I've worked with an aging population most of my life, and one thing is certain: there are no definitive rules on aging. Time will certainly take its toll on the body, but we accelerate this process by bearing the weight of our wounds with every step we take.
How can the burden of trauma affect the way we age?
Dementia, the general term for a decline in mental function, is believed to come with aging. Could dementia be a breakdown of mind that comes from a cross too heavy to bear?
I wonder as I walk into a full-blown episode of a mind lost to reality.
A 76-year-old woman I see for general deconditioning and mild balance problems also has dementia as part of her diagnosis. I have never noticed any evidence of this on our visits other than some innocent lapses in memory. As is often the case, people with dementia can present a strong front of having it all together.
On this particular day, her husband answers the door as I arrive. "She had a rough night," he tells me. I find her groggy in bed somewhere between sleep and waking.
Once oriented to my presence, she lets me know this is not her home, a place she's lived in for the past 20 years. "Nothing here is mine," she says, claiming her husband has sold their house against her wishes and all of her things are gone. Were this to be true, imagine the fright.
Not only is she not in her home, but she's certain her husband is ready to leave her. With my full attention, she finally feels she has someone who will listen. She wants me to know her husband can't be trusted. "He acts very nice so no one knows that he lies all the time." Her husband, helpless and exhausted, seems as lost as she is.
She tells me her heart is broken. Her husband is with another woman. She's given everything to her marriage and now that she no longer has her looks he wants to leave. "I know I'm not a Barbie doll anymore," she tells me, "but I don't deserve to be treated like this."
Although none of what she is saying is related to her present situation, this betrayal existed in a former marriage. Her belief that it's happening now means she is feeling everything as if it were true. "Everything I am telling you is real," she said. I know it is. I feel it. Although her mind may be deluding her at the moment the wound of her broken heart is clear.
In a more frightening situation a few miles away, a woman I see has recently had back surgery. Her husband, suffering with dementia and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), had tried to kill her. In the final episode before entering the VA, he smothered her with a pillow as WWII raged on in his mind. Believing he was at war, his wife was the enemy. She fought for her life and ruptured her disc.
What they have in common are the haunting wounds of their past. A cross that crippled the mind under its weight.
We're all wounded. We've all suffered trauma. And these wounds cloud our perception of reality all the time. The only difference between those of us who are fortunate enough to have our mental health, and those with dementia, is we haven't lost the thread to reality just yet.
We carry our wounds like a literal weight. Imagine your trauma weighed fifty pounds. If you were to carry that weight all day you would feel its effect.
This is where the accelerated breakdown comes in.
What might happen if we carry the cross lightly? What if we drop the weight? How might we age then?
I can't help but wonder what might have happened had my clients been able to find help to lighten their load along the way. The burdens they carried for far too long were too much for their souls to bear. The mind broke beneath the weight.
I don't know how to restore the mind once its fragile thread to reality has been lost. Meditation can slow the progression, but I offer this not as a remedy for dementia but rather as a call for us to take responsibility for our healing. Not simply for ourselves but for our loved ones and the collective humanity we share. Prevention may be our best medicine.
We can't see what lies ahead as we grow older each day but we can learn to leave behind what no longer serves us. May each step we take bring greater ease to body, mind and soul. May grace be our guide home.