When my mother was in the last few years of her life, I could see how she learned to hide her dementia and hearing loss. To compensate for not comprehending what someone was saying, she would carefully read the other person’s face and listen to the tone of their voice, so she could respond appropriately. If I were smiling, she might say “That’s good.” If I were frowning or looked upset, she would say “That’s hard.” Sometimes she guessed wrong and would smile when I mentioned a friend who had cancer.
It was easier to pretend to understand rather than repeatedly asking “What?” I know that feeling because I do it myself sometimes. None of us want to appear to be failing, even to ourselves. We want to maintain the illusion that we are still in control.
My dad, who also had dementia, was braver than my mom or me. Once, when visiting with my cousins, we were all taking at once and over each other. My father finally had enough. “I can’t understand all of you. Can you talk one at a time?” He knew he was losing some of his abilities and wasn’t afraid to ask for help. Of course, this was the same man, who, in his 80s and no longer able to remember directions, took the car out by himself, against the pleadings of my mother, and got so thoroughly lost that it took the police two days to find where he left the car.
My mother, at least, knew when to stop driving. She announced one day that her eyesight wasn’t good enough, although her doctors thought it was fine. I suspected that the real reason was that she had a bad experience while driving, something she was too embarrassed to reveal. Maybe she got confused and almost caused an accident. But it was easier for her to blame her eyesight rather than admit she was losing control. Will I be brave enough, when the time comes, to admit I can no longer drive?
Losing control is scary. It happens to all of us as we get older, in bits and pieces, and for some faster than for others. It happens when I run into an old acquaintance who I haven’t seen for years and can’t remember her name or even how I knew her. So I ask innocuous questions, like “What are you doing these days?” and her answers slowly prick my memory.
That’s easier than being truthful: “I know that I know you but I can’t remember from where.” Recently, I called an old friend who I had worked with for more than 10 years, and she didn’t know who I was, even when I explained our relationship. She apologized, but it hurt because I felt I had been erased from her life, even though it wasn’t deliberate.
I recently ran into an old friend who appeared to not recognize me, although wearing a mask adds an extra impediment. When I told him who I was, he said, “It’s been a while,” perhaps as an excuse as to why he didn’t remember me. It’s a good line, and I’ll have to use it the next time I bump into someone whose name I can’t remember.