Dementia and Self-Awareness

My mother’s second husband died last month. Walter Bahr had been a member of the family for 32 years, having married my mom five years after my dad died.

Walt was diagnosed with dementia ten years ago (they said he’d probably had it for at least two years by then) and placed in the Memory Care unit of a nursing home. The name is misleading because it implies that they could somehow take care of his memory. They can’t. They should call it Losing Your Memory Care.

As the disease followed its course, Walt was increasingly frustrated. As he put it, he was “all mixed up” and didn’t understand why. His short-term memory was affected first. For the first few years, he continually asked why he couldn’t go home, and answers had to be continually repeated, knowing that tomorrow would most likely be a repeat of today. Eventually, he had only fragments of memories beyond childhood, sometimes connected but most times not. Friends and family became strangers that were somehow familiar, people that he knew he should know but didn’t, people he almost recognized but not really. Depending on the moment, my mom was either his wife or his mother, sometimes at the same time. He was quite literally losing his mind.

Walt brought some joy back into Mom’s life after five sad years, and for that I am grateful. I am also grateful for the new perspective that Walt’s dementia gave me on my dad’s death. I have missed him terribly over the years, but I wouldn’t want him back if it meant watching him go through what I saw with Walt. I am also grateful for the opportunity it gave me to consider a different kind of self-awareness and to try to imagine a world view that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

Walt was self-aware enough to know that something was wrong, and no matter how many times we tried to explain it he kept asking. Over and over and over again. And we gave the same answer. Over and over and over again.

My dad knew something was wrong, but hearing it once was enough. After a round of radiation and chemo he knew he wasn’t going to get better. He didn’t ask why, probably because he knew there was no “why”. He was gone just six months after being told he had cancer, and he was very much aware of what was happening.

Walt was self-aware enough to know that something was wrong, but not self-aware enough to understand it. He was caught in a mental Catch 22, somehow aware of his lack of self-awareness and powerless to do anything about it. It took until last month for his body to stop breathing, but he started dying twelve years ago. It’s called The Long Goodbye for good reason.

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