DOES HE KNOW? IS HE HAPPY?
These are the two questions people ask more than any others once they learn that Ralph is suffering cognitive loss due to Alzheimer’s.
Both questions should be easy to answer: YES or NO. Yet I can’t answer either for sure.
1. DOES HE KNOW?
What Ralph knows and what he acknowledges may or may not be the same thing.
He’ll be catching up with an old friend on the phone and I’ll hear him say, “I have a memory problem,” as if it’s just another inconvenience of aging like someone else’s arthritis.
I’ll show my annoyance about something he forgot to do, like feed the dog, and he’ll rightfully if self-righteously chastise me, “You know I have a memory problem.” Of course I immediately backtrack. (Not easy for an inveterate nag).
But if the word Alzheimer’s comes up in general conversation, or more often in the media, he chooses to disassociate himself. There’s a TV commercial for Namenda that particularly bothers him because he takes Namenda. He does not want to identify with the sweet old man on the screen. “I don’t have Alzheimer’s,” he’ll announce. “The doctor said I don’t have Alzheimer’s.”
Often I just nod. After all, his most recent cognitive tests show he is holding onto the smudged borderline between Alzheimer’s and Mild Cognitive Impairment. But if I slip and remind him, “The doctor explained what it means that you have the plaque build up associated with Alzheimer’s,” he’ll go very quiet.
And if I ask him pointblank how he thinks he’s doing, whether he senses any changes in his cognitive abilities (changes I do sense but don’t bring up), he says no, he’s fine. If I mention a specific cognitive lapse, he denies it.
I understand: He wants to be in control.
2. IS HE HAPPY?
He SEEMS to be, at least as happy as he’s ever been:
He laughs more. He’s less impatient. He loves his dogs. He loves his nutty buddy ice cream cones for dessert after dinner, which he also usually loves (without the critiques of my cooking he used to make). He loves his cigarettes and his lite beer. He loves sitting on the porch. He loves his farm. He says he loves fishing although he doesn’t often make the effort to fish anymore. He loves me, as he’s told me more times in the last six months than he ever did in the previous 40 years we’ve been a couple.
But what he’s thinking and feeling inside I don’t know. For a man who loved to talk politics and philosophy all night, he’s gone awfully silent.
And really, if you ask whether he was particularly happy before his memory began slipping, the answer would also be I don’t know. He’s always been moody, though less so now. And like many men of his generation, he’s never been big on revealing or analyzing himself.
Still, I can’t help wondering if boredom is the reason he sleeps so much now that he’s not interested in what’s going on in the world–or if not boredom, a desire to escape from thinking about his situation. He doesn’t voice the fears he must have about his future, and I don’t push him (well, a little) or ask point-blank if he is happy. I don’t want him to ask me back.
I am not sure how I would answer…