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Of Mind and Memory

Azriela Jaffe

Medical technology has advanced to the degree where life expectancy is longer than ever. Together with this blessing come the unique challenges that are an inevitable part of aging. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most frightening prospects facing the elderly population. Can it be prevented? Is there a cure? How does a family cope once it surfaces?

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

There are times when something you heard or read will make an impression that ends up changing the face of your life.

I had such an experience with the highly regarded novel, Still Alice by Lisa Genova, a fictional memoir of a woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In the book, the author (who has a PhD in neuroscience) describes in vivid detail the earliest moments after Alzheimer’s peeks its ugly head into her life. An avid jogger, she was jogging along her familiar daily route, when suddenly she had no idea where she was. In retrospect, she realized that moment heralded the beginning of the decline. This account transfixed me, and I found myself contemplating the idea of becoming a stranger in one’s own life.

Shortly after finishing this book, on my way to work, I emerged from the commuter train looking for the familiar escalator that would take me to the subway. I couldn’t find it.

I had made this trip dozens of times — how was it possible to get lost? Breaking out in a cold sweat, my thoughts rushed back to this book, and that moment in the protagonist’s early morning jog. Familiar place, yet lost. Was this my moment? The beginning of my Alzheimer’s journey? My heart was palpitating. I’m only fifty-one, too young to see my life as I know it end. I raced back to where I had disembarked from the train, still panicking, mentally rewriting my future life as I ran. When I could not find the escalator, I approached a train conductor.

“Am I in the Newark station?” I asked.

“Yes, ma’am.” (When did I get to be old enough to be a ma’am?)

“Where is the light-rail escalator?” I asked in a light tone masking my underlying hysteria.

The conductor waved his arm to the right. “Way down at the end of the tracks, ma’am.”

I was dizzy with relief. Piecing it together later, I realized that I had alighted from the back of a very long train, depositing me into a part of the Newark train station I had never seen before — thus the sudden unfamiliarity of my surroundings.

I have never forgotten this moment, and the terror that flooded my body when contemplating that I might be losing my mind. Yet this is exactly what Dr. Harvey Gross, a board-certified family doctor with a specialty in geriatrics, sees every day with his patients and their family members in his private practice in Englewood, New Jersey.


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