventually, it will be even how to sip, chew and swallow. Unlearning…the downward, backward part of our full circle, the return to the seed.

    Elizabeth Baile
    Registrar, Academic Coordinator & Director of Advising
    Suffolk University Madrid Campus
    Madrid, Spain

  • leah

    i am experiencing almost the same thing like your mom does…im 32 years old but oftentimes forget many things…i cant even recall names of my neighbors and my friends….it must be the stress?or a sign of something dangerous?