Saving Face

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.

7 thoughts on “Saving Face

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  1. Names? I’ve never been good at remembering names. So that wouldn’t be anything new. Driving? I stopped driving at night because it scared me; I knew I couldn’t see well. My daytime driving is greatly reduced because I know I’m slower, and heavy traffic, especially on freeways, has always unnerved me. Recent drives to the mountains have left me afraid that if I go too far from home, I’ll be too tired to get back. Still, it’s very important to me to have a car and be able to go someplace whenever I want.

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    1. I agree. I can’t imagine giving up driving. It was a hard blow to my father when we had to force him to stop driving.

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  2. I was a meeting recently and was setting with two woman who were friendly and old. I had to had them what their names were three times. The last time I think I saw the look on their face, He’s old and losing it. Since then I’ve made it a point to know their names.

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    1. I think names are the first thing to go when we start to lose our memories. I know there are tricks to remembering names, but I never remember the tricks. Sigh.

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  3. Dear Blogger, , I undersatnd what you say and what you mean, but I desagree. It is a victory to be old: you have survived! Whether it is a good or a bad old age, is another matter. We should never be ashamed of the limitations that life throws upon us just because we are old. That is life. We should not demean ourselves by hiding the consequences of our old age: we are demeaning everybody who is or will be old some day.
    Being old is neither a virtue nor a fault. If you are fortunate enough to live confortably and autonomously, you are just plain lucky. Believe me!
    Everybody wants to be old, nobody wants to die young.
    How come there are almost no Gerontology studies and courses?
    Be happy!

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    1. I agree that we should be proud to be old and to be honest about what we can and cannot do. I think the best approach is to have a sense of humor about aging. It’s the only way we’ll get through.

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  4. If I’m fortunate enough to become “old,” it seems likely I will lose some physical capacity and/or mental agility. But as I’m characteristically humble about what my abilities are, and put a pretty high value on both experiences and connections, I hope I will be perceptive/honest about my limitations (at least to myself), so that I can be resourceful in finding ways to “make do” 🙂

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