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Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Fountain of Youth

My mother just left in a taxi cab, waving and smiling.
She's going to stay  at a 'daycare center for people with memory problems'. She goes there four days a week.
My mother hated having to leave the house, tied down to someone else's schedule. She craved privacy. Mocking peolpe who tried to keep her entertained. Now she loves it and longs for it.

My mother has more and more trouble understanding what the world, our society, wants from her. When she's alone she's plagued by fearsome thoughts, false memories and  a sense of belonging to no one, nowhere.  Therefore she craves the company of uncomplicated people who just sit and drink coffee with her and make small talk. My mother has Alzheimer.

I've had a discussion, or rather a lecture, about the effect of Alzheimer on the patient's posture from my son's  manual therapist. He has seen many patients pass by.  What actually happens is that the postural reflexes that we acquire when developing from baby to toddler to child to adult are gradually lost. Like regressing to childhood.
I can see that in my mother: she's getting more stooped and getting thinner. Not that she is eating less. Her muscles mass is disappearing, because the postural muscles are less and less innervated.
Eventually an Alzheimer patient will not come out of his bed anymore and he or she will die in the fetal position. Often with a cuddly toy in hand. 

Something comparable happens to the thinking of the person with Alzheimer. I don't mean the fact that patients lose their most recent memories before they lose their childhood memories.   
No, the person with Alzheimer also loses sense for categorising. On one hand, detailed differences become invisible, on the other hand, categorising by function becomes difficult too. My mother is still fond of embroidering, but counting stitches is too hard. So now I buy her preprinted patterns. She can handle that 
if... she's kept the yarn with the rest of the embroidery set. When she is not actually embroidering, she doesn't understand that these things belong together. 
And it is hard to find back the yarn or whatever else she put away. Since she does not understand categories, she puts things together in a completely un-understandable fashion.  For me anyway, since I'm the one who's still hampered by logic.
There's good news: my mother has lost her fobia's. That too is learned behaviour, no matter how deep and 'unreasonable' that fear may be.  Not only has she lost her fear of darkness, she also has lost her fear of frogs. If she sees one now, she will walk up to it, to admire it.  I hope she won't put them in her pocket and bring them home... 
Some people complain that Alzheimer patients go through a change of character. But that's in the eye of the beholder. Of course there is a period of aggression. Someone with Alzheimer at first knows something is wrong. It is scary. And people around you loose patience with you, they start to criticise and correct you in an unfriendly way...  so naturally you beome defensive. 
After this √≠nitial' period, something else happens. I've heard it from people who took care of Alzheimer patients profesionally. Whether it was 25 years ago or recently, they all say the same thing:  the patient's natural disposition comes out. Of course it does: because all 'learned' behaviour is lost. The decorum that our parents and teachers taught us to hold up, is forgotten. The rules that our culture, our society, dictated are forgotten. So there is nothing, no rule book, that tells a patient how to behave. There is just one thing left: the inner impulse.
While the brain shrivels, the personality gets a better chance to exhibit itself ?

How different is that from the statement of prof. Dick Swaab, who concludes that "we are our brain".   Obviously there is a kernel that is not our brain. It's up to you if you call it your Soul, your Self, ...
Isn't our brain partially formed by those arround us? Or more precisely, by the friction between who we  are (our kernel) and what people around us expect from us. Be it family, close environment or ... our culture and society.
Look at people who have been mistreated or neglected in their childhood: the corpus callosum,  a very 'central' part of the brain, remains smaller than in people who have not been mistreated. 

I believe however that the mistreated brain is not the personality of that person. I believe that our true Self is still undamaged underneath the layers of experience and adaptations. And if he -or she-  digs hard enough, deep enough, he can find the remains of his personality and revive it. OK, it might take a lifetime, or it might be too much for the less gifted, but the Self is there and will be there when you die.  Or get Alzheimer.

Should we really beg for a cure for Alzheimer?
  -I'm playing the devil's advocate, just to set your mind at work-
Because all in all, when you have Alzheimer, you become like a child again. If we were taken care of by others, who guard over us like loving parents, would it be that bad? 
Except for the weird thoughts. Then again, children have weird thoughts too, don't they?  Like one might disappear through the drain of the bathroom?   
Don't we all wish at times that we were children again?

Maybe we should all beg for an Alzheimer Friendly Society? Where drinking from the Fountain of Youth is fun, or at least honorable?
Well, I guess a cure for Alzheimer is the most likely of the two to happen.

Alzheimer is definitely  a challenge for philosophers!

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