The real question is – how are we to live our lives?
“The real question is – how are we to live our lives? Many feel that, at some point, old age makes that question redundant. I do not agree. It should be posed so long as we are still capable of asking it. The tragedy, however, may be that there is nobody left alive who is really listening to what the old have to say, especially for those without resources, if or when they become increasingly dependent.”
Lynne Segal, The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing
The other day my granddad Adam had to ask who I was. My dad and I had driven to his very comfortably furnished little house in Dorking, bracing the traffic (in future I will take the train) and arriving just after my granddad’s afternoon nap. After two or three heart attacks, countless strokes and even a broken hip, it really is amazing to see how active an old man can be if he has spent his half-retirement as a tour guide on the Camino de Santiago, Europe’s most popular Christian pilgrimage.
We took a walk around the park and returned in time for tea. His wife Gaby (who is, happily, in good health) makes a nice spread. There are scones, whipped cream, jam. We talked about relatives and recent occurrences. I felt privately frustrated at some members of the family, who were trying to encourage my grandad to remember things he could not. Maybe I was frustrated because they wanted him to remember things from before I was born; memories that I can’t remember because I am not a part of them.
Now these periods of blankness cover the majority of Adam’s life. He regularly complains that he no longer knows who he is.
Who are you without your memories?
Marina Oshana, a contemporary philosopher, has written extensively about the way that memory relates to self-understanding. For her, the present self is a continuation of the past. And if you can’t remember key events in your life, you lose the ability to tell a certain story about yourself.
Of course, Oshana admits, it may be possible to make good decisions and even have a good idea of who one is, simply based on one’s baseline likes, dislikes and ingrained habits. However, to feel a sense of personal identity, one needs to have (at a minimum an inner narrative of) prevailing plans and intentions, according to Oshana. Only in this way can a person “carry out projects”, and more importantly, “projects [they] care about”. The gradual and irrevocable loss of my grandfather’s memory is, ultimately, the loss of him as a person.
As tea drew to a close my father suggested that my grandfather sign me a copy of his latest book, Camino: Pilgrims to Paradise, self-published. Some, rather optimistic, critics have labelled his “greatest work so far”. After some fuss over locating a pen, my granddad says: “Now I am terribly sorry, but what relation are you to me? What should I write?” My able-bodied relatives left the room and cried uncomfortably loudly. It was a sudden strike of added confusion. I sat across from my granddad and watched him write determinedly in a shaking script and he remembered one more detail about me. I told him he had done a good job and squeezed his hand. I am really very pleased to have the book.
When a person loses their memory, how should we respond?
Leaving aside the specific illnesses dementia and Alzheimer’s, senility and memory loss will increasingly (as society ages) touch all of us. With my granddad Adam, I am struck by the feeling that everything I do in the present moment is of the utmost importance. He will not remember enough of what I say for me to return to a subject broached at the beginning of a visit. He cannot forgive me for mistakes, and he cannot really reassure me that I have struck upon a good idea in conversation. If something begins to trouble him, he will eventually forget what it was, so he can only notice the feeling of being a little bit anxious without knowing why. Oshana argues that this type of ‘living in the present’ is extremely limited. I think this is a more interesting viewpoint than those who claim ‘living in the present’ can be as rich and joyful as a life with memory. Even Buddhism advocates for living mindfully in the present. Someone who lives life without memory will have little idea about how they should live, since they have no past experience through which to develop confidence in their actions.
When all is said and done, my grandfather no longer has a choice. From now on, his experience will become increasingly limited to the present moment, regardless of arguments that he is no longer his whole self.
To treat my granddad well, I try to pay attention to all his body language to see how he is feeling. I try not to urge him to do things which are not necessary. Most important is to not make him feel guilty for not remembering things. I do not know if this way of acting around him is perfect, but it is what seems to bring him most to life in the moment. He has given me a huge wealth of experiences from which to draw on in my life, and I am grateful that he is still giving me more. If he cannot remember his past, I still can: him chasing me over the pebbles on Brighton beach; driving through a fire-singed forest to his home in Extremadura, Spain; his kind and self-effacing attitude that I hope will stay with him for the rest of his life.
My visiting role at the moment doesn’t carry too much of a burden, nor will my grief be as great as if he were my father. I hope that I can continue to learn from this experience, for use when I am in a caring role, or even when I myself am losing my own memory.