Thursday, September 3, 2009

Scrabbled Priorities

Who beats their mother without mercy? Well....

Shortly after my PD diagnosis, January 19, 2006, I was attending a New Diagnosis Day sponsored by the Parkinson's Society of British Columbia (a very helpful organization providing very useful support and information - next New Diagnosis Day is October 3, 2009). A speaker told 50 or so eager but frightened attendees that exercising one's mind was an important priority in combating the cognitive impairment potential of the disease. WHAT! You mean there is more than the potential crippling stiffness, uncontrolled shaking, loss of balance and depression? We have impairment of mental functioning to look forward to as well!?

Well you can imagine how I sat up when this lightning bolt struck. For someone who makes his living with his brain, the idea of physical disability is bearable. But early cognitive failure? That had me starting to count from 100 backwards immediately.

As a "present-minded" person my memory has never been superb, and my ability to take notes had gone straight downhill. So I knew that being able to remember things would become even more crucial, and difficult. I found myself checking for the onset of mental lapses, as I did for some of the other symptoms of this ever-advancing PD blight. Forgetting someones name sent me into a quiet panic as I imagined the worse. But this led me to hone right in on the advice I heard from that speaker.

Of course, I thought the worst, despite the reassuring statistics. Most of the 30% of PD patients who experience cognitive impairment develop PD more seriously and quickly in their old age rather than having been diagnosed with "young onset". Young onset is defined roughly as around 50 years of age at onset (I'm "only" 57 now so I must have been "young" at onset!). Old age can have a mind-dimming affect too if you are not careful. But regardless, I decided I wasn't waiting to find out if I was a statistical anomaly.

So I started doing crosswords and sudokus and other word games and mental gymnastics with the determination of a chain smoker trying to light up in a rain storm. Sometimes I was more tired after a day of my normal "head" work supplemented by my "mental exercises" than I was from my physical work out. Typically, I was overdoing this mental calisthenics routine.

But one benefit of this addiction was the discovery of Scrabble on Facebook (yes, my kids suggested I sign up so that I could keep in touch with their social networking circles). Scrabble was a game we played often when growing up, along with almost any card or board game imaginable, and I was an avid competitor. For me the game was the fun part, and winning, though enjoyable, was secondary. And who became my first online-Scrabble opponent: my Mom (yes, at 75 her grandkids got her hooked on Facebook as the easiest way to communicate with them).

Now there is a problem with this scenario. Do you try hard to win to assuage your nagging doubt about your own mental faculties being in tact? Or do you let your mother win out of respect for your elders and a desire to encourage your mother? Forgive me, but I chose the former. I could not throw a game. Yes, she won sometimes, but there was always the next game.

So let me encourage you to beat your mother...I games...I mean...challenge yourself with some mental push ups. Start an easy crossword, sudoku or other solve-it game or puzzle and work your way up to harder ones. You will find it gratifyingly easy to convince yourself how bright you are. And a Scrabble match, even in your pajamas, is as close as your nearest computer.

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