Published on: March 11, 2012
An unsettling threat that reminds one to live life
by Patrick T. Reardon for The Chicago Tribune
The other day, I was talking with some friends about movies, and somehow the conversation got to the film “Elf.”There was a point I wanted to make about the actor who played Will Farrell’s father in the movie, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember his name.
I knew he’d played “Sonny” Corleone in “The Godfather.” And Brian Piccolo in “Brian’s Song.” And Hugh Grant’s future father-in-law in “Mickey Blue Eyes.” But his name escaped me.
I tried various mental tricks, such as running through the alphabet and trying out various first names, until finally, after what seemed like a long time but was probably only — only? — 10 seconds, I remembered he’s James Caan.
If you’re over the age of 60, as I am, something like this has probably happened to you. And it’s probably happening with greater frequency. I see my friends stumbling over a recollection. And, more and more, I find myself groping for a memory.
I tell them and I tell myself that these sorts of lapses are just part of getting older. With more than 60 years of events, numbers, people, interactions, books read, movies viewed, music listened to, baseball games watched, basketball games played, letters written, emails responded to, poems memorized, technologies learned, my brain is packed chock-full. So it’s no surprise if a stray fact here and there goes missing.
Still, in the back of my mind, I’m a little unsettled.
Is my trouble recalling James Caan’s name early evidence of Alzheimer’s disease? Am I at the beginning of a slide down a slippery slope to mental oblivion?
Half a century ago, in the final years of her life, my father’s mother, Grandma Reardon, slipped fairly quickly into senility. Or, as it was called then, “hardening of the artieries,” as if that explained her loss of mental acuity, even while retaining relative physical vigor.
It was scary for us kids. Grandma had always been a stern and remote figure to us growing up, and when we’d visit her at the nursing home her docile spaciness was spooky. She’d look at me and think I was her youngest son, my Uncle Connie.
Grandma was a simple woman, born in Ireland, a housewife on Chicago’s West Side. I have no idea how much, as she grew older, she worried about going senile. On average, people died at an earlier age in those times. Fewer lived long enough to face the potential of senility.
In the intervening years, a lot of research has gone into this end-of-life threat, generally now called dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most widely known and most common form of dementia.
Given all that research and the quantum leap in communications, I have the sense that Americans today, including me, are more afraid of this threat than the people of my grandmother’s generation were.
Consider the perpetual youthfulness that, as we grow older, many of us have come to strive for. Witness Viagra and news stories headlined, “Is 60 the new 50?” and “Is 50 the new 40 — or 30?”
What does it profit me to keep physically fit if only to lose my marbles?
Look at the news and you find famous people facing up to this scourge in public. Such as 75-year-old singer Glen Campbell, who is not only talking with reporters about his diagnosis but is in the midst of an 11-month farewell tour. In 2007, British fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett announced he had early onset Alzheimer’s, and more recently he has said he wants to commit assisted suicide before the disease progresses into its final stages.
Odds are, Alzheimer’s isn’t in my future. Except for Grandma Reardon, none of my relatives, including my recently deceased 93-year-old aunt, Sister Julia, has suffered dementia.
Still, it’s out there as a threat. I’m aware of the possibility. I’m unsettled by the possibility.
So I’m not putting off to tomorrow what I can do today. For instance, I’ve always wanted to write a book about Chicago. And it finally dawned on me that, if I waited too long, I’d never get around to it. Now I’m knee-deep into my research.
The threat of Alzheimer’s is a reminder to me to tell my wife I love her, to enjoy the play of shadows against the brick wall across the yard, to drop everything and drive my son to the airport.
Maybe I should be thankful to the threat of Alzheimer’s. It reminds me to live life as fully as I can. Or, as Gwendolyn Brooks writes, “conduct your blooming in the noise and the whip of the whirlwind.”
Research has demonstrated that, when it comes to medical concerns, the fear of developing Alzheimer’s (and other forms of dementia) exceeds the fear of every other type of health condition.
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