I remember visiting my 86-year-old aunt in the hospital. Ourconversation went something like this:
She: "What's your name?"
She: "Who's your father?"
Me: "Your brother George."
She: "Oh, yes, yes." (long pause) "Are you and I the same age?"
She: "Am I older than you?"
Me: "Yes, you're 30 years older than I am."
She: "Thirty years older? But you're all gray!"
Me: "So are you!"
She: (long pause) "What did you say your name was?"
And around we'd go again. My aunt was just floating out there, with little connection to time or personal relationships. Most often, I just held her hand, and we looked into each other's eyes. It didn't matter that she couldn't remember me; she didn't seem particularly anxious about it. We were just two beings meeting in soul time together, and once I'd released my attachment to speaking to her on the ego level, both of us enjoyed our visits immensely.
Because we are so identified with our thoughts and feelings, and so sure that they and only they tell us who we really are, it's very hard for us not to panic when our minds slip. And yet there are cases in which what we call senility is, in fact, a process that need not be so frightening. As Frances, a resident in a nursing home, said, "Lack of physical strength keeps me inactive and often silent. They call me senile, but senility is just a convenient peg on which to hang nonconformity. A new set of faculties seems to be coming into operation. More than at any other time of my life, I seem to be aware of the beauties of our spinning planet and the sky above. Old age is sharpening my awareness." In other words, what appears to be loss may in fact be transformation, if we allow the mind to change without fear.
There is an award-winning film, "Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter," that I love for its honesty. The writer-director chronicles the advancing stages of Alzheimer's syndrome in her mother, at the same time recording her own reactions to this illness. The disease progresses until at last the mother no longer recognizes her daughter at all. Finally, when it becomes too dangerous for the mother to remain in her own apartment, the daughter moves her to a nursing home.
During the admissions process, the head of the nursing home tells thedaughter not to leave anything from the past with her mother--not even her clothes. This seems harsh at the time, but the daughter does as she's asked. When she returns the next day, she finds her mother wearing a man's sweat suit and carrying a pocketbook with one penny in it. The daughter suddenly realizes that her mother is quite happy now that there's no one around to remind her of what she's forgotten. The daughter realizes that her loving attachment to the mother she's known has only prolonged her mother's suffering. In time, she learns to relax her attachment and to dance with her mother's consciousness wherever it might flow. In the last scene, the mother is walking down the corridor, swinging her pocketbook, and singing, "I'm freeee. I'm freeee!"
When we begin to examine the contents of our minds, we discover a cluster of common demons--what I call The Usual Suspects--that cause us trouble as we grow older. The first of these is senility--or the fear of losing our mental faculties.
I once received a greeting card from an elderly friend that took a lighter look a losing our minds:
Just a line to say I'm living
That I'm not among the dead,
Though I'm getting more forgetful
And more mixed up in the head.
For sometimes I can't remember,
When I stand at the foot of the stair,
If I must go up for something,
Or if I've just come down from there.
And before the fridge so often,
My poor mind is full of doubt:
Have I just put food away,
Or have I come to take some out?
And there are times when it is dark out,
When my nightcap's on my head,
When I don't know if I'm retiring
Or just getting out of bed.
So if it's my turn to write you,
There's no need for getting sore--
I may think that I have written
And don't want to be a bore.
Remember, I do love you,
And I wish that you were here
But now it's nearly mail-time
So I must say good-bye, my dear.
There I stood beside the mailbox
With my face so very red.