Love and Dementia

To love what is: The caregiving life.

Age, Trauma, and Contentment

Was my husband's memory destroyed by brain trauma, age, or both?

Unaware of his accident or his dementia, my husband attributes his lack of short-term memory--the result of a traumatic brain injury that left him, at 75, like someone with advanced Alzheimer's--simply to aging.

At first I dismissed the idea that his age had anything to do with it. A calamitous mishap like his fall from our sleeping loft could occur to anyone at any time and just happened to tear into our lives in our seventies. But the more I think about it, the less sure I am. Can it be because of his age that the fall occurred that summer and none of the previous fifteen summers when he slept on that balcony and didn't fall? Old people famously fall. Though it's his injury, not his age that has destroyed his memory, perhaps age can't be entirely ruled out either. It's well known that an aging brain is more vulnerable to decline than a young one, even without a disastrous fall, and that a blow to the head at any age can precipitate future dementia.

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The truth is, until the accident, four years ago, I never thought of either of us as old, an adjective that might apply to other people in their seventies, especially those I read about in novels or obituaries, but not to us. We didn't act old, didn't look old (at least not to each other), didn't think old or feel old. As always, each morning he went off to his art studio and I to my writing desk--not without, to be sure, some of the usual vicissitudes of septuagenarian life, annoying memory lapses, thinning hair, bones getting fragile, new sags and wrinkles unexpectedly appearing. And we had taken care to put our affairs in order--made our wills, advised our children of our wishes, rationalized our financial accounts. But in truth, we had first made wills when we were young, when our children were born. And the wrinkles and lapses of memory too had begun in our youth and accompanied us on every step of the way, along with our share of broken bones and progressive hair loss--all unremarkable, ubiquitous. Then out of the blue came that trauma, and we were suddenly plunged into old age.

"Can you believe how old we've gotten?" he exclaims as he rests on our bed while I dress.

"I know. It's hard to believe."

"But actually, I'm finding it rather enjoyable, aren't you?"

"Right!" I laugh. "No more of that restless striving or vain ambition."

"And we know so much by now," says the man who knows so little.

I give myself a shake. If he, with his disabling deficits, can hold fast to his lifelong habit of contentment, then I, without them, must find it in me to master sorrow and do the same.

Alix Kates Shulman is the author of 14 books including the best-seller Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen and a memoir about life with her brain-injured husband, To Love What Is.

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