Monday, January 19, 2009

Oops, I forgot your name!

I'll never forget the shock I felt when I first heard the following comment from a medical professional: "It's not about memory, it's about cognition."

He was talking about dementia and what, in his opinion, is a popular misconception that leads to a lot of unnecessary worry by people who are suddenly forgetting names and where they placed things like the car keys.

What did he mean, "it's not about memory?" After all, it was obvious to me that it was indeed about memory. I was closely monitoring my mother's symptoms as she sank deeper and deeper into the opaque fog of her multi-infarct dementia. She was forgetful about everything, including exactly who I was. I mean, the nurse asked her during one of my visits:

"Look who's here, Millie. Do you know who this is?"

Mom smiled and said, "Of course I do. He's my grandson."

"No Mom," I said. "I'm your son."

"I knew that," she said, still smiling.

So wasn't that about memory? Of course it was. What the medical professional meant was that it's more complicated than that.

Most of us have heard the expert statement that if you forget where you put your car keys, you don't have to worry about dementia. But if you forget what the car keys are for, that's serious. That could be dementia. That's not just a memory problem (although memory is certainly part of the picture), that's cognition, which the dictionary defines as: "the act or process of knowing; perception."

It's subtle but it's real. Mom didn't just forget me. In fact, she remembered me. She just didn't know who I was.

This isn't just semantics. As we age, most of us develop retrieval problems where we can't instantly recall something or someone that should be very familiar to us. According to my medical professional, that's a normal memory issue far removed from dementia.

But it's still darned annoying, isn't it?

Bob Tell
Author, "Dementia-Diary, A Caregiver's Journal"