Jim, my twice-divorced buddy at the senior center is rapidly sinking deeper into dementia, a big difference in just the past year. We were recently talking about taxes, and he told me Marlene does his and takes care of all of his finances. “She tells me when to write a check and for how much. She enjoys doing it, and I enjoy hearing from her. She is very perky, always asks how I’m doing. I don’t hear that from anyone else.”
“Who’s Marlene? Your granddaughter?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” (Marlene is his daughter who lives in Seattle. He visits her every year. I have the feeling he knows she is his daughter, but not the word to express their relationship.)
“I used to be able to do all of that stuff myself,” says Jim. “It’s tough dealing with decline.” Until recently, Jim was hoping to find a woman partner for his remaining days, but he now realizes that will never happen. No woman will sign up as an unpaid, around-the-clock nurse for someone already broken.
All this is familiar because my father had dementia after my mother died, and he went through the same stage where he knew something was very wrong. “My brain’s just not working right,” he would tell me. But that was just temporary. As his dementia got steadily worse, he no longer realized he had a problem, or even that my mother, on whom he depended, was gone. He stopped worrying about the future. Dementia became a blessing.
I still have good conversations with Jim. He still has a lot of wisdom in him. Old memories remain fresh, so we talk about his days growing up in Philadelphia. He remembers every detail about Phillies games he saw at Shibe Park with his grandfather, his Irish family, his alcoholic father, his neighborhood rules for pimple-ball baseball. We discuss the theologian Paul Tillich, the subject of his Ph.D. thesis. He speaks slowly as he assembles each sentence in his mind before he presents it, and he often loses his train of thought, but we both have plenty of time. I expect by next year he will have been whisked off to a nursing home somewhere in Seattle. I doubt Marlene knows about me, and Jim cannot give me her email address or phone number, so one day he will just disappear. He has already forgotten my name, and soon he will forget me, too. I selfishly want to get all I can from him before that happens.
Jim is bent way over, looking at the floor as he walks. This, too, has gotten much worse over the past year. Why does this happen to some men as they age, and only to men? Deteriorating back muscles or a vertebra malfunction? He sits upright, and if you saw us chatting in the sauna, you would not realize anything was wrong, mentally or physically. It seems to be a common problem, but I could find nothing about it on a Google search, perhaps because I did not know what to call it.
“Old age is not for wimps,” says an old cliche. But on the positive side, I see aging as nature’s way of preparing us for death by taking away life’s pleasures slowly, one by one. Most people in their 80s have little left and are ready to go. Afraid of death? Not at all. Bring it on. This waiting is getting tedious.
Suppose we did not age. Suppose in our 80s we were just as vigorous as we were in our 20s: physically, mentally, and sexually—with smooth skin, a full head of hair, and overloaded with energy. Death would be terrifying. “I can’t die now! I’m about to remarry for the twelfth time. She’s a very hot 95-year-old who can’t get enough sex. We jog together every morning. We’re going to open an upscale restaurant. We want to travel the Silk Road by caravan, and hike the Appalachian Trail. We’ve got plans—big plans!”