Jacob Joseph shares his personal experience of caring for a relative with Alzheimer’s and warns of the emotional challenges we’re likely to face as the rate of diagnosis increases.
Let’s look at the words elder and elderly. How often do we hear senior citizens described as elderly in public discussion? A lot.
Both words mean to be of a greater age and they should be able to be used interchangeably, but there’s a difference. The word elder has a connotation to leader or wise. Looking at the etymology of the word elderly, the meaning has changed. Elders are wise while the elderly are disorganised. Elders lead while the elderly are led. Elders are robust and the elderly are frail.
You get the idea.
Nothing holds a magnifying glass to society’s perception of ageing more than Alzheimer’s disease. This degenerative condition has dragged the word elderly through the mud.
This article is not a discussion of semantics; I want to talk about my grandmother.
She has Alzheimer’s.
Scientists have hypothesized that Alzheimer’s is caused by a combination of genetics and lifestyle factors. Recent research has actually suggested that there’s a relationship between Alzheimer’s and the cardiovascular system. As we age, our arteries stiffen and the pulse of our heartbeat slowly destroys our brain, our personality and ultimately our ability to function. How ironic that the legendary centre of our emotions may actually be responsible for destroying our capacity to love. I agree with this theory. My grandmother has the biggest heart out of anyone I’ve ever met.
Our family has met with carers, and we’ve all done a measure of reading in the way that concerned relatives do. We’re dealing with it in our own way. We’ve understood that things only get worse from here and we’ve all reluctantly accepted the fact that we may not be remembered in years to come. If she lives long enough, she will lose the capacity to deal with the most basic day to day tasks like maintaining personal hygiene and eventually she will become a danger to herself. She will die. The question is when, and in what state.
I’ve recently been in and out of hospital — the cardiac ward is no place for a man as young as I — and I’ve seen what dementia does a person. We had an elderly patient in the ward who roamed and moaned in the night. It made me think of my own family — my grandmother.
She is deeply religious and she believes something better awaits her, but when she gets sick in years to come, modern medicine will try its best to keep her here on Earth. In one of her lucid moments, she told me that she is “ready to go”. She does not seek death, but she has accepted that her time on this Earth has passed. I agree with her. If she keeps living, perhaps another young man will see her roaming the hospital ward at night?
Is it not better to die while you still have your dignity than hold on to life until you need a carer to change your soiled clothes and bed sheets? How many new memories and experiences is she capable of making and retaining in these later parts of her life? To see the wedding of a grandchild is a special moment, but does it have any significance to you if you’re not aware of where you are and you can’t remember? Life is about experience, not existence.
As sad as it makes me, I want my grandmother to die now while she’s still the woman we all remember. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do. There’s my grandfather to think about as well. It’s natural to want your life partner to stay with you for as long as possible. Perhaps wishing her passing is a selfish thing, but I watch with sorrow and regret as she morphs from elder to infant.
As we live for a greater number of years, we as a society better be ready to face new challenges. I’m not talking about the economic consequences of an ageing population. These challenges are emotional.
One such challenge is answering the question, “When is the right time to die?” Unfortunately there is no answer, but it can’t just be when your body shuts down. As intelligent and conscious animals, human beings are more than just the sum of our flesh.
The longer we live, the more elderly we become and the less we are seen as elders.