Getting Old With a Sense of Humor
This past week has been a little brutal on my ego. My fictitious self (the me I hold in high regard) has seen its reflection in various external realities and has taken a mortal blow.
At least I hope it has.
You see, I’ve had to acknowledge all in one breath that I’m not as clever as I thought I was; I’m not all that kind or thoughtful of others; my conversation skills have dulled; and my hair isn’t really red (all this self-revelation is partly due to reading Crazy Love—a book that spoons out truth about the self in a cod-liver-oil kind of way: nasty; painful; healing).
I’ve been thinking a lot about my hair in particular, perhaps as a metaphor for all the other traits I have to face up to in myself. My hair—which appears rich and red and full to others—is actually flimsy and almost entirely white. If you look close enough and run your fingers through the root system, the truth is quite apparent: I’m somewhere between grizzly gray and snow white. And as metaphor, I’m thinking it’s time to go white once and for all. It’s time to stop covering up the truth.
Just one thing holds me back: the stigma of white. No, not that elegant, brilliant white, but the mousy salt-and-pepper white. It’s terrifyingly old. I know the difference it would make at the supermarket, at the realtor’s office, at a job interview. I’m young; I should not have to place myself in the old category just yet. Lushious red gives you youth and authority. Mousy gray, and it’s an uphill battle to convince others you can still think. It’s ridiculous that pigment can make the world go ’round, but there you have it.
I know you’re wondering why I’m talking about hair in a blog about dementia, but you’ve probably sensed the connection. Aging has enormous stigma in our culture, and everything in us resists revealing anything that might indicate we are aging. Particularly for those of us who are aging prematurely.
My struggle with hair has atuned me to the struggle in the early-onset Alzheimer’s community. I follow a group on Facebook called Memory People comprised of people of all ages who have been diagnosed with some kind of dementia, their caregivers, and other supporting cast. Some members are open about their dignoses and are brave enough to face public scrutiny; others accept their diagnoses but keep it somewhat private; and still others straddle the cover-up fence: should they reveal something that isn’t fully blown yet but could have as devastating results as if it was? All of them long to live truthfully, but all also know the stigma of dementia and the costs incurred in making their mental status known. As with pigment, we are valued for our synaptic connections. Why would anyone want to expose their deficits and risk rejection?
It makes my stomach turn. What kind of society have we become? When are we going to change the way we value each other? When are we going to free ourselves from the layers of untruth that we spend a lifetime building up? When are we going to trade all our lies in for Truth and finally be set free?
As I was sitting listening to our various conversations around the table, something struck me as different this year. We’re all hovering around 50—give or take a couple years—and the aging process is beginning to take a more prominent seat at the table. Not only do conversation topics start with the premise of aging: declining health, the cost of health insurance, etc, but it seems that no matter what the topic, it eventually touches on something to do with aging.
So, the music itself was great. Plus, Greg was a gem of an entertainer, weaving funny little stories throughout his performance, making us laugh and shout out responses. Very audience-attentive.
Which brings me to the point of this post.
See, when Greg first came out on the stage, he sat in front of a rickety old pump organ that was set up next to his keyboard (just two of about sixty eight instruments he played that night). And he told us the story of how he went out to buy a computer that day and ended up buying this antique organ instead. A 1911 organ to be precise.
Now, the whole time he was relating his organ-acquisition saga, I was thinking of Mom, because this was the exact kind of organ that Mom played in church down in Brazil for many years. And I was picturing Sunday afternoons when Mom would fold up the organ (or have one of us kids do it), hoist it into the van and drive it to one of the favelas around town for a Bible club. I pictured snotty little kids running to the van, touching the organ as it was set up, and singing their lungs out at the sound of Mom’s squeaky playing.
At the end of his story, Greg paused, looked at the organ, and said, “I’ll have to name her.”
Well. It didn’t take two seconds for me to think of the perfect name for that organ. So I shouted out “Ruth!”
And it didn’t take Greg two seconds to feel it in his bones that the name fit. He chuckled, muttered something about my timid voice (I thought I’d shouted), and agreed that the organ should be named Ruth.
It made my day. Made my niece’s day, cuz now her Greg Laswell has an organ named after her grandmother (hmm. Is there any good way to reword that sentence?).
But this story means even more to me for the irony in it. You see, Greg sings a lot about trying to forget. Trying to forget a love. Trying to forget the pain of a lost love. And here he is now, lugging around a little pump organ whose namesake–Ruth–wants more than anything else in the world to remember. Too weird. One is cursed by memory, the other by the loss of it.
Anyway. I have to thank Greg for a fun night that will only grow in significance as I retell this story.
And you have to keep an eye out for Greg. In case, you know, he turns out to be somebody. Like Ruth.
Eleanor Cooney’s Death in Slow Motion: a Memoir of a Daughter, Her Mother, and the Beast Called Alzheimer’s is not just one book. This is two tales in one: a memoir of desperate caregiving and a biography. The memoir part follows Eleanor’s hyperventilated, drug and alcohol-sustained trek through the five stages of Alzheimer’s caregiving for her mother, Mary Durant, and the biography chapters relate the story of her mother prior to Alzheimer’s (think Dorothy Parker with abundant sex and alcohol) ending with a very rare love story between Mary Durant and Michael Harwood (her third husband). Having the story weave through these two windows makes the reader feel the compounded tragedy of the beast called Alzheimer’s.
You will laugh, clench, oggle, envy, and cry as you read this literary gem.
As a bonus, Cooney includes a previously unpublished short story written by her mother (in a style I would call Flannery O’Connor cum wicked smirk).
Buy it. Read it. Pass it on.
P.S. People who read this book will probably also buy and read Mary Durant and Michael Harwood’s On the Road with John James Audubon. Mine is already in the mail.
The following describes the knowledge gained by Sharlene in the course of caring for both her parents with Alzheimer’s. It is not necessarily a reflection of my views, but I thought it good to publish the research of someone who has an insider’s view of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Sharlene Spalding is a naturopathic consultant in the village of Casco, ME. She is a former primary caregiver for two parents with AD. She holds a master’s degree in natural wellness. Sharlene is an excellent resource in natural healing and a hound dog when it comes to research. Because of what she knows now, she is committed to a pharmaceutical-free home that revolves around organic foods and herbs. You can visit her website at The Village Naturopath.
I saw an old friend yesterday and we caught each other up on our families. I told him I recently lost my brother-in-law to brain cancer. He said he was about to lose his sister to the same. Then he shared how his sister—who has a month or two left to live and is tired as can be—blurted out a couple days ago that “There are just so many fun things left to do.” No self-pity; no giving up despite the shortness of time. Her mind is winning over her dying brain.
I am deeply humbled by this woman’s attitude. I want to think like her—to take what’s left in the glass and drink it! Yet here I am with probably years left to live, claiming to be getting the upper hand on this Alzheimer’s caregiving business, but feeling devoid of creative ideas for living, for laughing, for loving.
I need help making a list. I have to have a bunch of small stuff, because the big stuff like going to a play or out to dinner or hang gliding don’t work with both parents. I just want some ideas for bringing laughter into our home.
To start, here are some little things that make Mom laugh:
Dancing for her with a feather boa.
Episodes of “I Love Lucy.”
Singing raucous songs loudly.
Pretending to eat her up.
Laughing babies (like this youtube one):
Here are some things that make Dad laugh:
Pretending to eat him up.
Episodes of The Colbert Report.
Mom when she’s in a funny mood.
And here are some new things I’m going to try:
Wear a fake mustache to the dinner table.
Spray whipped cream on Dad’s nose.
Put a fake snake or tarantula in the bathroom before Dad goes in.
Find a DVD of Victor Borge (like this youtube):
I’d love to hear your ideas, and I’ll leave you with this fun project: make a muppet like the one in the introductory picture above to add some fun to your Alzheimer’s caregiving.
Wait, here’s another idea: make these funky glasses. They crack everybody up!
A Compromised Gut and Aging
Suppose we throw out the acetaldehyde-in-the-blood-and-brain hypothesis. Even if the liver can keep up with the load, the process of breaking down acetaldehyde into a harmless acetate itself will upset the NADH/NAD balance.
NAD (nicotinamide adenoid dinucleotide) is the most important co-enzyme in the body. Aldehyde dehydrogenase depends on it to break down toxic aldehydes. SIRT1 depends on it to keep cells from committing suicide. It is the key to glucose metabolism. Etc.
A shortage of NAD is a normal part of aging:
Once pancreatic β cells and neurons start having functional problems due to inadequate NAD biosynthesis, other peripheral tissues/organs would also be affected through insulin secretion and central metabolic regulation so that the metabolic robustness would gradually deteriorate over age at a systemic level. This cascade of robustness breakdown triggered by a decrease in
How much time is enough time? We know we are mortals and we know life is but a breath. In light of eternity, we calculate that 100 years passes as quickly as twenty. Yet, given anything less than 100, and we say we’ve been “cut off.”
My big, strapping brother-in-law lays in the hospital right now, fighting for each new minute after a two-year battle with brain cancer. He is tired, and he is ready to rest. We would prefer the doctors find a cure and make him bounce back, but we want to let him go.
Throughout this whole battle, Ken’s mind worked around his brain to bring humor and gratitude to his situation. He firmly believes God’s purposes can be worked through the worst tragedies, and it is amazing to hear how his concerns were always for the eternal perspective he could bring to the waiting room, the surgery room, the recovery room.
Ken’s life may be cut short in our view, but it has been a life well-lived, and that’s more than a lot folks can say. Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living; an anonymous person added that an unlived life is not worth examining. I can vouch for Ken that he’s had a life worth examining.
April 26, a.m.: Ken had a brain hemorrage last night and is on life support. Awaiting a family gathering to let him go.
April 26, 7 p.m. Goodbye Kenny. From someone who was present at his bedside: ” just wanted to write and let you know that Ken’s passing was beautiful in the midst of family and hymns and Scripture. The more that Daniel read and Ruth recited the easier his respirations…and soon he just passed on.”
We already miss your booming laugh, your exhuberant living, and your unwavering faith. Save us a place at the banquet table, and we’ll see you in the morning.
Yesterday a social worker came to the house to evaluate Dad for possible in-home care assistance. It was a thoroughly humiliating experience for Dad.
The list of questions issued were designed to find out exactly what Dad can and cannot do for himself. The fact that Dad can’t do much at all for himself is something we try not to throw in his face even as it happens. Every time Dad can’t sit in the chair correctly and a struggle ensues to find the right verbal or physical cue to help him do so, Dad’s self-esteem takes a dive. Every time he can’t find a certain room in the house… can’t tell time… etc. So when a list of questions comes along and lays out each and every one of his deficiencies in one sitting, piling them up in front of him like so much garbage to be hauled around, well, it would be an understatement to say it was humiliating.
The further we got into the questionnaire, the more Dad’s countenance fell. It got to the point that I let Dad tell the social worker that he had no problem doing x or y or z, even though I knew the truth.
We ended up somewhere between the truth and Dad’s dignity, honoring neither.
At the very end, this wise social worker asked a question that was clearly not on the list. She asked, “Do you like to fish?”
You could see the dark cloud lift from over Dad’s beaten-down self! A tiny bit of affirmation in the midst of all that pummeling! Never mind that Dad can’t do it anymore; the question at least allowed him the pleasure of showing a positive side of himself. For once, he got to answer a very truthful “yes!”
And that made me wonder: why can’t we–in the pursuit of scientific correctness–remember the spirit of a man? Why can’t we sprinkle questionnaires with bits of affirmation for the sake of dignity alone? Would it hurt science or government to ask “what’s one of your favorite books?” to a woman applying for food stamps? Or “what superpowers would you most like to have?” to a veteran seeking disability assistance? Shoot, while I’m at it, can we change the the category from “seniors and people with disabilties” to “seniors and people with abilities”? There are always things we can still do; things we still like; things we still dream about.
Just stuff I wonder.
And you? Do you have any beef with questionnaires?
I took Dad for a walk tonight. It wasn’t a long walk. Dad was tired and didn’t really want to go. But he acquiesced to my prompting, and we walked to the end of the 50-yard driveway.
The whole time we walked, I supported Dad’s right arm. And the whole time we walked, Dad’s arm shook violently. By the time we got back, my arm was buzzed and aching.
Then it occurred to me that if Dad’s energy gets passed onto me in this bad way, perhaps we could harvest the energy in a good way. I suggested to him that we design something like the soccer ball recently invented by those Harvard girls—you know, the ball that stores the energy of a game’s worth of kicking into a battery that can then be used to light up the Third World.
But hey, why not harvest the energy generated by Parkinson’s tremors? Maybe we could even wire the energy back into the brain for deep brain stimulation therapy.
There’s got to be an up side to the down side of this energy-depleting disease!
The U.K. recently decided that Aricept and other acetylcholinesterase inhibitor drugs can be prescribed for mild Alzheimer’s cases (in addition to moderate cases. See article U.K. Reverses Stance On Alzheimer’s Drugs NICE is now recommending that three drugs known as acetylcholinesterase inhibitors—Aricept from Pfizer Inc. and Eisai Co.; Reminyl from Shire PLC; and Exelon from Novartis AG—be considered for use in patients with “mild” forms of Alzheimer’s, in addition to the patients with “moderate” forms of Alzheimer’s for whom NICE previously endorsed the drugs.). The more obvious reason is that these drugs should be getting cheaper once their patents expire, and therefore easier on the state’s prescription coverage budget. The less obvious reason is the relative ignorance Brits have regarding the sport of baseball.
First, you have to know how neurons and neurotransmitters work. Here is a short animation that shows how neurotransmitters work in the brain:
The cycle is a fantastically efficient one. Neurotransmitters are shocked into action, released into the synapse where they interact with receptors on the other side of the synapse, then swept up to make room for the next wave of neurotransmitters.
In Alzheimer’s, the favorite neurotransmitter tagetted by drug companies is acetylcholine because it is crucial for the formation of new memories. In the Alzheimer’s brain, there is an increasing shortage of acetylcholine, making it harder and harder for the brain to form new memories. The enzyme that recycles acetylcholine is acetylcholinesterase. What Aricept (an acetycholinesterase inhibitor) does is inhibit this recycling process, so the neurotransmitters hang around longer in the synapse and interact more often with memory-forming receptors.
Here is a video of a different neurotransmitter (serotonin) and its recycling inhibitor. It’s a good picture of the process that takes place with acetylcholine and acetycholinesterase inhibitors:
All of this is easier for Americans to grasp, because it can be compared to baseball: in baseball, players are stored in the dugout, called into action on the field, then recycled back into the dugout when their action is no longer called for.
Suppose that a team were to lose all but four of its players. Someone would have to block the dugout so the players wouldn’t sit back on the bench but rather take up the bat once more.
The players are the acetylcholine, the rule that sends them back into the dugout is the acetycholinesterase, and the person blocking the dugout when there is a shortage of players is the acetylcholinesterase inhibitor.
This also, by the way, illustrates why Aricept et al eventually fail: the four players get tired of playing the whole game all season long and quit.
Someone must have finally explained baseball to the Brits.
One thing Parkinson’s can’t take away from a man is all he has passed on in his lifetime. Here is Dad, rock-hounding Parkinson’s style. The fact that he can’t stand up on his own or kneel and claw through the dirt to get to the jasper or petrified wood doesn’t detract from the fact that he instilled the love of nature and science in his children. It’s in our blood now to visit all the national parks we can and to dig for fossils wherever there be beds.
He’s taught his children so many good things, and Parkinson’s can’t take that away from him.
AC6BTV7AQCKPToday I stopped at a light and to my right was a truck hauling what looked like a small, complete house all wrapped in white plastic. I wonder if it was one of these “Granny Pods” that are becoming a hit all over the country. I don’t know what people are bellyaching about. I think these are a great idea! It would be like playing house and you wouldn’t have to put up with any teenagers blaring music from their room as you would if you lived in the real house. Think I’ll order one with a Japanese soaking tub when I get around to needing one.
Rose Lamatt recently sent me her book Just a Word: Friends Encounter Alzheimer’s—the true account of her best friend’s rapid decline after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and of the author’s life as a caregiver. After reading (or should I say “crying”) my way through this book, I decided I had to recommend it to all my readers as well.
I read and liked Still Alice, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Just a Word when it comes to describing the wretchedness of Alzheimer’s and of caregiving and of life in a nursing home after home-based caregiving is no longer an option. Just a Word may not be as polished a work as Still Alice (my editor’s eyes kept making corrections until the story sucked me in), but this book will give you the real thing: Alzheimer’s with poop and bruises and the constant anguish of those trying to love and care for its victims (unlike the sanitized version in Still Alice).
In all my reading on Alzheimer’s, I have not found anything so powerful as this book to stir a desire to rid this disease from the face of the earth!
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