What about me? Is dementia lurking in my future?
Will I detect the disease’s beginnings? And if I did sense something “wrong,” would I admit to struggles with memory? Would I openly talk about other unsettling changes? Would you?
Dad never—never, never, never—wanted to visit a doctor. Any ailment would always get better tomorrow. Or the next day! So why waste precious minutes of your life with people in white lab coats? Other than hypochondriacs, who’d voluntarily allow strangers to poke and prod you, make you cough when you’re well, require present and/or future blood removal, scare you with sharp needles, and generally treat like you a specimen rather than the fine, upstanding human being you are?
About a year before Dad died in 2012, Mom and I took him to his one and only appointment with a neurologist. Mostly it was a visit prompted by the need to have additional confirmation that Dad had a form of dementia and wasn’t competent in financial decisions. It pained Mom to arrive at this point. In over six decades of marriage, they’d always made choices together. But sharing and discussions had become relics of the past. Now Mom needed a medical/legal paper trail to reduce any concerns that could arise as she confronted the options of how to care for her husband.
The visit was brief. To be polite, Dad wasn’t overly compliant. Before the neurologist appeared, a nurse joined us in the exam room. In a kind voice and with gentle gestures, she asked several low-key questions. Dad either ignored the nurse or berated her. One of her questions was about a commonplace experience in everyone’s life.
“Mr. Patten, can you tell me what time it is?”
I don’t recall Dad’s exact response, but it may have been “What for?” or “Who are you?” Or he may have just glared. Some people with certain kinds of dementia are no longer able to talk. Indeed, one of the guidelines for determining dementia is whether or not a patient can speak six “intelligible different” words. Until near the final days of his life, even after several years with dementia, Dad easily surpassed the minimal number of words. Any of the staff in the memory care facility where he lived would’ve confirmed his ability to voice insults and indignation.
But did he not know what time it was? Or was he so oriented toward resistance and anger that a question from any “stranger” would be met with belligerence? His attitude didn’t improve when the doctor entered the cramped, sterile space. Dad continued his negative responses, the neurologist seemed bored, and the nurse escaped the room. We too soon “escaped.” Later, the doctor wrote a vague but sufficient letter, confirming Dad’s incompetence.
And much later, I discovered one of the standard “tests” for dementia involved telling time. There are various ways to present this, including the nurse’s simple request for the current time of day. Another variation is asking a patient to draw a clock.
In a completely non-scientific way, I attempted to sketch a clock without “hands:” a circle representing the bare bones of a timepiece. From my reading, I knew the next step would add hands in order to designate a specific time.
Yikes, did I ever fail! Here’s my attempt, which included trying to show what 7:50pm would look like . . .
Does my failure mean I might have dementia? Or, in these modern “digital” days, am I simply less familiar with analog clocks and their traditional “faces?” Or was it because I’m such a pathetic artist? Or because . . .?
At first, I couldn’t recall what number was at the top! Was it a zero (0), one (1), or the twelve (12)? In my second attempt, I remained unsure (note the messiness of the “12” at top of the lower “clock”) about which number to start with . . . but then remembered the film “High Noon.” Of course the number “12” was at the highest point! And don’t forget “watching your six,” the clock-inspired military jargon about guarding a fellow soldier’s backside.
Nonetheless, I could never space the numbers evenly on either attempt, and felt stupid and clumsy when I tried to pencil in a clock and where 7:50pm should be positioned. I’ll give myself a “D-” grade for the timely effort, and only because of self-pity.
For the life of him, Dad couldn’t tell time in his last years. Dementia is a literal time thief. Because I am my father’s son, I wonder about the future. Right now, I (mostly) joke about a dismal hand-drawn clock. But what will the passage of years bring? Rationally, I know dementia isn’t contagious. Realistically, there’s conflicting research about children inheriting dementia from parents. DNA is truly the gift that keeps on giving. I have my father’s thick ankles and (long ago) his red-tinged brown hair. What other “gifts” has Dad bequeathed to me? My doctor reassuringly states that exercise, curiosity through life-long learning, and positive interaction with friends all represent key ways to “reduce” dementia’s risk. Hey, I do those things even without a doctor’s advice!
Dementia is a thief, clever and brutish in how it robs the present moment or the past memory. Along with stealing, it can leave troubled thoughts. Since Dad’s death in hospice, my wondering about the future has included worry and dread.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by