Saturday, March 13, 2010

Memory and time

My late grandfather, called Pa by all of his grandchildren, was a man with a sharp mind and a vigorous body until quite late in his life. In his eighties, after my grandmother died, he seemed to shrink and shrivel quickly, both physically and mentally: during his final years, his memory lapses seemed sudden and distressing to those who loved him.

I once visited him in hospital, where I found him anxious to get out of bed, because he was waiting for a train that would arrive any minute. A few careful questions revealed that he believed himself at the station in Katoomba, where he had lived as a youth, and he was preparing to catch the train to Sydney. Several days later, when I visited again, he was still waiting for the same train.

My distress at the thought of my grandfather waiting in his hospital room for a train that would never arrive was slightly alleviated by the realisation that he was not worried by the non-arrival of the train. For him, it was simply always about to arrive: three days had passed for me, but he was still on that station platform and the train was still due any minute.

There was a time, though, when the tricks Pa's memory played did distress him. I had brought my son, his namesake, to visit. Max was then about four or five years old, and he looked a great deal like my father (Pa's son) at the same age. When it was time for us to leave I mentioned that we had to get home because Max's dad would be waiting for us. With tears in his eyes, Pa asked, "Who is his father? Am I not his father?"

How could I explain that Pa's own red-headed son had grown up and begotten children who had produced another generation, when the evidence of his eyes and memory told him otherwise?

Pa's dementia showed me how important memory is to our sense of self, and how its loss can affect families and friends. I am sharing this personal story with you because it is one of my reasons for wanting to be involved in this project. Please feel free to share your experiences of Alzheimer's disease or memory loss in the comments below.

1 comment:

  1. The story of Pa believing himself to be Max's father touched a chord with me. My own daughter looks very much like I did when I was small and I look much like my mother. The last time we visited my Grandpa (my father's father) in the nursing home, he was obviously thrilled to see my daughter, reaching out to her and trying to speak with her (speech had long since left - not Alzheimers, but age paired with delayed evidence of damage done in his hard drinking young adulthood).

    We had visited many times during his stay there - my other grandma was on another floor of the same facility - but this was the first time he had exhibited such extreme agitation and eagerness upon seeing us. He looked very suspicious of my husband who looks NOTHING like my father (his son) and seemed happy, but not thrilled, to see me. It was a bit surreal to see, as an adult, how much he had adored me as child, how eager he was to bestow affection. It made me sad that he couldn't understand that I was the little girl, grown, and this child was my daughter - the next generation in his line of descendants. He passed away two days later.