During the past decade, I watched my grandma’s memory fade away. As she forgot who she was, I witnessed her diminish away. This was the consequence of the treacherous disease of Alzheimer’s.
The worst part of losing your memory is that you lose your ability to learn. Without learning, we cannot be humans. What it means to be human is to be able to learn, remember, and improve.
What would life be like without memory? Our memory allows us to reflect and improve to become better humans. Without the ability to remember we cannot learn and this disconnect forces us to not feel like we are living.
The inability to learn comes with old age, but it progresses much violently with Alzheimer’s.
Initially, I noticed her lost capability to learn simple things, like with her DVD player and how to use her flip phone back in early 2010, which funny enough are now obsolete. With the DVD player there were three steps: turn on the DVD player, press the button to open and insert the DVD, and change the input of the TV. She would make it through one or two of the steps but end up calling one of her grandkids to come over to assist. I would happily come over each time. We would make a joke out of it. The laughter would cover up the pity felt for Omi slowly losing her mind.
Time and time again, Omi told me how this modern technological world filled with screens was not for her. When she lost her ability to learn, I noticed her losing a part of who she was being human.
Early on being aware of her condition, she would gesture or smack her head as if she was trying to wake a dormant computer from its snooze. She would be inferring how the synapses in her brain were fading. Mid-sentence, she would stop and forget how to finish her thought. Knowing four languages, nothing was worse than being at a loss of words. Her cognitive function and connections were fading. Fading too fast.
The major consequences of this disease became clear back in the fall of 2016. I had come home from college a few days early before Thanksgiving to surprise Omi. I jumped at the opportunity to take Omi out to lunch. I picked her up because she no longer was able to drive her golden Malibu Max. Her driving privileges were taken away for the sake of the other people on the road that she was driving with. This was the forcing function for her realization of taking away her freedom. She kept asking when she’d get the keys back to the car taunting her in her garage.
I took her to her favorite spot: Panera Bread. She got a bowl of broccoli cheddar and I got a bread bowl of chicken noodle soup. While saying how proud she was of me, she pulled out her wallet and showed me the first thing you see– my face. Inside the driver’s license slot was my high school portrait. She kept showing strangers around us pointing at the picture and me and saying how I was her granddaughter. It was a bit odd but as long as she was happy, I was happy.
Later, I asked her what “her granddaughter’s name” is in that picture. She looked confused. Then I rephrased and asked her if she knew what my name was. I saw sadness fill her face as she struggled to even find a sound to start with. I gave her a hint that it started with the letter J. This made matters worse and did not help. I didn’t want this little quiz to ruin our time together. Immediately, I shared my name. It clicked, and she was immediately uplifted and grateful to know what my name was. I figured it was a minor mishap that she’d forgotten my name.
The distinct moment that I realized how treacherous this disease was when I hugged Omi the following day. She acted as if she hadn’t seen me in months. She asked when I got home from college. I held my tongue and said yesterday without mentioning Panera Bread. She forgot the lovely afternoon that we shared together the previous day.
Matters only got worse as time passed. Constantly, Omi confessed to not wanting to be in the world anymore. Her mind agreed and would bring her back to memories from her youth and younger self. She started to think in a whole new way. Since her working memory was no longer present she reverted to thinking that her parents, older siblings, and husband were still living. She started speaking in her native tongue. I tried to talk to her in Dutch but that confused her even more. It was never easy to tell her the truth.
The frustration that I saw her deal with was painful. I tried my best to find the words that she was searching for in her brain. I didn’t let her see my inner sadness when she forgot my name. I knew it wasn’t personal.
Then over the past year, the other parts of her brain started to fade. The parts that kept her alive, but she was not living. She greeted the angels in heaven on December 5, 2019. That is nearly 3 years that she had to cope with a brain that was not up to par with what she was familiar with thinking.
To forget memories of those you love and places you’ve been is the most painful way to go. Our brains have such miraculous abilities that add meaning to why we live. In John Medina’s book Brain Rules, he explains how our memories are not effective. Inversely, Medina means our memories aren’t good yet. Everyone’s brains are different, but I still want to state the simplified belief in how miraculous our brains are. At least we have the gift of memories in the first place.
What is the worst thing that can happen? I believe it is to lose your memory. When this happens you lose your ability to learn because you cannot remember. Without remembrance, you cannot do simple human activities. You wouldn’t have a sense of home because you don’t even remember where you live. You cannot build on relationships because you cannot relate. You don’t remember your own experiences.
Omi lost her willingness to learn because she didn’t remember the names of those she loved. Without remembering, she forgot language. How to communicate.
The next time you forget your password to log in or the name of an acquaintance, have patience, compassion, and be grateful for your memory. Your brain affords the ability to learn and love living through our gift of memory. The human brain and all of its elements of neuroplasticity are near-magical, despite its recall not being perfect.
You need to believe in your ability despite the circumstances of not wanting to. As John Wooden said, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” For us that are fortunate not to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we need to be aware that our prosperity can provide itself with anxieties. Overcome these with gratitude for your memories.