A few days ago, David was struggling to remember an elusive name or movie title (I forget which), and he voiced a typical complaint of those of us in the Baby Boomer generation.
“I can’t remember anything anymore. My memory is getting terrible.”
“Can you spell ‘world’ backward,” I said.
He looked at me like I was a few sandwiches shy of a picnic, but after 12 years together, he’s accustomed to my little tangents.
“Right. You’re okay.”
I first encountered this memory test ten years ago when a friend at church confided in me about her husband’s failing mental health. He was physically healthy, but he was losing the ability to communicate. She had taken him to a neurologist for the first time, and she told me about some of the mental gymnastics her husband went through. One of his challenges was to spell ‘world’ backward. I don’t think he did very well.
A few months later, we took Mom to her first neurologist, and I got a ringside seat to the whole gamut of memory tests.
“Mrs. Robinson, do you know what day of the week it is?”
“Tuesday?” It wasn’t.
“Do you know what month it is?”
“September?” That was wrong, too, but her birthday is in September, and it’s her favorite month.
“What season is it?”
“Spring?” I guess that’s another favorite.
“I’m going to name three objects, and I want you to remember them. I’ll ask you to tell me what they are a little later. Ready? A ball, a flag, and a tree. Got that?”
“What city are we in? County? State?”
“I want you start with 100 and count backward by 7.”
You’re kidding, right?
After a few more unanswerable questions, he went back to the three objects, and got the expected response.
“What three objects?”
Then came the big finale, “Can you spell ‘world’ backward?”
Of course not.
The diagnosis was the dreaded “A” word – Alzheimer’s – a strange word that strikes fear into the hearts of the bravest of us. For a while, we were careful not to use the word in front of Mom. If she heard it and realized it was being applied to her, she went into hysterics, sobbing out her greatest fears.
“I don’t want to end up like Mama. I’d rather die than live like that.”
Over the next several years, I listened to various doctors administer the same tests, or slight variations thereof. Mom’s answered deteriorated to the point where she no longer even tried to answer, often turning to me, asking me to answer the questions for her. The last few appointments, the doctor greeted Mom and asked how she was feeling. Then he turned to me to find out how she was really doing.
The one good thing about her downward slide is that THE WORD no longer strikes terror into her heart. I can’t say the same for myself.
Mom’s mother died of Alzheimer’s, and she has two sisters who suffer from it. As if that weren’t enough, Dad had vascular dementia. Seems like the deck is stacked against me. I’ve done a little research on the disease, but not too much. I know progress is being made, but right now there’s no cure and no treatments that are really very affective. It’s kind of like how sausage is made –you don’t really want to know the details. But I know that keeping your body healthy and your mind active are important, so I do that. And so far, I can still spell ‘world’ backward.