We took my mother to the neurology department for memory testing recently, and the doctor explained that memory is like a table where you keep your stuff. People with excellent memories have large tables, maybe even entire storage units with shelves and cubbies and labels. As we grow older the size of our memory tables shrink. This is an unfortunate and natural side effect of aging, and even the most cognitively gifted can expect their memories to fade somewhat over time.
For many people with dementia the table has almost disappeared. When there's no table to put your memories on they fade into the ether, gone. Occasionally they resurface at unexpected moments, but most simply evaporate into the cluttered recesses of the brain.
My mom's table is shrinking every day, and it's getting harder for her to maintain her independence, which she tells us is all she wants in life. When we received the diagnosis we feared more than all others - Alzheimer's - we didn't want to believe it. In fact, my mother still doesn't believe it. If we tell her she has Alzheimer's, she denies it. She can't even remember that her memory is shot. We realize her days of living independently are spiraling to a sad conclusion, but are also experiencing a bit of denial ourselves.
But despite the fact that her memory is disappearing, she is still Mom. She talks and acts much like always, sometimes enough to almost make you forget about her dementia, but those lucid moments are becoming increasingly rare. The truth is Alzheimer's cannot be prevented, cured, or even slowed, but that isn't even the worst part.
We are told there will be a point when she will look at us like strangers. What will be left after her memories are gone? Is it memories that make us who we are, or is there something else beyond our lifetimes of collected experience? Tomorrow, I may have some answers, but right now all I have are questions, and, of course, my memories of mom's memory.