The first time I realised that my father had moved from the forgetfulness of ageing into something more sinister, was the day he opened a package from his oldest friend, and found something he’d never seen before.
‘Ron’s sent me a plastic thing,’ he told me, ‘with brown tape in it. Never seen anything like it before.’
He and Mum had just arrived for lunch, an extraordinary forty-five minutes late.
‘Your father got us lost,’ Mum explained. The lateness didn’t matter, but it was alarming as they lived only fifteen minutes drive away and Dad had driven back and forth many times.
‘Here,’ he said shoving a small package into my hands, ‘see if you can work this out.’
The package contained a cassette wrapped in a sheet of notepaper held in place with an elastic band. I unwrapped it and read the note. Ron had written that the arthritis in his hands made writing very painful so he’d spoken his message onto the cassette. But Dad, who regularly played music cassettes at home and in the car, was now insisting that he’d never seen a cassette before. It was as though that tiny part in his brain that understood ‘cassette’ had simply been wiped out. When we played Ron’s message for him he was totally bewildered and still denied knowing that such a thing existed.
The following day I took him to the doctor, and later that week for a variety of tests. He had suffered a TIA – a very small stroke – presumably the night before they came to lunch. Further tests diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, fast-tracked by the TIA. It was sudden and shocking, and life for Dad and Mum, and for me as their carer, changed dramatically
I had been aware for some time that both Mum and Dad were forgetful, Mum more evidently so. But that seemed to be the slow and natural diminishment of memory that comes with ageing. They hadn’t spoken or seemed anxious about it. What I wonder now, more that twenty-five years later, is how that forgetfulness felt for them and how long they were aware of it before this sudden crisis. As I approach seventy-four, I’m increasingly aware that the nature of my own forgetfulness has changed. Not only do I forget more, and more rapidly, than I did just a few years ago, but my ability to recall the things I’ve forgotten is much slower, and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. Much has been lost – probably forever.
Memory seems to be on most people’s minds these days. We blame information overload, the pace of life, the pressure of time, the demands of social media. And when I mention an appointment I’ve missed, a name I can’t recall, or when the title of a book, a film, or the date of someone’s birthday, simply evades me, people decades younger roll their eyes and tell me not to worry because they do the same thing all the time. What they don’t understand is that forgetting in your thirties, forties or fifties, even in your sixties, is not the same as forgetting in your seventies and beyond. There is less memory, more forgetting, more that is completely lost, and then there’s the creeping fear that all this might be more than just old age.
A few years ago I was doing between ten and thirty public talks a year, and unless it was a formal speech I did them without notes. I was also writing and delivering lectures in the university where I work where, in order to avoid droning on and sending students to sleep, I would simply work from dot points. That would be impossible for me now because it is most unlikely that I would remember how I intended to join the dots. I can focus and remember well while writing, and when I forget something my recall is much slower than it used to be but it still works. But out in the world, in conversations with friends and strangers, and with colleagues, I am in a constant state of alert anxiety that I will forget what I want to say. In meetings I am uncharacteristically quiet, a relief for others probably, but not for me!
Earlier this week I came across a couple of boxes of newspaper articles, magazine features, lectures and other pieces I wrote years ago. Some were familiar, others quite memorable because they were associated with particularly interesting or charismatic people, or written at significant times in my own life. But there were dozens that might just as well have been written by someone else. I couldn’t recall doing the interviews, meeting the people, nor the process of writing. It was only my name printed on them that told me they were mine.
Both my parents had dementia; my mother’s somewhat more benign than Alzheimer’s. So now I have to ask myself if I too am heading in that direction or if I am just growing old! Did they have this awareness? Did they feel the same concern? They certainly never expressed it other than in that casual ‘I’m always forgetting stuff,’ way that we all do from time to time?
I am not depressed but I am concerned; but I am still working and writing, still juggling a number of different interests and projects. I could have the series of tests that would tell me if I might get Alzheimer’s, but the tests aren’t conclusive. And it’s not as if there is a cure or treatment. It might be hard to fight depression if the one thing I never forgot was the result of test that said ‘very likely’.
But every time I lose my glasses, miss an appointment, completely forget what I am supposed to be doing, or try to remember the name of a book I only finished reading a couple of days ago, I wonder. And sometimes those things all happen in the course of a couple of hours. And so it goes…
Earlier this year I wrote a piece about a memorable memory experience that happened as I was driving one afternoon. I called it How To Tell You’re Getting Old, and it’s about completely forgetting and then the relief of remembering. Apologies if you’ve seen this before. If you haven’t, I hope it will make you smile.
How To Tell You’re Getting Old
- Get into car and switch radio to ABC RN.
- Hear Richard Fidler talking to a woman who is speaking authoritatively and in great detail on a subject on which you consider yourself to be something of an expert, having published a book on the subject 18 months earlier.
- Experience undignified sense of outrage and paranoia, followed by sense of failure, at being surpassed by someone smarter and probably younger and certainly thinner.
- Punch steering wheel several times and vow to discover identity of arrogant interloper.
- Groan with the agony of loss of self-worth.
- Hear Richard Fidler say “… today we’re talking with Liz Byrski, author of…”
- Feel enormously clever, famous, important, world expert, relevant, wise and articulate – and hugely relieved.
- Then REMEMBER (wait for it) that Richard’s producer called you ONLY TWO DAYS AGO to tell you that they would replay the interview this afternoon.
- Feel old, stupid, moronic, horribly petulant DEAF and DAFT can’t even recognise own voice.
- Get home take out iPhone and read seven texts – which you couldn’t read earlier because you left reading glasses at home. Messages from friends all say, ‘You’re on the radio NOW!’
- Make cup of tea, have long lie down in darkened room.
- Get up feeling ridiculous and incompetent having failed to recognise self on the wireless, but also feeling rather smug at impressing self!
PS: If you would like to hear the interview there is a link on the Interviews page of my website.