Disease from Hell

After age 65, the risk of getting dementia doubles every five years

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Life Issues

Joyce was seven when she experienced the Battle of Britain. After WWII ended, she won two swimming championships, then night-schooled for 140 words/min in shorthand. She quit working at sweatshop textile mills after she got a better paying job as a secretary in the Manchester police department. She had a brilliant talent for numbers and eventually got a prestigious job monitoring the Bank of England’s financial contributions to the United Nations.

After retirement, she started a lucrative international accounting firm, and trained her daughter as a CPA professional. I met Joyce in a writing group, where she would read to us vivid excerpts from her autobiography. But some time ago I noticed she had difficulty organizing and focusing on that mentally demanding task.

Meanwhile, she and her second husband (a retired police detective) entered dance contests and after much practice won eight senior ballroom championships. She handcrafted for those events her own Elizabethan-style dance outfits (worth $2000 each).

Four years ago, driving me to her home in a retirement facility, we ended up lost at the other end of town. She couldn’t recall where she lived or how to drive there, and that’s when I suspected she had dementia. So I would check on her by phone every couple of months but didn’t notice much change until six weeks ago when Covid-19 isolated her.

During our last phone conversation, I figured her slurred speech was likely from a mini-stroke. Guessing her end was near, we lingered in a poignant goodbye. I’ve long had the dubious gift of predicting the death of family members and close friends. Two weeks later, her husband, also not doing well in his eighties, phoned me to report that she had died. It hurts losing family and long-time friends like Joyce, a remarkable woman.

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Laura is another lady friend my age who is suffering with a short-term memory loss that’s rapidly worsening. When reminiscing about our past social experiences together, she can recall most things we did. But her short-term memory has become one hellish frustration. If I dictate the spelling of a name, words in a sentence, or some simple phone number, she fails to recall my spoken letters and numbers from one second to the next.

She cannot memorize anymore. “Let me get a pencil and paper,” she’d say. An easy string of letters I had to repeat six times, raising my voice to boot. The next day, she’d forgotten where she put her scribbled notes. I had to recite identical information again and again, beginning to feel like a broken record, playing the same thing over and over. At this first stage of dementia, she was in denial — perhaps because she really did not recall any such episodes.

Laura’s husband recently died from cancer, so she’s alone now and can’t handle financial issues. She lives in an expensive retirement community that used to have many social events before Covid-19. A priest visited to say Mass every Sunday, but not anymore. Laura has no family left and turns on the TV for consolation. So I advocate for her.

I have conducted job interviews of bonded fiduciaries to help her with financial and medical issues. Drugs, diet, exercise, and meditation may help to inhibit this progressive disease, but won’t cure it. That’s why I recommended she try a remedy that supposedly re-generates the brain’s neurites (acetyl-l-carnitine/arginate). Her fiduciary will monitor her every week to see if she’s using that supplement. If not, Laura will need help to remember to take it.

Memory loss from dementia complicates its victims’ lives in unexpected ways. She’s been disabled by a diabolic disease that can induce a self-isolating despondency, stressful anxiety, and suicidal despair, besides driving the caregivers crazy.

After age 65, the probability of my getting dementia doubles every five years. As Mother would say, “Getting old is not for sissies.” Now I understand why.

 

Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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