Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Parkinson's and the Fear of Forgetting

“How are you feeling?” I asked him too casually.

Fred and I were having coffee as the early afternoon sunshine warmed us through the large kitchen window. It was unusual weather for an October day. It was also unusual for me given that it was the middle of a workday and I was chatting, seemingly aimlessly, with an elderly friend as if I did not have any billable work to do at all. The opposite was true of course, but I had business near his home and was inexplicably drawn to stop in for a quick coffee with Fred. At his age and health, as well as his state of mind, and my too busy schedule, I was not sure I would see him again, at least not soon or be able to converse with him in the easy way we were doing that autumn afternoon.

"How are you doing?" I asked again when he hesitated in response to my question. Clearly troubled about something he slowly drew in his breath in a labored fashion. The worried expression on his face immediately made him look older than his 80 years. “Well” he said, "I am not as compos mentis as I once was. You see, I forget things. I lose things. I just cannot remember like I used to." When I responded, "Join the club!", that discussion ended and we moved on, the customary cheery smile replacing the anxious frown. But soon examples of what he had been trying to explain began springing up with embarrassing frequency. He asked me how my children were doing and how old they were four times during our time together, each time as if the queries had never been asked before. I felt mildly frustrated at having to repeat myself, and guilty about my internal reaction and impatience. When the phone rang, he tried to explain to the caller who he was visiting with. Finally, with a pained look on his face, he turned to me and said, "What is your name again?"

Although I was simply an observer, I felt Fred’s anguish, the humiliation and the discomfort with something happening that neither he nor I fully understood. It was something frightening. It was the fear of forgetting.

This episode with my friend, Fred, had an immediate impact. It beckoned memories of that same look on my father’s face as we drove along very familiar roads in the Coldstream Valley farm country where we had lived for all of my childhood. He looked at me confused and asked me where we were. It was like a jolt of electricity running up my spine.

Is this my future? Am I also destined to begin peering through a mental fog at some point? In the years to come will Parkinson's disease fill my head with cotton, as it has begun filling Fred’s mind?

How does one grapple with the fear of forgetting? Since cognitive impairment has a greater potential of striking those with Parkinson's, it is not groundless apprehension.

First, I asked myself, "Is there anything I can do about it?" The answer, like most answers given by lawyers and neurologists alike, was "Maybe". As unsatisfying as that may be, it is better than "No!". Studies have shown that regular mental exercise helps fend off the fear of forgetting to some extent. So keep those crosswords coming!

Second, I recognized that it would be unwise for me to let the fear of future forgetting paralyze the present (although I shudder a bit when I hesitate too long in order to remember someone's name). Focus on what I have, not what I might possibly lose.

Finally, I decided I needed to spend more time with my friend, Fred, and others like him. Facing one's fears, even when reflected in the face of a friend, allows us to nurture courage and compassion. Maybe it is like a blood donor donating blood on the premise that one day he may need it himself.

I was sincere when I asked Fred how he was feeling. The least I can do is hang around for the answer.

1 comment:

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