‘Kissing it Better’ charity volunteers entertain retirement home residents in Stratford upon Avon, who have been diagnosed with dementia.
(29 October 2013, WILL OLIVER/AFP via Getty Images)
Life between winnowing and withering
By Russell E. Saltzman
Old age is the most unexpected thing that can happen to a person. Leon Trotsky is said to have said that or something very much like it. It’s the only thing I remember of the many things he is reputed to have said. There’s much I no longer recall at all.
Until lately old age and me, we were actually were getting along on fairly good terms. I thought we were growing comfortably cozier as the fat years of life gently turned lean. Until, oh, 14 months ago.
My wife noticed a few odd things, then one really big thing.
Was it late fall, 2020, the school year just underway?
That seems right.
I had a serious memory hiccup involving live worms that turned out to be dead worms by the time she found them. She ordered them for a science lesson with her fifth graders. I was to retrieve and refrigerate them. I could not remember them being delivered. It was clear they had, though I had no recollection of it, yet there they were, some days on in their full and by now odorously decaying glory.
In fact I had no recollection of the day at all. A small stroke, apparently on the day the worms were delivered, made sure of that. I tried to reconstruct the day; the deceased worms helped me a bit. (I bought replacements from a bait shop and delivered them to the school the next day.) I don’t remember what else my wife had been noticing but she was concerned and convinced me to be equally concerned, and with some reluctance I became concerned.
She sent me to my doctor who sent me for an MRI. It showed lots of “white matter” involving both hemispheres of the brain. I was aware of it from MRI ten years previous. No one at the time said much of the white space, not at the time. But then it wasn’t as extensive.
It was once thought that like tonsils, white brain matter was benign. It isn’t. I was unaware how serious it might be. Not that there is much to be done about it, it indicates a variety of brain damage caused by numerous abrading factors (old age being only one) that prevent blood from reaching the entirety of the brain. Some folks go on through life, white matter and all, with hardly a bother. Others do not; I am one of the bothered.
Diabetes is my deal; it restricts blood flow. (Gum disease is often one result of diabetes; and thank you, my gums are just fine.)
My doctor sent me on to a psychologist who put me through a battery of tests that confirmed a decline in cognitive functionality. I am said to have a “reduced physiological and brain reserve… .” The phrase “brain atrophy” also pops up. I hate it when that happens.
Generally this is lumped into “small vessel brain disease.” For short, it goes by SVD, which to me sounds faintly like an STD. Along with cognitive troubles SVD has produced small through thoroughly aggravating difficulties in walking (lurching), maintaining balance (wobbling while standing or standing while wobbling, whatever fits), gait (lurching and wobbling), and pace (no marching bands).
It also increases greater potential for a serious stroke. Those characteristics are ongoing and will likely worsen. Vascular dementia turns out to be much like every other sort of dementia.
I find myself sometimes doing an old man shuffle to get my feet going, negotiating travel in a series of small, small rapid steps until reaching speed. I find that more publically embarrassing than forgetting to raise my zipper to its proper elevation. I’m old; who’s looking anyhow? Shuffling, though: that probably means I’m delaying a line of impatient people who would happily trample me if permitted by law. Slow old people can be just so, so irritating.
Worse — I find it worse — this is the first piece I have finished writing since April 2020. I believe I started it four, perhaps five weeks ago. I go up to my study with my mind brimming with ideas and notions. I sit down before the screen with fingers poised above the key board and I have walked into a room where I cannot remember what I was coming after.
I wonder what I shall know if I can longer know myself. I had a funeral for a parishioner in my Lutheran pastorate days, a nice fellow with a plain garden variety dementia, not Alzheimer’s, not the sexy one everybody knows about. No, it was just a dementia. He shrank in upon himself, became less and less of himself, shriveling and his world with him. Sitting quietly alone as the end approached, rarely responding or reacting to anything or anyone. Where was his memory? Where was he? How are we ever again ourselves or, calling up a boomer rock song,, are we all just “slip siding away.”
When our daughters were young my wife would every morning make the Sign of the Cross on their foreheads and say, “Remember you are baptized.” I think in these loitering days it was as much a reminder to God as to them. If scripture is true and ours is a God of the living and not of the dead, then it must be a certainty of faith that if we forget, He remembers.
We will grow accustomed to one another, aging and me and SVD too. Perhaps together we shall find a way to take it all not very seriously, and in good humor.
Before entering seminary and becoming a Lutheran pastor (before becoming Roman Catholic), Russell E. Saltzman was a newspaper reporter, press secretary to a member of Congress, and deputy secretary of state of Kansas. Readers can find more of his writing in his First Things web columns and his Touchstone essays.