Dick Tracy: There are worse things than dying
More than the prospect of death, which is inevitable, I’m terrified at the possibility of dementia.
It’s a disease that’s decimated the lives of too many good friends in recent years, and we all may fall victim. Think of the malady like having an old trusted car in which the worn parts can still function, but it’s simply, “out of gas.”
I once thought dementia and Alzheimer’s were the same, but learned Alzheimer’s — a specific disease that limits the ability to learn and inhibits speaking, swallowing and walking — leads to more serious dementia.
Everyone I know who has experienced dementia in their later years was a bright, creative and wonderful person. That deepens the tragedy.
One was a high-profile attorney who defended the Iranian hostages. His wife, a federal magistrate, fell victim before he did. I can recall him saying: “We can’t travel anymore. If I get off an airliner and I have to use the men’s room, she disappears. Sure, I can call her cell phone, but will she answer it? Will she remember who I am? Can she tell me where she is?”
Jim was a talker. He loved the power of speech, In his final days he was still capable of speech, but was unintelligible. He and his wife were able to afford the best of care, but had to be separated before his death because he became physically abusive to a woman he’d loved and respected.
More recently, we were visited by old friends we hadn’t seen for some time. They both looked to be in good health, and Dave — a former school administrator in San Francisco — was having a lively and coherent conversation with my oldest son. Asked what he was up to, Dave said he had to get back home and work on a “big report” due the next day.
His wife, Gail, said quietly: “Except you’ve been retired for 19 years.”
Dave said nothing in response and just stared straight ahead.
Livy, our beloved friend in Boston whose last job was as a secretary to a Harvard University president, has joined the ranks with short-term memory loss. When she and her husband last visited we were in the middle of the PG&E blackout and she said, time and again: “No electricity? Are we in a Third-World country?” Meanwhile, her memory of our joint trips to France, Italy and Spain is clearer than mine.
And then there’s Frank, another pal from college days. While I spent an inordinate amount of time meeting with coeds over coffee in the student union, he was in the library, pursuing a doctorate in engineering. He wore his slide rule (remember them?) in a leather scabbard, in classes like trigonometry, calculus and differential equations. Later in life he worked among scientists at the Grass Valley Group. Concluding a successful career he enjoyed an online “coffee klatch” with like-minded friends and routinely sent me economist Paul Krugman’s columns for the New York Times. Then, nothing. His wife confirmed that in addition to Type II diabetes, he is struggling with dementia.
A longtime friend and highly successful rancher whose family lived here and in Hawaii had experienced an almost unbelievable string of surgeries for various ailments over the years, but always managed to endure.
Then his memory disappeared, placing an enormous burden on family. Among new habits, he would awaken in the early morning, get out crayons and begin coloring. Which meant his wife’s getting up, too, to tend to his well being. Every single night for the rest of his life.
The burden on caregivers is incredibly cruel. They’re watching loved ones — who look familiar — turn into empty vessels who need care normally given to an infant. And, those people may not respond in kind to this love.
One relative, whose husband was a highly successful businessman, sportsman, sailor and entrepreneur searched high and low for a mental health facility that was both homelike and secure. That lasted a few days until she was called to please pick him up. In sheer terror at her absence, he was breaking down doors in the facility and screaming her name.
Research into possible cures for dementia is enormous, and thus far unsuccessful. We senior citizens probably all know of cases such as the ones cited here, and cross our fingers the same fate won’t befall us. I tackle crossword puzzles in hopes it strengthens the part of the brain that declines with dementia. (I do them in pen, not because I’m so smart, but it’s easier to read.)
Although it may seem a futile gesture, one way we can help the situation is to listen to the caregivers, and offer all the help and understanding we can.
Locally, too, we have the services of such groups as the Dignity Health Neurological Services Institute of Northern California online at firstname.lastname@example.org and physician referral services at (800) 402-0106.
Another source of help is through Cascades of Grass Valley senior living community, 415 Sierra College Drive, where 2 to 3 p.m. meetings are held on the third Friday of the month. For details, call Brianna Phillips or Pepsi Pittman at 530-272-8002.
Dick Tracy, who lives in Grass Valley, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.
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