“Do you dance?” My newest “friend,” to whom I am a “helper,” asks this question frequently. As our friendship grows, she has more conversational poetry to share. “I’m so old that my head is stuffed full. It takes a while to find things in there.” She believes this is her “excuse” for extreme forgetfulness. I explain, to her delight, that it’s the truth, not an excuse.
When gerontologists give the same test to a group of young folks and a group of elders, the young ones are quick and fairly accurate. The older ones are slower, but more accurate, more nuanced in their answers.
If the question is “Should we cut down that tree?” the young person will answer “Yes,” or “No,” not hesitating. The elder will think of trees that were cut that maybe shouldn’t have been, trees that weren’t cut until too late, and other experiences in tree life. The answer will take a lot into account.
My dancer, who can’t remember the instant she turns her back, if she’s made that cup of coffee, and more intimate details of life, understands and delights in clever thinking, stories, song lyrics. We talk as we walk, and discover basic commonalities: the sizes of our families, the geniuses in those trees, that we both love solitude as much as company.
“Do you dance? I might have asked you that.” She’s so aware of her memory loss that she prefaces most stories with “I probably already told you, but…” Among the hundreds of dementia folks I have worked with, I haven’t met many with such a clear consciousness of their condition. People can be nudged toward it, but admitting to a memory “as long as my fingernails” (as my own grandma used to say) is a humiliation for most people. I say “Memory isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” and “Having a good memory is over-rated.” I say these things to everyone, all the time. Seriously. Thinking, caring, laughing, exercising the spiritual mind, are all way more important to having a good life.
You can sing and dance and walk and laugh and love people without much memory. But if you are so twigged out about forgetfulness that it makes you angry, shuts down your logic, and turns you into a hermit, you’re going to have trouble enjoying life. At the extreme, the memory loss requires helpers, to turn off the stove and assist with vital self-care. Everyone takes the stages of dementia with their own style, and I can’t begrudge anyone their battles. But, I admire the dancer.
“You should have dancing friends,” she says. Her old church community aged along with her. “They are all in worse shape than me. None of them can help me, but I have my dancers. It’s a miracle.” Sure enough, a team of her younger musical friends, (not youths themselves) plus some of Circle of Life people, are dancing her along, safely and happily. “It’s a miracle,” she says, again.