An unknown life, but not an empty one - Macleans.ca

An unknown life, but not an empty one

Emma Teitel on the long, slow fade of dementia

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An unknown life, but not an empty one

James Veysey/Camera Press/Redux

When former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher died last week at the age of 87, public reaction was as divisive as her politics. Some mourned, some drank champagne. In Leeds, a man yelled into a megaphone before a crowd of revellers, “If you all hate Thatcher clap your hands!” They did.

I know very little about Thatcher, the prime minister. She resigned from her position a year after I was born. I can’t comment on her political legacy, and whether she saved Britain or ruined it—but I have a lot to say about her final years. What I know about Thatcher the person is that she had dementia, the blanket term for a host of debilitating memory-loss diseases (Alzheimer’s included). We don’t know how advanced her dementia was when she passed away last week, but if the disease had changed her as dramatically as her daughter Carol says it did, it’s very likely that the personality mourned and vilified by Britons this past week had in many ways already departed several years before.

Carol Thatcher writes in her 2008 book, A Swim-On Part in the Goldfish Bowl: A Memoir,that she started noticing her mother’s symptoms in the year 2000: she began to confuse the names of countries. She asked the same questions several times. And eventually, years later, she forgot again and again that her husband of more than 50 years, Denis, had died of cancer in 2003. “Sufferers look the exact same,” writes Carol Thatcher, “but beneath the familiar exterior something quite different is going on. They’re in another world and you cannot enter.”

I know this well. All four of my grandparents are still alive. But only two of them are still with us. My bubbies (Yiddish for grandmothers) live in upscale Toronto retirement homes—one of which serves filet mignon for dinner and a multicoloured ice cream called hokey pokey for dessert. My zaidies (Yiddish for grandfathers) are, as Carol Thatcher put it, in another world we cannot enter. Physically, they’re on the sixth floor of Baycrest, a Jewish old folks’ home and hospital in north Toronto, but mentally, they are somewhere else; unknown to us and worse, I used to suspect—unknown to them. Worse than that, I thought, lost to themselves, in an existence that was bleak and without meaning.

But lately I’ve begun to wonder about the source of that belief, and whether it comes from genuine concern for my zaidies or from a reflex presumption rooted in my own sense of helplessness. This is something my father, who’s just written a musical about Alzheimer’s disease, calls the sentimentality of false despair, which is as misleading as the sentimentality we all know better, of false good cheer. We tend to measure the bleakness of people in my zaidies’ condition by how bleak their conditions are for us. Because we can no longer provide them with happiness we assume they don’t have any. Because we can’t give meaning to their lives, we assume their lives have no meaning. I know for example that when I visit my Zaidy Abie, I am not making him happy. Most of the time I’m bothering him—waking him up for my sake, not his.

So for now, and maybe forever, I have decided to let him sleep. Just because I don’t add meaning to his life does not mean his life is empty.

Neither of my grandfathers is in physical discomfort, or is agitated, or is obviously suffering. They seem to enjoy the Sunday afternoon klezmer concerts in the Baycrest atrium (a remarkable achievement in itself). When he’s not sleeping, my Zaidy Jack will sometimes lower his forehead against yours and hold your hand; when he’s not sleeping my Zaidy Abie will say thank you when you kiss his forehead and then go back to shooting imaginary baskets with his eyes closed—something he actually does when he’s sleeping, too. We have no idea if the shots are going in, or what the score is. But somewhere the game is on. Just because they inhabit “a world you cannot enter” doesn’t mean it’s a world not worth living for.

My Zaidy Jack is still sweet; my Zaidy Abie is still a gentleman (it’s true, his physiotherapist says so).  Whatever Margaret Thatcher was, in private, at the end of her life, it was not an Iron Lady. And that, too, was probably a kind of blessing.

Have a comment to share? emma.teitel@macleans.rogers.com

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