My grandmother was old when she died -very old, in fact: she died on the morning after her 100th birthday party. Her congratulatory letter from the Queen -or at least someone official claiming to speak for her highness- came the day before. I’m not so sure it was congratulations, really -more a recognition that a member of the United Kingdom, albethey an émigré, had still remained loyal to her majesty and her dominions for a century.
My grandmother seemed to enjoy the party we held for her -she was all smiles and although she also seemed a bit confused by it all, she was delighted by the letter. It spoke to her of another life, I think -one that whispered the secrets of a little girl growing up in an English seaside town with a shingled beach and an amusement pier that offered tempting glimpses of a world across the sea -a world she couldn’t know would become her own for most of her life.
We all have lives like that -the present we currently occupy pales in depth, in colour, and even in meaning to the worlds we have tasted in our incomparably longer past. It only seems appropriate that when our brains tire of sorting through the tyrannies of the moment, we default to the myriad memories of what we lived. The past can be a comfortable place to rest -familiar, at the very least.
I loved visiting my aging granny -even in the hospital where she spent her final days she was always full of stories, full of wisdom, and full of wonder. And although often confused about current events, or what she’d had for breakfast that morning, her eyes would light up when I asked her to tell me about, say, her train journey across the country when she and grampa first arrived in the boat from England.
She would chuckle when she told me of the pioneer stoves they used to cook their food enroute, and how each time the locomotive stopped to fill the water in its tank, everybody would make a mad dash from the railway coaches to find wood and occasional supplies from the little stations along the way. Her eyes would twinkle as she relived the flavours of whatever food they’d had, and she would laugh at the difficulty of cooking on the ever-moving stoves. She had no trouble remembering how everybody helped each other -she even remembered some of their names after more than eighty years.
So whenever she seemed confused at my visits or flustered by my questions about her health, I would smile and settle in a chair beside her and ask her what she remembered about ‘the old days’ as she decided to call them. After all, I think she lived there most of the time -it seemed a place where she was happy. At any rate, it seemed to calm her, and allow her to speak to me as if she were still in the summer garden she’d loved to show me on my visits years ago to the house she and her husband had built near Vancouver. There seemed to be no disorder in the garden, no anxious search for a constantly fading identity, nothing forgotten there -just flowers all around us, and birds singing in the bower of trees she’d planted so long ago.
She loved to speak from there, and even then -especially then- I was happy to sit there with her in her past. I lived happily in the two worlds, and she enjoyed meeting me there; like lovers we would float from dream to dream, escaping from the bewildering clatter of a crowded hospital ward. Who would not prefer her floral ‘then’ to her sterile ‘here-and-now’?
The staff told me of the problems with her confusion, and how she would sometimes wander off looking, as she told one of them, ‘for the garden’. And all the while around us, there were often moans and shouts, and irritable reactions to attempts to tame the ward. Sanity lay somewhere in the past -their patients’ past- but the department seemed hastily conceived as a holding area until beds became available in community nursing homes. Hospital was perhaps the wrong place for most of the elders -they were not sick except, perhaps, for home… or for something that reminded them of home, at any rate.
I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to come across an essay on retrieving the autobiographical memory of demented seniors in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/the-self-in-dementia-is-not-lost-and-can-be-reached-with-care
It was written by Muireann Irish, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Sydney. ‘Our autobiographical memory… seems crucial to weaving a life story that bridges past and present, and permits us to extrapolate how the future might unfold, all within a meaningful and coherent narrative. So what happens when the tapestry of memory begins to fray, and we lose access to defining memories from the past?’
There are many types of neurodegenerative loss -Alzheimer’s among them, of course- and it is progressive. ‘Gradually, as the disease spreads, more distant memories are affected, leading to patchy recall of self-defining events, such as one’s wedding day or the birth of one’s children.’ And without our memories, who are we…? ‘There remains a recalcitrant perception that in parallel with the progressive pathological onslaught in the brain is the inevitable demise of personhood, akin to a ‘living death’.’
But, viewing dementia like that is not only depressing, but incomplete, according to the author. ‘While the illness is devastating, not all memories are obliterated by Alzheimer’s, and much of the person’s general knowledge and recollection of the distant past is retained. There remains a vast repository of life experiences, personal history, stories and fables that endures, even late into the illness. At moderate to severe stages of dementia, activities such as art, dance and music therapy provide important nonverbal means of communicating and fostering social interaction even when, on the surface, many core capabilities might seem to be lost… As the disease progresses and their self-concept becomes more rooted in their past, people with dementia can feel increasingly divorced from their current surroundings, which no longer make sense or feel familiar. This is the catalyst for behaviours that are commonly couched as ‘challenging’, such as agitation, wandering, attempts to leave a care facility to ‘go home’.’
Irish suggests that instead of confronting the dementia with an enforced ‘now’, ‘a positive approach could be to create a ‘memory box’ in anticipation of the days to come. This could form a repository of photographs, keepsakes, newspaper clippings, objects with personal meaning, even fabrics and smells, that resonate with the person and provide an external memory store. Conversations regarding music and songs from the person’s formative years, and the memories that these tunes evoke, could inspire personalised playlists that foster social interaction and the springboard for reminiscence. For care staff, a memory store of this nature would be as important as taking a detailed medical history.’
As for my grandmother, I was happy to sit with her in her garden while she happily regaled me with stories of her past. And I’d like to think that after she received that letter from her queen, she retreated to the garden to read it again and again as her life washed over her like a cooling summer breeze, and the flowers whispered sweet nothings in her ear.