Alzheimer’s Isn’t Funny

Last week there were reports that Will Ferrell was pursuing a new movie in which he would portray Ronald Reagan.  The project was pitched as a comedy set during Reagan’s second term, in which he is depicted as already in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease and an intern is charged with convincing Reagan that he is an actor portraying the President.  After an outcry about the insensitivity of the concept from Reagan’s children and others, one of Ferrell’s representatives said the actor wasn’t going to do the movie.

brain-tree-dementia-624x295I get why the Reagan children reacted as they did, and I think Ferrell was wise to back away from the project.  The reality is that Alzheimer’s disease really isn’t very funny.  Sure, many people who have had to deal with a family member with the disease probably have shaken their heads and had a rueful laugh about a particular episode that demonstrates how the ill person has changed — whether by repeating themselves, or by not knowing a friend or family member, or by showing radical changes to their personality as the disease ravages their brain — but it’s defensive humor, designed to help you cope with the realization that a person you know and love is falling into a black pit from which they will never emerge, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

I’ve read several memoirs written by children who’ve cared for parents with Alzheimer’s or dementia.  When the books share a “humorous” anecdote, as they sometimes do, it’s uncomfortable reading because the victim of the disease is inevitably the butt of the humor — because they’ve forgotten where they are, or have taken a shower with their pants on, or have used a word that they would never had said before in polite company.  It’s not really funny at all.  It’s tragic, and it’s not fair to the person whose intellect and personality and consciousness is being irreversibly stripped away, bit by bit, until only an unfamiliar shell remains.  They can’t help themselves.

I suppose a hard-bitten, cynical Hollywood agent might think a script about an intern deceiving a character in the grip of Alzheimer’s was a laugh riot, but only if that agent didn’t know anyone who had experienced the disease.  These days, there aren’t many people who fall into that category, and those who have been touched aren’t going to go watch a “comedy” that reminds them of the devastation the disease inflicted.  And if such a movie ever gets made, how many members of the audience are going to erupt in belly laughs about the lead character’s painful confusion?

My guess is that most people who watched such a movie would leave with the same fervent vow found among people who have dealt with Alzheimer’s in their families.  It goes like this: “Please don’t let me ever, ever get Alzheimer’s.”

Birthday Wishes

  
Today is my birthday.

It’s great to live in modern times because, among other things, it’s easier to wish people happy birthday, and in more communication methods and forms, than ever before.  I’ve received grossly inappropriate, unforgivably ageist cards from family and friends, Facebook congratulations from pals old and new and a post from UJ with a picture of us as toddlers, text message birthday greetings, and nice emails from clients and colleagues.  It’s been great to be the target of so many good wishes.

I’ve even received happy birthday emails from my optometrist, my periodontist, and the America Red Cross.  I suppose there’s a kind of message there, too.

Password Obscenity Roulette

Hacking hackers are everywhere these days, and all at once.  For the IT guys amongst us, that means tinkering with firewalls and new defensive software and systems vulnerability checks and incident response plans and all of the other technical gibberish that makes IT guys boring death at a party.  For the rest of us, we can only groan in grim anticipation, because we know that we’re going to be asked to change our password . . . again.

rouletteOne of the great challenges of modern life is remembering all of the different “passwords” that we must inevitably use to access our various electronic devices and internet accounts and computer access points.  Unfortunately, we can’t use passwords like Allen Ludden would recognize. In fact, they can’t be a properly spelled word at all.  So that it’s a “strong” password, it’s got to include a weird combination of capitalized and lower case letters, numbers substituting for letters, and random characters, like ampersands and pound signs and question marks.  The result often looks like the sanitized representation of cursing that you might see from the Sarge in a Beetle Bailey cartoon — minus only the lightning bolts.  (@#%*$^@#!)  In a way, that’s pretty appropriate.

Of course, all of these suB5t!tu+ed characters, plus the fact that you need different passwords for different devices and accounts, plus the fact that passwords now must be changed much more frequently, make it impossible for the average human being to remember the passwords in the first place.  How many of us sit down at a computer or pick up our tablet and idly wonder for a moment what the &*%$# the password is?  And there’s the new year/check writing phenomenon to deal with, too.  When a new year comes, how long does it take you to stop automatically writing the old year in the date, because you’d been doing that for the past 346 days?  I had to change my iPhone password several weeks ago, and I still reflexively type in the old password every time I’m prompted, until I dimly realize that I’ve changed it and it’s time to key in the new one — if I can remember it.

There’s a positive aspect to this.  We’re all getting older, and people who deal with aging say that if you want to stay mentally sharp as the joints creak and the brain cells croak you need to play word games or solve puzzles.  Well, this generation has got that covered.  We don’t need silly games, because we’ve got frustrating passwords.

 

Long Hair On Old Guys

Yesterday Kish and I were at an event, and seated two rows ahead of us was an old guy in his 60s with long gray hair.  I mean, really long hair.  It cascaded past his shoulders and shoulder blades, and the longest strands probably reached the middle of his back.

305471-a3And, like seemingly every human being who has long hair, he couldn’t keep his hands off of it.  As he put his arm around his lady friend with his right hand, he would use his left hand to do the casual hair-flip-off-the-shoulders move that teenage girls perfected in high school.  Sometimes he would smooth down the hair, which had the oily sheen that you often see with long hair, and other times he would gather his gray locks in both hands, like he was going to put it into a pony tail, only to let fall like a sheet of gray, hairy rain behind his seat.

This guy obviously thought that he was just about the coolest person in the place with that long gray hair.

Other people, though . . . not so much.  The poor woman sitting right behind him had to deal with that scraggly gray-haired waterfall, with all of its fidgety flips and drops and adjustments, intruding on her personal space.  I couldn’t help but notice that, when she shifted position to cross her legs, she very carefully maneuvered to avoid having her shoe or pant leg make contact with even a single gray hair fiber.

Why?  Because most people don’t want to touch or interact with other people’s long hair.  And while we might tolerate it in self-absorbed high school girls or members of heavy metal hair bands or Indian gurus or photos of gunfighters from the 1880s, when it’s one of those old guys who is desperately clinging to pretensions of youth, all a polite person can do is roll his eyes and wonder at some people’s apparently endless capacity for self-deception.

Unfortunately, the old guy long hair look is all too common.  Aging Baby Boomer guys just can’t tolerate the notion that they aren’t young anymore, I guess.  They can’t control most of the ravages of age — but they can control the length of their hair.  They want people to understand immediately that, even though they now look like their grandfathers, they are still cool and at the cutting edge of society, and they think long hair communicates that.  But of course, it doesn’t.  Long hair on an old guy doesn’t look cool.  It doesn’t make them look young, either.  Instead, it’s kind of pathetic.

C’mon, Baby Boomer guys . . . you’re old.  Stop embarrassing yourselves!  It’s finally time to act your age.

Salad ‘Speriment

I’m posting this because I’m hoping that my doctor might see it.

He’s been after me to change my eating habits.  It’s the same old tiresome nanny-like refrain — eat less meat, and when you do eat meat, make it chicken or turkey, and try to eat more fish, and eat more leafy green vegetables.  Lots more vegetables.  Except in my case, the latter request means eat any leafy green vegetables, because I loathe them with every fiber of my being and typically avoid them like the plague.  There are sound scientific reasons for doing so, and anyway you can plausibly argue that the U.S. Supreme Court, deep down, agrees with me.

IMG_0092But you have to listen to your doctor, don’t you?  And when you’re past the double-nickel milestone, you feel like you really should listen to your doctor.  You’re supposed to be wise and savvy at that point, and after all, you’re paying the guy.  And who knows?  Maybe with that M.D. degree he might actually have some useful insight into how I might actually be able to avoid the many appalling health calamities that routinely seem to strike down men my age.

So today, when I went out to lunch with an astonished associate from the firm, I ordered a salad.  This is the first lunch salad I’ve ever ordered.  In fact, it’s the first salad of any type I’ve ever ordered.  In fact, it’s the first salad I’ve actually consumed.  It was an arugula and spinach salad with cranberries and goat cheese and grilled butternut squash, with grilled chicken on the side to make it palatable and some kind of dressing.

And I ate every bit of it, Dr. Z!  Every bit!  Because I was hungry, and would have eaten the plate!  Are you satisfied?  Because I have to tell you that the entire time I was munching on the leafy green items that apparently are my failsafe ticket to long life, I was thinking of a cheeseburger.

The 160-Pound Me

Last week my doctor’s assistant had me stand barefoot on a scale-like contraption and hold a metal bar that was linked to the scale so that the fingers and thumbs on both hands were touching the metal.  The device, she said, would measure my muscle-to-body-fat ratio and also give me an overall weight goal.

I eyed the contraption with skepticism and trepidation.  More than a year ago I made a concerted effort to lose weight through a low-carb regimen and lost about 20 pounds.  I was happy with the results and decided to stop at that point, and I thought I had been pretty successful in keeping the weight off — but I don’t weigh myself regularly.  The scale/handle device therefore would be the acid test.

I followed the procedure and waited for the results.  The good news was that my weight was within a pound or two of where I was when I stopped the low-carb approach last year, and the device concluded that the amount of muscle was where it should be, too.  The bad news, though, is that the device said that I needed to lose about 25 pounds and get below 160 on the scale.

160?  Seriously?  160?!?  That’s less than I weighed when Kish and I got married in 1982, which was the skinniest I’ve ever been as an adult. If you wanted to find the last time I weighed less than 160 pounds you’d probably have to go back more than 40 years.

I get the need to watch your weight, and I understand the different health problems that can be caused by excessive weight.  But getting below 160 pounds seems like a pretty outlandish goal.  Presumably it would require a radical change in diet and exercise efforts, and I wonder if it would be sustainable.  I don’t want to lose two stone eating twigs and raw lettuce, buy an entirely new beanpole wardrobe, and then see my weight pop back up.  And yo-yoing on your weight doesn’t seem like a particularly healthy thing, either.

I’m rationalizing here, I’m sure, and I’ll talk to my doctor, of course.  But for now I’m thinking I’ll just take things one step at a time, and try to get down to the 170s and see how I feel about it.  I’m having a really hard time envisioning the 160-pound me.

Body Betrayal

I’ve been using this body for 58 years.  It’s been a perfectly acceptable, entirely serviceable body.  Not the physique of an elite athlete, to be sure, but good at sitting and sleeping and generally up to the challenge of performing whatever limited physical demands I might place upon it from time to time.

IMG_20151026_070052Lately, though, we’re starting to see a few disconcerting breakdowns.

Last year three of the toes on my left foot suddenly decided to curl into rigid, clawlike hooks that required surgery; they now are frequently numb, much less useful appendages that are home to steel screws that occasionally set off airport metal detectors.

More recently my right knee started to throb, as if the right side of the body has decided it now needs to stand up and be heard.  My doctor said it might be just a simple tweak or it might be the first signs of the dreaded A word — arthritis. Ugh.  Fortunately, an x-ray (when did x-rays become so ludicrously expensive, by the way?) seems to have ruled out the latter, so now I’m taking anti-inflammatory pills, and the doctor says I might have to wear an Ace bandage, too.

This doesn’t seem fair.  I haven’t made this knee run marathons or make sharp cuts on basketball courts.  This knee hasn’t held onto trapeze bars or absorbed hits from NFL linebackers.  In fact, this knee hasn’t even reached retirement age yet.  This knee has no right to start acting up and drawing painful, hot, throbbing attention to itself.  And even if the pills work, there is no going back. Having been betrayed by this formerly dependable joint, the trust level will never be the same.  The carefree days of casually taking a knee for granted are no more.

Words That Show You Are Out Of It

I’ve written before about the cultural chasm that can be exposed by using the words “Sergeant Schultz” and expecting people under the age of 40 to understand what the hell you’re talking about.  Lately I’ve encountered this phenomenon more and more, where words and phrases that seem commonplace to me prove to be completely unknown to the people I’m talking to.

So, as a community service, I offer this list of phrases that you should avoid unless you want to be seen as an aging fuddy-duddy:

“Fuddy-duddy”

“In the pink”

“Yassir Arafat”

“Adding machine”

“The Fifth Beatle”

“Do the Hustle”

You’re welcome.

 

Closed Captioning

As we have watched the last few episodes of True Detective — which I think has really picked up lately, incidentally — Kish and I have had the same conversation several times:

“What did he say?”

“I don’t know — I couldn’t hear it.”

“You know, I hear that a lot of people are watching this show with the closed captioning feature on their TVs activated.”

The Vince Vaughn character, in particular, seems to specialize in muttering things under his breath, menacingly but incomprehensibly, but we have have trouble understanding many characters on that show.  Is there something about the sound quality of True Detective that just sucks, or have the producers decided that whispered statements fit better with the dark themes of the show?  Maybe the “never mind” theme music is supposed to suggest to viewers that the dialogue really doesn’t matter much, anyway.

When you can’t hear the dialogue on a TV show, there aren’t any good choices.  If you’re watching a recording, you can try to rewind, but you need the deftness of a surgeon to move back to just the right spot without overshooting, and it really wrecks the flow of the narrative even if you are successful.  Or, you can crank the volume up to senior citizen retirement home levels, give up any pretense of clinging to remaining youth, and start going to restaurants at “Early Bird Special” times and using the word “whippersnapper.”  Or, you can activate the closed captioning option — which will expose your obvious lack of technological know-how in trying to find and turn on the option in the first place.

I have no doubt that my hearing acuity has declined over the years, but I wouldn’t say that I’ve got a hearing problem — at least, I don’t think I do.  Does any young whippersnapper out there have trouble following the dialogue on True Detective, too?  Speak up, will you?

Ordinary Forgetfulness, Or Alzheimer’s?

The Neal side of our family, unfortunately, has a history of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease that has been growing lately.  Mom and Grandma Neal had dementia, Uncle Gilbert had Alzheimer’s, and my great-aunt, who another relative described as “crazy as a bedbug” when I was a kid, had mental problems so debilitating that she was put into a care facility at about the time she reached retirement age.

When you’ve got such a history in the family, and seen what these terrible degenerative brain diseases can do to bright, kind, loving people, you can’t help but wonder if there is a gene lurking somewhere in your DNA mix that will ultimately turn you down that same dark street.  And, you also pause at every instance of forgetfulness and ask yourself whether it is a sign that the dreaded downhill slide has begun.

It’s important to remember that an infallible memory is not part of the normal human condition.  With the richness of daily experience flooding our brains with new memories during every waking moment, it’s entirely normal to not remember every incident or person from the past with perfect clarity.  And the memory failure that most frequently causes people to question whether they’re losing it — the mental block that leaves you temporarily unable to recall a name, or a word — is commonplace in healthy, average humans.  Other normal issues include the tendency to forget facts or events over time, absent-mindedness, and having a memory influenced by bias, experiences or mood.

Fortunately, too, there are tests that can be taken that can help doctors distinguish between these ordinary conditions and the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s.  The tests range from simple screening tests of cognitive functioning that can be given by a family doctor as part of an annual exam and completed in a few minutes to intense and extensive neuropsychological examinations that involve multiple days of evaluation.

The existence of such tests raises an interesting question.  Aging Americans are routinely poked, prodded, and scanned for heart disease, cancers and other bodily ailments.  Even though, for many of us, the prospect of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is as dreaded as any finding of a debilitating physical disease, there seems to be less of a focus on early detection and treatment of degenerative mental diseases.  With recent studies showing that significant percentages of older Americans are afflicted with dementia, shouldn’t that approach change?  Why shouldn’t a short cognitive screening test be as much a part of the annual physical as the rubber-gloved prostate probe?

Aged Dating

Recently we were out for dinner with the Bahamians at one of the better local restaurants.  As we enjoyed our meal, a 60ish woman who knew our friends from years before stopped by our table to say hello to them.

The woman was wearing a skin-tight black mini-dress that ended about six inches above her kneecaps, with an exposed shoulder and stiletto heels.  It was the kind of skimpy, clingy outfit that demanded a supermodel’s figure, and this woman didn’t have one.  It obviously wasn’t a comfortable ensemble for her, either.  Throughout our brief interaction at the table, she was tugging the dress up toward her exposed shoulder, and tugging it down at her hem, trying to limit the overexposure of her permatanned flesh.

So why was this middle-aged woman wearing an ill-fitting garment that looked like it was hard for her to take a breath?  She explained that she had gotten divorced and was out on a date with a new guy, and made some rueful observation about how the dating world was tough for people our age.  Then her date appeared at the doorway and she went teetering unsteadily away, adjusting her dress, again, and touching up her bleached blonde hairdo.

It was an awkward moment.  Kish and I didn’t know the woman, but we immediately felt both sorry for her and . . . confused.  Sorry for her, because she looked ridiculous and miserable, and confused, because she apparently recognized that fact and elected to wear an outfit that wasn’t close to being age-appropriate, anyway.  Evidently she was  desperate for male attention, but did she really think that wearing something that left nothing to the imagination was the way to achieve that goal?  Her outfit seemed to say a lot about her confidence in her personality and other attributes and about her sense of what middle-aged men are looking for on a date — neither of which was positive.

It was a depressing encounter on a lot of levels.  It made me appreciate, once again and for countless reasons, how very lucky I am to be happily married.

When I’m 65

Last week I was walking home from work when I saw the shoe shine guy outside the Key Bank building.  In the past he’s offered a shoe shine, in a very friendly way, and this time I made the spur of the moment decision to accept his offer.  Why not take a few minutes for an old-fashioned personal service and come home with some spit and polish?

He turned out to be a good guy who did a really fine job on my shoes, and I’d definitely recommend him and use him again.  As I sat in his chair and we talked, however, the conversation turned to our ages, and the shoe shine guy guessed that I was . . . 65.

IMG_5157“65?  Wait, seriously — 65?”  I was somewhat flummoxed.  “I’m only 57!” “Sorry.  I guessed wrong,” the shoe shine guy said, and then he went back to his work, flipping his brushes and applying his polish and snapping his towel as I stewed about the fact that I evidently look almost a decade older than my actual age. I gave him a good tip when he was finished and then headed home, trying not to walk with an old guy shuffle.

Kish gets a kick out of this story, and so do I.  I’ve never been vain about my appearance because there’s absolutely nothing to be vain about:  I’m about as average-looking as you can get.  I know that as I’ve put on mileage I’ve acquired grey hairs and creases and wrinkles I didn’t have before.  I’ve always thought, however, that you’re only as old as you feel and have tried to maintain a youthful attitude.  Now I know that rationalization doesn’t apply to the exterior me — the shoe shine guy has confirmed it.  If a guy who is working for a tip overshoots by eight years on his age estimate, you’ve got no room for argument or self-deception.  You’re squarely in AARP territory.

Today, as I celebrate birthday number 58, I’ve adopted a more nuanced perspective on the shoeshiner’s comment.  Who wants to look like a kid, anyway, and fret about whether their skin is smooth and their hair has the dewy sheen of youth?  Why not embrace with the Keith Richards alternative instead?  I apparently look like I’ve packed a full 65 years of living onto my 58-year-old frame.  That’s not a bad thing in my book.

A Disturbing Sign Of Approaching Codgerdom

Yesterday morning I was at my desk at the office, innocently attending to work, when the email chime sounded.  I gave the new message a quick glance, saw that it was a sales pitch, and moved my hand to hit the delete button — when I realized that the email message had a very disturbing subtext to it.

The “re” line read:  “Walk-in Bathtub Right For You?  Free Brochure.”  The email, from “America’s Leader in Walk-In Tubs” — no doubt a highly competitive field — featured a color photo of a walk-in bathtub described as “the first walk-in bath commended by The Arthritis Foundation.”  And if that stamp of approval wasn’t enough, other bullet points in the email read “Make Bathing Safe and Easy,” “Ideal for People with Limited Mobility,” and “Hydrovescent Therapy for Gentle Massage to Help Ease Away Your Aches and Pains.”

Yikes!  How did I get on the list for this depressing email solicitation?  When “America’s Leader in Walk-in Tubs” thinks that a walk-in tub might be “right for you,” you might as well hang up the spurs and head to the old folks’ home.  You’re obviously presumed to be decrepit and incapable of attending to basic personal hygiene using standard devices.

The email gave me the option of clicking for a “free information kit” about the virtues of that walk-in tub, but I think I’ll pass on any action that would confirm my place on a codger email list.  My youthful self image won’t stand up against an inbox filled with email solicitations for Serutan, trusses, walkers, sensible shoes, retirement communities, and deals on prescription medication.

An Extra Hour

“Spring ahead, fall back.”  The shifting of hours and the changing of clocks in connection with Daylight Savings Time has been going on for as long as I can remember.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve come to appreciate the “fall back” part of the process more and more.  What the heck!  It’s autumn, and it’s getting colder.  Why not stay snug in your warm bed for an extra hour?  And after staying out later than normal last night, getting home after midnight after enjoying the Buckeyes’ drubbing of Illinois at Ohio Stadium, the extra hour of shut-eye is even more welcome.  The fact that it’s a shivery 28 degrees outside just confirms the wisdom of this timekeeping sleight-of-hand.

So I’d like to thank the ever-creative Benjamin Franklin, who came up with the concept of Daylight Savings Time in 1784 as a method to save on candles.  I’d like to thank the New Zealanders, Brits, and Germans who helped to popularize the idea, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who implemented the idea in America as a war-time measure during World War II.  And I’d like to thank the United States Congress, which enacted the Uniform Time Act of 1966 to finally implement Daylight Savings Time as we now know it.

Ben Franklin was all of 78 years old when he came up with the idea for shifting clocks to save a candle or two.  You think the idea might have been motivated by the notion of getting an extra hour of sleep on a cold autumn morning?

Slowing The Aging Process

Mention “aging” to someone in their 50s — like me — and you’re likely to provoke a grim expression.  We feel the aging process in our muscles and bones, we get that ugly twinge after a sudden move, and we see it when we look in the mirror and notice the grey hairs, the wrinkles, and the pathetic turkey neck.

But what if aging could be slowed?  What if therapies and treatments could be developed that would decelerate the ravages of time, or stave it off altogether?

Scientists are looking into the possibility that gene therapy, hormone treatments, and other approaches might have that effect and have been using some of the new treatment concepts in experiments on animals.  Economists believe that treatments that successfully delay aging — and thereby allow people to be productive and healthy longer — could have enormous economic consequences.

Speaking as one of the aging generation, I’m all in favor of seeing whether reasonable treatments can be developed.  At the same time, however, I question whether heroic efforts should be devoted to deferring the effects of aging when there are many other public health issues that also need attention.  And a public health focus on aging makes sense only if the years that are added are healthy, sane, active, non-institutionalized years.  When you regularly visit a nursing home and see how many Americans are living their final years, you can legitimately question whether living longer is inevitably a great thing.