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Alan Hamilton - Author & Editor

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Mental Health

I go into a room in my home, then I stand unable to think why I went in there. The onset of senile dementia? Probably not. This has happened to me as far back as I can remember, and others tell me they've done the same even when they were much younger.
It's very clear, though, that the phenomenon of dementia isn't something that's sprung on the human species in the past few decades.


I said in the last piece I was in Shakespeare's 'Sixth Age' (note I don't add 'of Man'; back then, when spelled with a capital M the noun embraced women too – we've moved on, of course). His description of the Seventh Age is surely that of dementia '. . . second childishness and mere oblivion . . .' The power and dramatic force of the words are chilling. That's what awaits those who linger on past the Sixth Age. But hardly anyone did. To a man – and a woman too – they nearly all died of the other ills we are heir to well before they got anywhere near to the drooling, blind, deaf, and disorientated character Shakespeare describes.


For an increasing number of us the price of greater longevity means being sentenced to the Seventh Age. Since by definition 'Seventh Agers' cannot look after themselves and need constant and thorough care, the burden falls first on the health and welfare institutions of the state or, in a few cases, private charity, or in even fewer, the relatives.


I know whereof I speak. My first mother-in-law became institutionalised in her late eighties. She did not know who I was nor recognised any of her close relatives. And this had been a clever, well-read, well-travelled, and lively woman – an exemplary granny for my growing children. My own elderly mother, while she herself was not a dementia patient but needed nursing care, refused point-blank to leave her room and be among the other residents sitting glassy-eyed and vacant in front of a television screen. She found it deeply depressing.


As for me, while I experience the physical aches and pains of being old and know that I have shrunk – I'm significantly shorter than I was fifteen years ago – I have, thank goodness – all, or nearly all, of what they used to call my 'marbles'. I read in preference to watching TV, I write fiction and edit other writers' work, I belong to groups and societies, I deal with the administration of the management company for the building I own a flat in, I nearly always complete two cryptic crossword puzzles each week.




As it happens just this last week I read a long article about dementia. It started with a substantial list of 'signs' with the severe injunction '. . . two or more of these . . . you should see a specialist as soon as possible.'


Now I'm not a fan of lists of symptoms. Long ago, reading Three Men in a Boat, I chuckled over the story of the fellow who looked up (in the pre-Google era) in a medical work in a library a symptom he thought he had, and ended up reading every medical book available, finally convinced he had all the illnesses and diseases a human could have plus (and I've probably made this up) one or two specific to non-human mammals.


When I read through the list, items such as 'losing your train of thought in conversation more than a couple of times in the past two months' jumped out at me. Of course I have – and I suspect I always have. Remembering the right word for something has often been a head-scratcher for me and getting distracted in midsentence isn't a stranger to me either.


Oh, and 'thinking people are after you or trying to steal from you', aka paranoia. But all my adult life I've known the b******s are out to get me. What's new? So I won't be rushing on down to the surgery any time soon.


Seriously, though, I'm inclined to think that the mental deterioration we call dementia is an inevitable consequence of ageing though it doesn't happen universally, or not, anyway at the same age. Whether current scientific interest in lengthening life span is worthwhile without a parallel advance in the prevention and cure of dementia is a question we should all be asking.


The article also had a list of things considered helpful in delaying the onset of dementia and I feel these are worth noting:
Don't eat meat; consume less salt and sugar; be active – move about at least once each hour; sleep for 7 – 8 hours a night; do puzzles; have an active social life.


My next piece will look at how we 'oldies' use and experience emotions and memories.

My second blog about growing old....