This post discusses Alzheimer's Disease and, on re-reading, asking whether it's a blessing or a curse may come across as incredibly crass. Mental deterioration is a very serious matter and is incredibly difficult for families to deal with. I understand and respect this more than words can say, and the words below outline my fear of the condition and what it may do to a person's sense of self.
Depending on how we look at just about any part of the ageing process, people can perceive the changes our bodies undergo as either a blessing or a curse. One of the many wonderful changes I've noticed with my own body over time is that I have less and less of a sweet tooth while also finding locally-grown green vegetables incredibly flavourful without the slightest hint of dressing. I really enjoyed lettuce and broccoli as a teen, but absolutely devour these two foods when they're on the dinner plate. Unfortunately, ageing can be quite brutal when people who have been largely independent for the vast majority of their life start to lose privileges, such as the right to drive a car or live in their own house. Today I joined the family to visit — to my knowledge — the oldest member of my wife's family; her grandmother. In just a few weeks she'll be 98 years old, though I doubt she knows this. She has Alzheimer's, which is one of those conditions that I have difficultly deciding whether it's a blessing or a curse.
Alzheimer's is in the top five of my List of Thing's I'd Rather Not Die From because it essentially zombifies us. Our bodies continue to function for a time, sure, but the person changes so drastically that there is very little of their past selves remaining. I've seen one person in my family go from being an incredibly intelligent, creative, and strong-willed person to a forgetful, frail shell of a man in the space of 5 years. By the end of his life, he could barely put a sentence together and he had trouble remembering whether he'd eaten food or not despite the empty plate in front of him. The person I grew up knowing was gone, though his body continued.
The same is seen in my wife's grandmother who, despite being almost a century in age, thinks she's still living in her childhood home which burned down in a tragic fire during the 1920s. She often asks if her father is asleep, despite the fact that he died just before the war. She shares fragments of memories from before anybody else in the room was born as though they happened just the other day, and then she'll repeat the story because she's forgotten that she's already shared the story. She does not remember her children very often. She doesn't remember her grandchildren at all, despite living in the same house as three of them for their entire lives. She doesn't remember attending my wedding, and asks if I am "a hired assistant". She lives in a different time.
This terrifies me. If Alzheimer's turns out to be a common occurrence in my family, will I contract the disease? Will my mind begin to deteriorate? Will I lose my entire self as a result? More importantly, will I be aware this is happening?
And this is where the question arises as to whether Alzheimer's is a blessing or a curse. The disease will be incredibly hard for the people around the individual who has the chronic neurodegenerative disease, there's no doubt about this. But is this a blessing in disguise to the person who is going through what is essentially the last stage of their lives? Rather than fight with their own failing body, they are slowly and quietly erased from their mind. The person who inhabits the body on the very last day is not at all the same person who existed five, ten, or twenty years prior. Or is this a curse, in that despite all our efforts in life, all the struggles and triumphs and experiences and friendships, we are not given the opportunity to face our last day with the full faculties of our mind?
I've been going back and forth on this for years … because I simply don't know enough about the disease, and I am terrified of losing my sense of self. Yes, this fear is very much fuelled by ego, but there's no denying that diseases of the mind are some of the most terrifying for introverted people who spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about things.
The Terror of Becoming Charlie
Back in high school I read Flowers for Algernon, an incredibly well-told story of a man named Charlie with an IQ of 68 who becomes incredibly intelligent after an experimental procedure only to lose it all. What terrified me about this book was that he was cognizant of the decline. He wrote of his fears while desperately battling against time in order to find a solution to the problem. In the end, he regressed to his former self but with a slight surface knowledge of the things going on around him.
Is this what Alzheimer's is like? Are people consciously aware that they are losing their mental abilities? One common symptom of the disease is that people become frustrated and angry as they try to do things they once did with ease, only to fail time and again. Is this the anguish of losing one's self? Is Alzheimer's similar to Locked-In Syndrome, where people are fully conscious of what's going on around them, but completely unable to participate in the world themselves? Will I watch my final days and see the sadness family members feel for my fate through the eyes of a mild-mannered, forgetful shell? Or will I simply cease to exist?
Reincarnation is something that I strongly hope is real, as there is just so much in this universe to see and learn that a billion lifetimes is not enough. If this is the way the universe works, then it means that we have an eternal soul and — most likely — a mostly consistent personality. If this is the case, how does our non-corporeal self deal with such a drastic change in cognition?