Fear of dementia is a shadow we cannot shake off
Normal forgetfulness can often convince us we have early-stage Alzheimer’s
“You forget where in the car park you left the car and you feel a stab of fear.” Photograph: iStock
I’ve never been much good at remembering names. In fact, I’ve done a lot of dodging and diving to avoid letting people know I’ve forgotten.
It’s a telling example of how scared we are of dementia in later life that forgetting a name can suddenly seem like a sign of something worse.
Fear can lead us into irrationality and this is certainly an irrational behaviour on my part. For the first time ever, if I forget a name, I search my mind for it until I find it. Then it stays in my head and doesn’t vanish again.
So I am in the ridiculous situation that I fear forgetting names, yet, I’m probably better at remembering them than I ever was in my life before because I am aware of them in a way I never was before.
For me, making a big deal out of forgetting a name is a type of distorted thinking, a kind of mental habit identified in cognitive behavioural therapy. This thinking distortion says that if one thing is wrong, everything is wrong.
Sometimes this is true, of course. A white wedding dress sporting a single but visible splash of mud from a passing car is indeed ruined in the eyes of the bride, who wanted to make a different kind of splash. And forgetting the name of your partner, child or best friend should probably ring alarm bells.
But sometimes we take a normal glitch and elevate it into early-stage Alzheimer’s. You forget where in the car park you left the car and you feel a stab of fear – but, really, it only matters if this is happening every time you park the car.
I know a man who left a tap running one day a few years ago and who was quite disturbed by the possibility that this might have been a sign of age-related mental deterioration. Yet, in the intervening years he has never left a tap running.
If this had happened to him 30 years ago, he would have shrugged and turned off the tap and wouldn’t have given it another thought.
Because it happened 30 years later, the context was different and it seemed more serious than, in fact, it was.
The great fear
Not long ago, the great fear was cancer. It was referred to in hushed tones as the Big C. People even sometimes avoided other people who had cancer – it scared them and they didn’t know what to say.
We still have that fear of cancer but I don’t believe it’s as strong as it was. For people in older age groups, dementia, that steady slipping away, is the greater fear. It doesn’t help that the older you get, the more people you know to whom this is happening.
I mentioned names in particular earlier because when one of my favourite uncles was in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s, I noticed he could not ever recall names and I realised then how adrift we are when we cannot name places or people.
Because the fear is unavoidable it’s better to focus on what we can do about this.
Exercise seems to matter and so does cutting down on the drinking and cutting out smoking. Maintaining social contact also seems to help and the evidence behind this goes back decades.
As for me, I exercise anyway, I don’t drink or smoke, I write, I do courses in things I’m interested in and that challenge me. I am in touch with lots of people all the time.
My father suffered a good deal of confusion before he died in his early 70s but my mother lived to be 91 and was clear as a bell before a sudden heart attack took her. I hope the genetic cards fell the right way in my direction, though the influence of genetics isn’t clear – Alzheimer’s transmitted through families is, so far as I know, rare.
When all is said and done, though, and with life expectancy growing, the fear of dementia is, like the fear of death itself, a shadow we cannot quite shake off.
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2) My Dad was taken off in a squad car
3) Supports do not exist in this country
4) A shadow we cannot shake off
5) Homecare: practicalities, pitfalls, pluses
6) Daddy, dementia and me
Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org)