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Non Compos Mentis

January 21, 2022

My paternal grandfather lived to about 85, though was completely demented in his last years, not recognizing his children.

His spouse, my grandmother, made it to 100, though her last decade was lost to Alzheimer's.

My dad is the oldest of three. One sister died two years ago, also claimed by that disease.

The youngest has been mostly out of touch with the family for years. She has always been aloof and famously unfriendly. Her husband died decades ago as had her stepson; she has no children of her own. About five years ago I received a letter from her, the first ever, where she sheepishly let me know that many years prior she had granted me power of attorney, health care advocate, trustee, etc. (I'm the oldest of her nieces and nephews). She lives in Florida, so Marybeth and I made many treks to visit and deal with her disaster of finances and a filing system consisting of hundreds of hand-written notes on old envelopes. It took two years to sort it all out. Because of Covid we have not seen her for some time. Because she's deaf we can't talk on the phone. Because she never learned to use a computer or any tech, we communicate solely by letters which have become rare. Her caregivers give me regular updates.

And she has dementia.

She was livid when we put her in assisted living for her safety. But the blessing of dementia is that once it progresses to a certain extent the anger goes away. The cold Aunt Grace who hated people is now the darling of the facility.

Isn't life ironic?

For a long time my Mom, recognizing that their aging meant their single-family house was no longer tenable, had been after my Dad to sell and move into a facility for the elderly. He always refused, unwilling, as he put it, "to leave my tools." But seven years ago he, too, got the dreaded diagnosis. He had been in the hospital for other reasons. I left his room to get coffee and in those ten minutes the doctor gave him the bad news. As soon as I returned he announced they were selling the house. (Her opinion was not sought).

They have been in an independent living facility in the intervening years. His condition did worsen, but slowly, oh-so-slowly in ways that were hard to see. Till last summer when odd behaviors surfaced, including unsafe wandering at night. We brought in the "Visiting Angels" as babysitters as my 95-year-old Mom just couldn't manage anymore.

His decline was rapid. The day after Thanksgiving their facility insisted he move to memory care, immediately. Now he is delusional most of the time, and in his limited lucid moments, vaguely understanding what's going on, ineffably sad.

Engineers always want to be the smartest person in the room. He had a career as a mechanical engineer and was responsible for many space missions, not the least of which was his co-invention of the lunar module. A super-smart guy who intimidated all of us, he now can't figure out his TV remote control.

This week a love note from the IRS revealed some odd 2019 dementia-inspired transactions that will cost them a big chunk of money. The same thing happened with my aunt.

I've told Marybeth that if I get to that point to push my wheelchair off the dock. She says she won't. My Mom said I may feel differently as that time comes. In the book Still Alice (by Lisa Genova) the protagonist devises a plan to commit suicide when she becomes incompetent, but the illness defeats her cunning.

A hippie-era mantra was "don't trust anyone over 30." Few of us thought we'd ever attain such an august age. But 40 shockingly arrives, then 50, and seemingly minutes later 60 and beyond. The song "100 Years" is a poignant salute to the flash that is life.

Dementia is hard on the afflicted and their relatives. My advice: Get your affairs in order long before you need to. Make sure your spouse or other designee understands them. If you do get diagnosed, don't hesitate to delegate your affairs, before you make expensive mistakes.

And enjoy life now. Tomorrow comes sooner than you can imagine.

Feel free to email me with comments.

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