At 5 in the afternoon on Thursday, I was silently resting in Savasana (aka Corpse Pose), serenely allowing the tension in my muscles to drift downward into the floor below me, when I suddenly bolted upright. I’d missed my library book club meeting! After 30 years of practicing yoga, I generally don’t allow random thoughts to disrupt my repose with a burst of movement. You might be asking why this particular thought had caused such an internal/external uproar during a quiet meditative moment. I think it was because I was appalled, shocked at having had such a lapse in consciousness.
Early in the day, my husband and I went hiking. I reminded him that I had my book club meeting at 2 that afternoon. In fact, I had to turn down a request for another outing because I did not want to miss the monthly meeting at the library. I had thoroughly enjoyed the assigned book for the month and was looking forward to discussing many aspects of the storyline and characters. The problem: After lunch, I sat down at my computer to write. Sometimes writing becomes a world unto itself. All else falls away as I concentrate on the story, word choices and saucy bits of humor which flow from my brain down into my hands. As they say, I spaced out. When I was finished, I needed to stretch, move my muscles after a few hours of sitting. I rolled out my yoga mat and concentrated on my body instead of my mind.
Once it hit me, and I sat upright at the very notion of having lost all track of time, I reached for my phone. I emailed my favorite librarian, expressing my dismay at having missed the meeting. Bless her. She wrote back to say the group had missed me. Annoyance with myself morphed into sorrow—I had missed them too. I confess right now; this was not the first time I had become so absorbed in my work that I missed whatever it was I had so painstakingly written on my calendar. My mind started to drift toward the aging brain question. Is this how it starts? Should I be worried?
Both of my parents had Alzheimer’s, so I have been vigilant in keeping an eye on my mental status, alarmed at any and all shortcomings in the remembering-things category. One of the last memories I have of my father was asking him the names of his children, which he rattled off with ease. I then asked him if he knew me. My dad had been a very social guy and still seemed to have that skill set when he told me I looked familiar but he could not remember my name. He apologized for that. It broke my heart. I fear not recognizing my loved ones more than any other kind of cognitive lapse. I can only imagine how lonely that would make me feel. Someone had sent him a card and I asked him what it said. He held the card to his ear as if to listen and told me it wasn’t talking yet, which was one of his old dad-jokes. For myself, I hope sense of humor is the last cognitive function to go.
My mother’s decline was slower but more profound. When her dementia progressed to the point where she did not know how to use a can opener or even remember to eat, we had to get help for her. Hers was the Alzheimer’s disease of anger and frustration with a steadily progressive loss of function. Fiercely independent, she fought me over driving the car, accepting help and planning for her future. I had to quickly learn the art of kind deception. In other words, I had to lie my ass off to make things move in the right direction. When it came time to find her a safe space to be cared for in her little town in Maine, I brought her to visit the memory care place I had chosen. By moving day, she had forgotten the plan. She was so angry she took off down the street and we had to call the police to bring her back. When she saw the officers, an authority she still had sense enough to respect, she held out her wrists towards them for cuffing. They all shared a laugh over that move as they drove her back. Again, my mother’s sense of humor was touching in this horrific moment. So maybe there’s hope for me. I want to be making them laugh until the end.
But of course, freaking over every instance where I can’t remember the name of a neighbor from 50 years ago, or the last time I ate Cheetos, just leads to a form of insanity called obsession! I’ve stored a lot of life’s little details in the cerebral attic and could, at one time, recall the most obscure facts and figures with no effort. Now that trunk creaks when I try to open it and it takes longer to root around in there for the proper word, name, etc. It usually comes to me later, long after I needed it, eventually drifting up into the working brain cells. I might randomly bark out, “Mavis!” as I’m maneuvering my cart through the grocery store, suddenly gifted with the name of a neighbor from childhood. Being excited about remembering something makes me look like a crazy old lady to my fellow shoppers. I have to resist inventing a granddaughter, lost in the store, just in case some good Samaritan decides to help me look for her and the management is called. I choose the path of least attraction. I don’t want them to think I’m a geriatric who can’t even be trusted with the babysitting.
The topic of faulty memory surfaces whenever my husband and I get together with friends. We are all getting up there, as they say, and when someone stops midsentence, we all know why. They are searching for a word (name, place, band, restaurant) which had suddenly taken flight from their cerebral cortex. Often the person floundering will confess how bad their memory is getting. There is a general nod of understanding among the conferees. We get it. Annoyingly so. I think it better to confess your mental shortcomings than to try to fake your way around it with a handy substitute. Being a writer, I might start describing the thing I want to say: It’s that green vegetable that grows in a bunch. Names of edible botanicals are then offered, which irritates my brain into remembering that it is broccoli and not any of those other ridiculous vegetables they are throwing at me in an attempt to move the conversation forward. Six retrieval-challenged people in one conversation could make it stretch out for quite a while.
So, when should I be concerned for my mental status? There are levels of dementia leading up to complete and utter failure. Slow recall is one thing, forgetting where you live is another. I look over the list of symptoms for geezer brain versus dementia. I have no confusion (except while watching Stranger Things) and I’m still taking a shower every day. I can find my way to the co-op and back home again. That’s what the GPS is for—though I do cuss a blue stream at the user-unfriendly contraption whenever it asks where I want to go. I try not to be too obsessive about forgetting where I left my phone. On the day I missed my book club meeting, my husband and I ran into our neighbor while out on our evening walk. We started discussing finding a nearby CPR class since we both needed to renew that certification. This woman, a good 25+ years younger than me, told us she had forgotten to go to the CPR training she had scheduled and needed to schedule another one. I felt bad for her, but simply elated for myself. Maybe being so busy with life that you forget an appointment or two on occasion is not such a demented thing, but more like a blip in the space/time continuum. It could happen to anyone.
I’m feeling back on track now. Yes, I’m getting older. I like to think I am also getting wiser in some impressive way other people might notice. I can still remember the names of my favorite yoga poses. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged Pigeon Pose) is one I still allow to slip off my tongue when I need an ego boost. My brain still delivers the words to my mouth, even if my body can’t do that pose anymore! There’s a lot more yoga poses where that came from to keep me in working order. Body, mind and spirit.
Namaste, it will all be okay,