My mother died last December after having a massive stroke. She was approaching
100 and suffering from vascular dementia. For the past few years, I’ve read and
thought a lot about what happens when one’s mind fails, trying to understand my
mother’s escalating confusion and the paranoia and other hostile behaviors that
accompanied it. That search didn’t end with my mother’s death, but its focus has
switched to what I can learn about myself from having observed her dementia, and
to how I can prevent, or at least stall, dementia’s claim on my own brain in 30
or 40 years. I know and follow all the regular suggestions: Take antioxidants,
keep the brain active, stay healthy and fit, maintain a social network. But my
search has taken me deeper.
For instance, there is the University of Pennsylvania study where memory loss
was reversed through daily yogic meditation that dramatically increased blood
flow to the area of the brain associated with learning and memory. And there’s
also evidence that the practice of meditation might allay the fear with which we
view dementia, allowing us to be kinder and more trusting – and less angry or
paranoid – if it does knock on our door. I’ve been thinking that our personal
histories, as well as our attitudes about life in the present, probably
influence the way we face such issues of aging. As David Albert writes in his
“What Really Matters” column in this issue, memory is our ability to bring
forward some elements of past experiences into the present...and how our memory
composes the past determines our future.
There are some psychologists who suggest that, rather than viewing dementia as a
debilitating illness, we could perceive it as an altered state of consciousness
from which there is much to learn. (This is not to diminish the pain and
hardship both caregivers and those afflicted with dementia can suffer.) Nader
Robert Shabahangi, founder of the Pacific Institute, which teaches non-pathologizing,
non-judgmental techniques of caregiving, has pursued this idea. In a 2005 paper
entitled Redefining Dementia: Between the World of Forgetting and
Remembering, he wrote “What is called dementia can be understood as an
invitation to remember something we may have forgotten in our hurried lives.
Those ‘suffering’ from dementia – through their very forgetting – can remind us
of the rich and complex essence of our humanity, an essence at least as much
about being as about doing, as much about wonder as about knowing, as much about
forgetting as about remembering.”
When a small child wanders in the moment, pausing to explore and discover
objects lying in his path and forgetting his destination, we believe that his
experience was enriched. But we also believe that adults need to have a better
sense of direction than that child has, to be more focused, more purposeful,
more goal- and success-oriented. Our definition of success in our economy as
much as in our own lives revolves around constant growth. And since we measure
success as growth – gaining more money, more speed, more memory – we experience
dementia as a negative because it impairs growth as we have defined it. As
Shabahangi says, because we worship gain, dementia is a metaphor for loss.
That’s why, when a person with dementia behaves like that small child, we find
her unfocused wanderings to be socially unacceptable and maybe even a bit scary.
However, there is a valuable lesson that we can learn from people with dementia
– one that we must learn if we are to pull ourselves out of our current
ecological and economic crises: People like my mother can teach us to re-examine
our obsession with growth-at-all-cost. (See my article about alternatives to GDP
for some examples of people who are already doing that.) They can teach us the
value of slow.
They can demonstrate the importance of things that don’t necessarily seem to fit
into our hectic pursuit and measurement of goals. They can remind us that the journey
matters as much as – if not more than – the final destination.
Natural Life Editor