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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Brain or Body? If I Had to Choose.

I can't help being enticed by books like Two Weeks to a Younger Brain. Who wouldn't want to learn tricks to stave off Alzheimer's? And every time hacks for a longer life jump out at me on Facebook I have to open them. I like my life. I like the fact that my body still allows me to do many of the things I love and my brain works pretty well although I forget names fast and worry about that.

With good fortune I still have a couple of productive decades ahead of me. But there is a question nagging me, one left by the women who preceded me. If I had to choose which would go first - the body or the mind - which would it be? For most of my life, I never thought seriously about the question because who at 20, 30, or even 40 does? But I suppose it's been at the back of my mind for a while.

When I was young and leaving home for university, I had to go and say goodbye to my grandmother who had lived in the same town as my family my whole life. By then Ga-Ga, as we called her, had become what everybody described as "senile." That day, my grandmother told me a rambling story that ended with the stricture not to go beyond the schoolyard walls in order to keep safe, drawing on some long-ago memory, confused by why I was saying goodbye.

As a teenager I found some of my grandmother's eccentricities amusing in the unaware invincibility of youth. I laughed when her cat walked all over the dining room table and stuck his paw in her teacup and when, even after we'd told her not to drink the tea, she forgot and drank it anyway.

But there was really nothing funny about my grandmother's decline. She had always been a smart woman, a woman who may have been limited by her time but ahead of  it nonetheless. She never traveled off the continent but she understood the sorrows of others oceans away. After World War II she housed Eastern European refugees in her home until they learned English and could get jobs in nearby Hamilton. In the '60s she sponsored a young girl from Hong Kong who wanted to come to Canada. She was a business woman at heart, mind you. The young girl had to read to her each day; the Estonians who lived in her house or our house helped on the farm until they could set out on their own.

And even though she never went to university, she taught herself about the stock market and turned the meagre earnings of a fruit farm into a handsome profit, able to care for herself financially after her husband died.

And yet what I remember of her at the end is a woman who allowed a farm manager to steal from her constantly, who wouldn't trust her own children, who grew more and more paranoid all the time. On one of my last visits to her when she was in hospital she told me the staff came into her room at night and cut off the skin from her finger tips. They boiled it, she told me, and made the curtain that hung in her room.

She was never diagnosed with Alzheimer's although it was clear she suffered from some form of dementia. I saw the toll this took on my mother, her caregiver, who tried her best to help but was rewarded with mistrust and abuse. One day when she came back from my grandmother's, exhausted, my mother told me she hoped that when she grew old, her body would go before her mind, partly because she didn't want her children to have to face the same situation.

Unfortunately, she got her wish. Childhood polio, post-polio and the effects of five pregnancies on a back with weakened muscles made my mother completely immobile by her eighties. She had the wherewithal to handle her own arrangements and insisted in the end on staying in her retirement home but moving to the only floor where there were nurses who could care for her - the Alzheimer's floor. Night and day, people wandered into her room scaring her. And frustrated with her inability to manage even the simplest physical tasks, my mother said she wished her mind had gone so she didn't have to be aware of what was happening to her. I reminded her of our conversation from years earlier. But by that point she was suffering too much to engage in a discussion.

When we see our grandmothers and our mothers in their final days they are others with a fate that is foreign to us. We are the young who will go on and on. But in the third phase, that question of how our lives will end has a way of catching up to us as we face the spectre of illnesses and the death of contemporaries. But if I had to choose the how and the when, I don't know what I'd want those to be. To end up like my grandmother or be as helpless as my mother. Both seems so unfair.

So I will read hacks to keep my health and I will try to exercise my brain. Luckily, the science shows many of the same good habits will protect both. And in the meantime, I'll try to put the question aside and enjoy each day as it comes. D

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