On Aging: Looking Through the Funhouse Mirror

Posted: October 7, 2011 in aging, health

I don’t have a lot of fears about aging. Oh, sure, I’m considering getting rid of my magnifying mirror in the bathroom because it does such a good job — make that a GREAT job — of reminding me of the March of Time across my sagging face. I’ve resigned myself to several more years in my colorist’s chair to hide the gray that started innocently at my temples and is now marching relentlessly over my scalp toward the nape of my neck. I toy with the idea of going to the local vein clinic to chase away all the spiders nesting on my legs and ankles. (And at the though of spending at least $200 a session, believe me, I’m still toying.)

My idea of a good time now is a nap, and my morning laps around the local track are getting noticeably longer. I can’t find anything at The Gap that wouldn’t make me look ridiculous. (Sigh…) The Offspring think I’m hilariously outdated, although The Spouse still thinks I’m cute. But he’s seriously overdue for getting his glasses upgraded, so maybe he’s not a good judge. And he has his own issues with aging. I asked him recently if I could borrow his hairspray and he laughed hysterically. (I guess you need HAIR to need SPRAY.) I really hadn’t noticed.

I can handle it, I tell myself, humming “The Circle of Life” in my head. It happens to everyone, doesn’t it?

But I do admit to One Great Fear.

I have an old acquaintance, not really a friend, but someone I worked with occasionally years ago, a very bright, articulate and driven woman who retired a few years back. I haven’t heard from or about her for a long time. But recently a mutual friend alerted me that my old coworker has recently become obsessed about some religious tangent and has alienated herself from most of her friends and family. I went online and found a sort of manifesto she had written and saw in it not the clear arguments of the well-educated and well-read woman I remember but the ravings of someone who I believe is in the early stages of dementia.

I was horrified. In her online treatise, she is so reasoned and persuasive and at the same time so utterly mad. I was reminded of John Bayley’s poignant description of his wife Iris Murdoch’s decline into Alzheimer’s disease in Elegy for Iris. One of the great literary minds of 20th century Great Britain, Murdoch remained blissfully unaware of her gradual collapse into chaos, leaving friends and family to pick up after her. (Judi Dench played her so tenderly in the movie, it made me cry.)

Bayley has been criticized for his unflinching portrayal of that decline, as has Margaret Thatcher’s daughter for chronicling her mother’s illness. (A NYTimes article on Thatcher has an ironic picture of the Iron Lady with President Reagan, whose mental deterioration reportedly began during his last days in the White House and was covered up by his staff.) It isn’t pretty to look at.

The specter of this terrifies me. Losing your mind and your memory would be such a blow, but to not realize that it’s happening would be something straight out of Kafka. I sometimes have nightmares where I’m trying to get home but the landscape and the people around me keep morphing and changing so much that I can’t find my way. That must be what it’s like, I think.

So I obsessively read all the articles and blogs on how to avoid Alzheimer’s and do my crosswords and anagrams and Sudoku puzzles daily to keep my mind active. I succumbed to some of the more curious recommendations, like avoiding spray antiperspirants with aluminum derivatives and taking ginseng for years before both were disproven as factors in developing dementia.

But none of this is any guarantee that, when it’s time, that biological button won’t get pushed. And so many of us will have to depend on the kindness of family and friends — and in some cases, even strangers — to guide us through those last confused years.

Sorry to be so grim, but I spent a lot of time thinking about my old acquaintance, who is probably baffled over everyone else’s inability to see what she thinks she sees so clearly. She’s looking into a funhouse mirror, with its waves and distortions, and doesn’t even know it.

NOTE/DISCLAIMER/WHATEVER: This is an update of a previous post in my old blog, Adventures at Midlife.

  1. notquiteold says:

    My father, who died this year at 88, suffered from mild dementia in his last few years. He wasn’t unhappy. But it was horribly unfair, that such a smart and funny mind got lost along the way. I missed him more those last few years than I have since he passed away. Because then I had a constant reminder of the sad changes in him. But now I can remember him as he was. (sorry to be so serious, but it is a subject dear to me, and I’m glad you wrote about it.)

    • msmeta says:

      I’m so sorry about your father. My mother had a few mental issues before she passed away, but I always thought it was because of her failing heart — not enough oxygen to the right places. It’s hard to watch, I know.

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