"Those are the sweetest puppies!" my mother in law exclaimed, patting our Molly's tiny head. "What are their names?" "Magic and Molly," I replied patiently. It was the third time she had asked that question in the 20 minutes that we'd been at her apartment. And undoubtedly she would ask me several more times before the visit was over. My mother in law, along with a very large percentage of other elderly people, was robbed a few years ago. Actually, the thief is still living somewhere in her brain, robbing her of her memory every minute of every day.
And who or what is this terrible felon - is it the aging process, a lack of anti-oxidant's or an excess of cholesterol? Is it because her arteries have clogged or her brain has shrunk? Is it just terrible bad luck or a genetic tendency?
Medical science will trot out all of these explanations, never able to provide definitive answers. My mother in law has not been formally diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease - her doctor calls it senile dementia, which has many of the same devastating practical effects. She is no longer able to drive, or live alone, or pay her bills, or be responsible for her own medications or daily schedule. She needs to be reminded to eat, bathe, and get dressed. When we go to visit, she seems to recognize us, but we're always too afraid to ask her if she knows our names, fearful that her blank look and panicked attempt to remember them would be too painful for her and for us to bear.
It's as if this dastardly thief entered her head while she was sleeping and keeps poking holes in her brain, allowing her logical thought processes and memories to slowly seep out like sand through the mesh of a fine sieve. By the time we realized he was there, it was too late to apprehend him with the usual weapons of medication and therapy. He has taken up permanent residence and will not be ousted.
Early on in this process, my mother in law was aware that something was wrong. "My head feels funny," she would say repeatedly. When pressed to be more specific, all she could say was that "it felt like something was missing." And something was-her memories of her past life as a wife and mother, a professional woman, a person who played pinochle several times a week, and went to church with her friend every Sunday.
This disease frightens me beyond all others, probably because my mind is so important to me. The thought of losing my memories of my parents and children, my past accomplishments, my skills, my awareness of words and what they mean, or music and how to play it - it's like the worst horror movie imaginable. I would take any precaution I could to keep this horrendous thief away from my door. But this one requires more than a good deadbolt lock, and I don't think anyone really knows what the best deterrent is.
Oddly enough, this disease has had one positive effect on my mother in law. Always a rather worried and pessimistic person, she has become very relaxed and seems perpetually content. She seems to have no worries or concerns, and is perfectly satisfied with the simplest of entertainments. Like our visits with Magic and Molly.
"Those are just the sweetest dogs!" she exclaims over and over. "What did you say their names were?"