We recently saw The Other Place, a provocative new play by Sharr White starring Laurie Metcalf (co-star of Roseanne) which deals with, among other things, memory loss and its impacts not only on the patient but on all those around her. Metcalf’s character, Juliana Smithton, is the victim of a sneak attack – she never saw it coming.
But having hit that big six-oh milestone birthday this year and officially crossing over into senior moment territory, sometimes I think there’s a very thin line separating “normal” memory loss from clinical dementia. Perhaps there is really no line at all, but rather a broad continuum of incrementally severe degradation in memory capacity that impacts everyone …and those who are still this side of “normal,” experience a lesser degree of memory loss or have merely found ways to successfully cope with the disability.
It’s certainly frustrating to fail to produce a particular name or word that the brain once delivered without skipping a beat, but generally speaking, it’s not incapacitating. Unfortunately the white-collar workers in the cognitive sections of the brain often breeze along in real-time not realizing that many of their colleagues in the memory warehouse have been laid off so they are short-staffed and the poor schlubs who remain are not as spry as they once were. So when called upon to quickly retrieve thoughts, occasionally they come up empty and wind up scrambling around frantically pulling stuff off the shelves to find the missing thought and get it to the check-out counter before the lips start to try to form the words.
If the reference is a real oldy they have to travel down Memory Lane to the archives warehouse hoping their 1952 Ford station wagon doesn’t stall out on the way.
The older I get the more often I find the need to pause in mid-sentence as the cashier is ringing up my thoughts hoping the word warehouse workers will produce the goods before the young whippersnapper behind the counter rolls his eyes and shouts out for the whole store to hear,
“Word check on Line 12!”
Frequently they make it just in time, resulting in only a momentary pause in delivery; other times they show up with a generic brand version of the word or thought of lesser quality and the cognition guys have to make a rapid decision on whether to accept it or not (usually a substitute thought is better than none at all); and sometimes they arrive out of breath and empty-handed leaving me on center stage with a broken down teleprompter. The cashier, who has a great memory of course, keeps track of how often I’m holding up the line and usually doesn’t hesitate to remind me.
When the word warehouse comes up empty I quickly try a lateral before getting sacked. This team approach is similar to the concept of parallel computing, i.e., pooling your memory bank with those around you, and between you coming up with “half a brain.” It helps, of course, to have compatible operating systems and more than 40 years of shared data to work with, so my wife often saves my ass.
As a last resort, new technology often comes to my rescue. Electronic messages, calendars, address books, and note pads are all readily searchable and at our fingertips through our smart phones and portable computers. And increasingly, the internet is becoming a rapidly searchable storage device for almost all external data. So I find myself using these various electronic crutches to help my memory continue to walk, albeit a bit more slowly.
Of course, even as our electronic devices get ever faster it’s still science fiction to imagine them integrated into our brains to supplement our natural memory processes… or is it?
While this reflection is light-hearted, memory loss is no laughing matter. To better understand where normal memory loss ends and clinically diagnosable dementia begins Opinion8ed2 spoke with the head of the Memory Care Clinic in Asheville, NC, established to provide appropriate assessment, treatment, and support for memory-impaired individuals and their families. See Understanding Dementia: Interview with Dr. Virginia Templeton