I was privileged to have lunch today with a lady who suffers with dementia. I found the entire experience of such value to me that I can only describe it as poignant in the true sense of the word. I often write about growing old and the blessings of a fuzzy memory. Today I realised that dementia sufferers live in a time warp that is positively surreal. They segue between the past and the present and time is simply not measurable anymore. A father who had died in the 60s somehow had only just passed away. Winston Churchill who was a family friend and frequent dinner companion, also just died recently. Is this state of timelessness tragic? I found it to be rather revelatory about how we view our use of time and our lives.
Firstly, we should value time because it passes swiftly by. When we face the prospect of growing old and eventually dying, we realise that time is more valuable than gold, silver and all the diamonds and rubies in the world.
Secondly, we should recognise that most things in life are trivial and unimportant and we should not sweat the small stuff - a dementia sufferer has absolutely no concept of worrying about anything. Their needs and requirements are pared right down to those of utmost simplicity - food, rest, warmth and all in the present moment, the NOW because past and future are alien concepts to them.
Thirdly, as we look back at our lives, what do we recall? In other words, what really mattered? The lady I had lunch with today kept talking about her father in the present tense and with great respect. When I asked her what she remembered about her father the most, she replied: "He was himself." She may be suffering with dementia but there are flashes of absolute clarity- a person, an idea, an experience in her life which had embedded itself so deeply into her consciousness that in a sense, it made her who she is. But the statement that he was himself is truly profound. In other words, he had a strong sense of what he stood for. (It turns out that he was an MP, a Baron, a playwright, a radio presenter, a naval officer and an author). The theme of knowing who one is and to which I return often in my writing, was proven resoundingly by my lunch companion today. Indeed her father was a visionary and a free spirited independent thinker- a fearless and courageous individual guided by a strong sense of self. And he is still very much alive to her despite the contrary which brings me to the fourth point.
Fourthly, death is just an illusion. When time disappears, death becomes a non occurrence. Just as this lady spoke of her father as if he were alive, the impression he had made on her life and the image she retained of him were so strong, in essence it was as if he had never died. We spend our entire lives fearing death and yet, if we were to reflect on death being as transient as life we would have no fear.
Fifthly, we cannot change who we are. Although age brings a rapprochement to an end which manifests in a loss of memory and an immortality of sorts in the present tense, our demeanour and the core of our being remains intact to the end. Consider this: the lady spoke with the same upper class accent and her table manners remained impeccable despite her advanced age (we were in a fancy French restaurant and ate many courses). An innate intelligence prevents us from degenerating- the old argument that humans are superior to animals because of our intellectual capacity or intelligence, is indeed a subtle affirmation that all human life is purposeful (until it is squandered by an abuse of that intelligence). A will to choose coupled with an ability to understand are quite simply the most extraordinary gifts but which we take for granted. Furthermore life is a forward line leading somewhere and we all share the same destiny in that regard.
Sixthly, aging is about saying goodbye and a reminder of the ephemeral nature of life. Botox and plastic surgery are the favoured companions of many these days but they appeal to our fear of life and by inference, death. It is a sad indictment of our society that we do not value older people or the process of aging. I learned more during a few hours with an old woman today than I probably have in years. As I sat opposite her at lunch I saw eons of wisdom in a complete absence of anything- Goethe helpfully pointed out that one essentially knows nothing and Chateaubriand remarked that by the time we gain any wisdom at all we are ready to die. The true wisdom is in fact the human spirit- an ability to be, to fade away with grace, to choose the roar of silence over pointless words, to proffer a smile, albeit a toothless one, and this in spite of everything. My lunch companion today held the mirror up to me and I saw myself then, now and tomorrow. My gratitude to her is immense.
Photo copyright S. van Dalen