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McCallum: Memory Loss

01/26/11 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST)  Commentator Mary McCallum has been thinking about the difference between forgetfulness and something more alarming.

(MCCALLUM) The sons of former President Ronald Reagan have been in the news lately, sparring over when their father really showed the first signs of Alzheimers Disease.  Each has a new book out, so airing their opposing opinions and brotherly enmity through news outlets is good for sales.  But it also moves discussion of Alzheimers forward in the public eye.  

As I followed this on the evening news, I thought about my own mental stumbles and those of friends, all convinced they're on board the Alzheimers Express. The news anchor directed worried viewers to the network's website to peruse the Ten Early Warning Signs of this dreaded disease that afflicts more than 10,000 Vermonters and 5 million people nationwide.

I made a mental note to take a quick look at the website myself, both for the facts and to allay any nagging fears about my own mental missteps.  I was encouraged by one doctor's simple warning:  if you can't find the car keys, that's a sign of aging.  But if you find them and can't figure out what they're for, it's time to worry.

I see this in action when I visit my ninety-four year-old mother, who occupies a small room in an assisted living facility.  It's chock full of stuff, and she tells me that even though it's a tiny space, she can't find anything.  Indeed, her jumbled room is a metaphor for what is taking over her mind.  

On my last visit I opened her refrigerator, one of those pint-sized models common in college dorms.  As I scanned the contents looking for moldy cheese, shriveled fruit and rock-hard bread, I spied a stack of CDs.  "Mom, do you know you have all your music CDs in the refrigerator?" I said.  

"No wonder I can't find them." she replied.  Her tone lacked surprise, or even confusion.  It was simply matter-of-fact.  "Who put them there?"

A moment later she was behind me with a plastic tub of margarine in hand.  She opened a cupboard drawer beneath the refrigerator that held books and papers, and added the margarine container.   I removed it, put it in the refrigerator.  She calmly thanked me.  

"I wouldn't normally do that," she said.  "I got confused with all the cleaning you're doing."  She sat on her bed, and then lay back and stared up at the ceiling.

My mother ran a household of seven people.  It was cramped and full of active kids, but always orderly.  Meals rolled out like clockwork three times a day, laundry was done on Monday, cookies baked on Tuesday, pies on Saturday.  She was, quite simply, always on top of it.  And now she doesn't know what day it is.

Paul Solomon is the Clinical Director of the Memory Clinic in Bennington, and on the 10th of February, he'll speak at Southern Vermont College about recent developments in diagnosing and treating Alzheimers.  But chances are that there's nothing more to be done for my mother.   And perhaps not even for me and my worried friends.

Then I remember that for now there is a bright side: I still know what my car keys are for.
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