Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Our life spans have increased to nearly double in the last hundred years. Today's average American can expect to reach 78 years, a remarkable number when we realize that the U.S. is only number 45 on the list. Countries with universal access to health care do much better: a woman in tiny Andorra is expected to reach 87 and in Japan, a large country with high stomach cancer rate, just a year less.

With aging we face new problems, least of which is not what to do with people suffering from all forms of dementia. In my youth, when someone started displaying signs of forgetfulness, they usually died within a couple years, although I do remember an aunt of my father's who lived like that for almost two decades. In her case, perhaps her brain chose not to remember as she lost her two children in their youth or early adulthood, followed by the death of her husband, probably from a broken heart.

In today's society it is difficult to care for an aging parent, aunt or uncle at home. Sooner or later we all have to turn to the help of an assisted living program, or a nursing home. At that point many of us feel that the elderly person is now taken care of and that physically being with them in form of visits are not necessary, at least not frequently. Being old often equals being lonely. For a little while my mother was in a large old-fashioned hospital room with three other elderly ladies. At that time the hospital had visiting hours and I remember how sad many of those patients looked when nobody came, except rarely. They were carefully listening to every discussion I had with my mom, often even commenting on something said. Yet all of them had families, some living too far for frequents visits, but others just too busy with their own lives to be bothered. If I brought my then-little children along, everyone in the room became excited. It is as if the elderly need the company of children, and I firmly believe it is also good the other way around.

A few weeks back my wife and I went to play at a retirement home, at a request by the daughter of a lady whose life has always been surrounded in music. Although her memory is quite problematic, it was a delight to see the smile on her face as the music we performed took her back to the past, to happy memories. Just because present-day matters are quickly forgotten, there is a lifetime of events stored in one's mind. Until a couple years ago, my father would regularly attend concerts as long as someone could take care of his transportation. Just because his mind preferred living in another era didn't affect his taste in music. Of all his senses his hearing is remarkable even today, and an out-of-tune note or an ugly vibrato still bothers him as much as decades ago. That morning of our visit, there were others in the audience that we recognized as regular concertgoers from years past; they no longer can attend because of physical limitations. Such a simple effort from our part, donating a little time and talent, made a lot of people happy, us included.

I have new insight to what people go through when their memory starts playing tricks. About a month ago I suffered a concussion, as a result of an accident in the house I don't really remember happening. Initially I thought it just another bump on the forehead, but then all these students started walking in when I least expected them. At other times I would be emailing them asking why they had forgotten to come, getting replies that we had just rescheduled their lesson times. In other words, as a result of my brain swelling, my own short term memory was just like that of a person suffering from dementia. My daughter was a bit upset that I forgot to pick her up from school on a day when she was in a hurry to get to her guitar lesson, but when I explained she immediately understood. Unlike the elderly I know that every day is a better one; the scan showed no bleeding. The head still feels like it's about to explode and it is hard to remember what day it is when waking up, but at least I know to check my online calendar the first thing in the morning. An accident can turn into a blessing: I can sympathize with people suffering from memory loss like never before and the understanding feels like a gift.

And important things do seem to stick in the memory, like the visit to play a short concert for the wonderful seniors. On behalf of them and all the others living mainly in the past: please don't forget us. Our world may not be exactly like yours, but it is a world and a life nevertheless. One day, probably sooner that you realize, you will be one of us. The Golden Rule in all religions says, in different variations: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

picture: Shaolin Studios Publishing