(Reclaimed from Bubblews, where it appeared on January 23, 2014. Topic credit: Suzzycue posted http://www.bubblews.com/news/2126056-memories. Image credit: Cohdra at Morguefile.com.)
An e-friend, actually my very first e-friend and a long-term pen friend before that, wrote some of the world's most interesting letters and blog posts up to the year 2010. Then her husband became ill, they gave up their quirky country house and moved to an apartment in town, a doctor persuaded her to have one of those routine tests some doctors urge all senior citizens to have, and a few weeks later another e-friend reported that she'd been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. I find that hard to believe. For all I know, stress and medication can do to a brain in a few months what "true" Alzheimer's Disease does over several years, but I don't believe she has "real" Alzheimer's Disease.
A great-uncle was vague, slow, only barely in touch with reality when I met him. Not only did he not remember who people were; he didn't seem able to tell people's age or gender, and he also seemed very confused about the furniture in his house, whether an object was a chair or a piano, a bed or a table, a flowerpot or a toilet. "Alzheimer's Disease" wasn't yet a popular term, although doctors were using it; local people told me my great-uncle was "senile." "Senile" means "like an old man," which the great-uncle certainly was. However, when he started eating a blood pressure control diet, his blood pressure dropped, his medication was reduced, and his mind came back. He remembered people's names, told stories, even remembered the songs he used to sing, and showed us the way to the homes of friends who hadn't expected they'd ever sing old songs with him again.
My husband had seemed much younger than he was for years, until he became ill and started looking much older. Suddenly even people we knew started talking around him rather than to him, sometimes even after he'd spoken sensibly to them. I remember feeling greatly annoyed by the way even hospital staff, who were supposed to have been taught better, seemed to want to assume that anyone they considered "old" was also "senile" and out of touch...even telling one of the "black-haired twits," an intern who asked whether my husband had seemed "intelligent," that "He probably has the highest I.Q. in this building." I could actually see, though, how challenging, complicated, and intimidating it was to try to get any idea how much my husband did understand at different stages of illness, how much easier it was to write him off as a senile patient who could just be fed and given painkillers for a few months and then buried. I'm not sure I would have been up for the challenge, either, in the absence of any personal attachment to the hope that he could be cured and get back to normal life.
Like most people who are very ill, but not with Alzheimer's Disease, my husband had more alert and less alert times. Sick patients' mental functions react to many factors in their physical condition: reactions to medication, the disease process itself, fever if any, nutrient imbalances if any (and sick patients usually have imbalances), the strain of medical tests. Sometimes a severe blood mineral imbalance kept my husband from being fully conscious, even when he didn't seem to be asleep; if he did speak, he might not make sense, and he wouldn't remember the conversation later. At other times he might be weak but still as intelligent as ever.
Even when people do have Alzheimer's Disease, it usually takes several years for all recent memories and intellectual function to disappear. There is a time for writing patients off and settling for "creating moments of joy" by playing along with their delusions, but, before that time comes, there's also a time for respecting their decisions, enjoying their memories, appreciating their intelligence, helping them stay as active as they choose to be, and overlooking any lapses of memory that may occur. "Black-haired twits" are the ones who forget that they, too, misplace keys from time to time, and the way they see us treating the older generation is the way the younger generation will one day treat us.
The "good" days older patients have are some of the last, best memories we will have, and deserve to be cherished. The longer some understanding can be preserved, even when confusion starts to make a patient's rational remarks cryptic, the less painful the parting will be.