Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

November 25, 2012

When the ball stops bouncing

ASHLAND — Art Buchwald once said: “Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got.” It seemed to me to be the very best of times to grow up in Kentucky in the 1930s, ’40s and into those wonderful ’50s. Many of us kids had weathered the Great Depression and World War II. We were younger than springtime.

It was a simple, energetic period where the radio and the record player were more important in our lives than was television; Elvis, The Platters, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Nat King Cole and the Everly Brothers were just a few of the giants of the music industry flooding our airwaves.

We preferred the outdoors with our parks, pools and picnics. We loved our drive-in restaurants and movies. Chantilly Lace and pony-tails, ducktailed guys as tough as nails, blue suede shoes and bobby sox, crew cuts, flat tops, peroxide locks, our time to shine — The Fabulous Fifties.

My hometown of Ashland was a bustling city of close to 40,000 on the Ohio River near Ironton and Huntington.

I lived near the local YMCA, which gave me a jumpstart in my pursuit of athletics. By attending the Parochial School across the street from my house, I had a nearby gym as well as an outdoor court and baseball field and sometimes I also had use of the Booker T. Washington facilities.

Athletic facilities were just across the railroad tracks. The gym was my sanctuary. It seemed to be ingrained in the mind of most males that we were all going to be great “jocks.” We had fine schools, many nice churches, good entertainment and employment opportunities and luscious females. But for some reason I saw life at this period in time as a bouncing ball swishing through a hoop. Well, not always. Sometimes it was a clean hit that split the outfielders. The only certainty we faced as high school grads was “Uncle Sam” calling on us males for a few years of our lives.

Now, I can only hope that this narrative does not threaten to lower your IQ, as it was true that many of my generation saw us (we the aforementioned jocks) as complete imbecilic bores and, yet, today still do. Not until I moved to the northern Kentucky/Cincinnati, Ohio, area did I come to the realization that most of us were just good smalltown athletes with an intact enough family with little money and just the right amount of religion.

My regrets are few though, as basketball gave me a free ride through two universities on athletic scholarships with several degrees and lifetime contacts I would not have had. It seemed in life that “game time” was always on.

Sports outlets

Sports in general are wonderful outlets for many. (How could I live without March Madness)? I have my Reds and Bengals locally and I’m an hour away from the Kentucky Wildcats. My old hometown has a great statewide reputation in all sports and most Kentuckians are extremely proud of our statewide basketball heritage.

But, as Carly Simon once sang, “What will you do when the nights get cold, when the stars grow dim and your dreams seem old? Dreams — the old dreams were good ones. They didn’t all work out, but we should be glad we had them. This seems to be the trouble with life (with our dreams) — that you can only understand it “backward” but that it has to be lived “forward.”

My forward is the adjustment of living my remaining years with dementia. I never considered the fact the ball would take such an odd bounce. I must look to the advice of Helen Keller, who said, “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.”

I have read extensively on dementia and its various classifications and have been led to believe that my type (Ischemic Microvascular) should not develop into full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. Unfairly, dementia carries a severe social stigma. I feel by discussing my own problems I may help others around me who are experiencing some of the same symptoms.

Peter J. Whitehouse, Md., Ph.d., has a must-read book titled “The Myth of Alzheimers.” His patients in Cleveland are eating healthier, staying physically fit, participating in book clubs, volunteering in programs that keep you vital and socially engaged and having structured conversations with families and friends.

I have always thought reading and the telling of tales is so necessary among friends and acquaintances. Jean-Paul Satre said, “A man is always a teller of tales. He lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others. He sees everything that happens to him through them, and he tries to live his life as if he were telling a story.”

War stories

Yes, we males used to get together and tell endless war stories (girls, girls, women and sports). We now are big on conversations regarding (1) our poor sleeping habits (2) the medications we take (3) doctor visits (4) the obits (5) sports and (6) women — in that order. Who was it that said I’m much too young to be this old? Einstein said the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once (funny man).

Most of us are far removed from those days on the courts or fields of play, but must we spend so much time watching TV and partaking in such a minimal amount of exercising and socializing?

We must start engaging one another in conversations regarding aging problems. I once lectured nationally for AARP on health issues. I hope to attack this problem with the force that used to lecture on prostate cancer when I became a survivor.

The ball must keep on bouncing — no double dribbles.

Dr. Whitehouse in his “myth” book asks the questions, “How much forgetfulness in our daily lives does it take to qualify as a disease?” and “How much can be chalked up to normal aging?”

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “The existence of forgetting has never been provided; we only know that some things don’t come to mind when we want them.” Was he trying to be humorous?

Harry Cayton, national health service director in Britain, said Alzheimer’s disease, as science seeks to grasp it, seems to slip through our fingers. The complex interactions of neurochemistry, genetics, environment, life story and personality all play a part in how individuals experience dementia and Alzheimer’s. No single approach will explain everything.

Jean Carper, the award-winning medical journalist and author of 23 books, said in her newest book, “100 Simple Things You Can Do To Prevent Alzheimer’s,” that people think there is little or nothing we can do to avoid the disease, but scientists know this is no longer true. The only hope of defeating dementia and Alzheimer’s is to prevent it. Jean, like many of us, has found she has the susceptibility gene (APO E-4). Her thoughts are to delay onset of the disease for five, even 10, years. She is large on antioxidants to infuse the brain. We should just daily consume a few mentioned, such as raspberries, blue and black berries, cranberries, raisins, plums, strawberries, apples, pears, oranges, grapes, lettuce (red), asparagus, broccoli and spinach.

Pat Summitt, one of the greatest basketball coaches of all generations and a recent recipient of the Espy Arthur Ashe Courage award, announced she was stepping down from her position at the University of Tennessee because of her dementia. Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post said, “It’s fine to say that the stigma of the diagnosis has been harder on Summitt than the actual effects of the disease and that Pat still has more abilities than disabilities. It’s as if the disease has stripped away her reserve and unveiled who she is at her core.”

Time is definitely a dressmaker specializing in alterations.

Pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. It can frustrate and poison a relationship. Normally, we with dementia suffer little or any pain. We do feel various forms of embarrassment. To avoid this, I have confided in only a few close friends over the past several years. My wife must face me and read me every day.

The stages

First came the Parkinson tremors (head bobbing) that is controlled pretty well with drugs.

Second, the most devastating for me, has been the severe episodes of depression. I must ask the question, is the depression a cause or a consequence? She said I should mention my misspellings and how my “there” may be “their,” my “are” may be “our,” my “this” may be “that,” my “was” may be “were.” I have lost considerable vocabulary, written and spoken. I often have difficulty finding the right word in conversation and then the conversation has passed me by.

I see these things or go back over something I have written a week or month previously and think, “Did I do this? Did I write this?”

Yes, it was the other me, the other day. I once wrote, “I’ve looked in the mirror and what did I see, a man a bit strange staring back at me, an image I’ve seen since the day I was born, but one that’s been altered and now slightly worn.”

In my career as an educator, I have lectured and advised, dabbled in poetry and other writings and enjoyed public speaking. I have done eulogies and spoken on health issues nationally as an 11-year volunteer with AARP (health advocacy service and state recruitment specialist). Putting this one writing together has taken me more than a year. New challenges seem to arrive monthly.

Painful present

It is the present that gives me fits. I agree with Ernest Hemmingway to a degree as he stated “Nostalgia is the denial of the painful present.” It is a given that some days are better than others. The worst are those when I lose everything. It is not just my glasses, the car keys or a book I was reading, but a drink or food in hand, a checkbook (which I have trouble balancing), a pen, cards or bills to mail. I have extreme difficulty with names, addresses and numbers. I also tend to drop and knock things over. This may resonate with many readers.

I have withdrawn a great deal and I am much more emotional. I find I have become too satisfied with staying home.

Many people do not need social engagement. This is not me, though, and I do want to be me. This is what confounds many with any hint of dementia these days: they are not what we want them to be. We want the wonderful memories and the ability to act on them. It was Billy Joel who sang “Can you play me a memory? I’m not really sure how it goes. It’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete when I wore a younger man’s clothes.”

Dementia is one of the greatest indignities we face.

Dr. Elissa Ely, in a New York Times op-ed piece, wrote “Dementia releases the essential self. We wander backward uncontrollably and become more of what we already were.”

Ely wonders whether there is any way to train ourselves before we start to wander, so when and if we lose our thought processes, we are at peace.

Most of us, if we live long enough, realize the ball has bounced irregularly for quite a while, that there is no cure for the common birthday. We have perhaps played our last round of golf or taken the tennis court for one final time. You are not only agitated but you feel alone. But why lose a good today over the chance of a bad tomorrow? Don’t let any disease monopolize who you are. This is where you must allow outsiders in and try to embrace the support that is available to you.

Remember, it’s not the problems we face that define us but how we handle them.

Get engaged

It’s not how old you are, how wrinkled you get, but how engaged you become.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention a good friend I grew up with who once played for the legendary Adolph Rupp on their 1958 NCAA national basketball championship team in Kentucky. He should be nominated for sainthood for his undying love and attention he has provided his wife over the many years. She has suffered with sundowners, dementia and now Alzheimer’s and he has discovered the many outside resources available to the shut-in spouse. Everyone should investigate the in-house aid that takes some burdens off the caregiver.

Dr. Peter Whitehouse lists in his Myth book much “integrative medicine” and has for more than 13 years directed the Office of Integrative Studies at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland.

He integrates the power of spirituality, homeopathy, yoga, meditation and acpuncture, with herbs and naturopathy.

Ask for help

A wealth of drugs to treat dementia and Alzheimer’s has hit the market, including Aricept, Flurizan, Hydergine, Namenda, Razadyne, Piracetam and others.

If you recognize memory decline and feel it’s time to seek an appointment for yourself or a loved one, be sure to use the resources at your disposal. Think of this as an opportunity to intervene and arrest progression. Remember you are in control of the situation and the earlier you are on the case, the better to take action; the ball is in your court.

Call your insurance company to check your coverage and seek out a highly recommended physician, perhaps checking with your primary doctor first.

As I compose this, my wife has seen fit to critique me on occasion and mention wisely I am now writing things that anyone can obtain from a computer or most news programs. But I realize I am forever the teacher and if I can be a contributor instead of a victim then this narrative will be well worth the effort.

Enjoy a laugh

So, remember all of you facing a puzzling situation: Stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. That won’t cut it. Instead, take time to laugh because laughter is the music of the soul.

Get in the game: Take advantage of what is remaining of your precious time on this earth. To quote Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the meaning of life! To put to rest all that was not life and not, when I came to die discover that I had not lived.”

If this existence is the sum total of our experiences, we should always seek out the most memorable experiences we can. Most of these are centered on people we love or have loved. This may be where families play major roles, especially if some issue is rearing its ugly head. Pat Conroy had a beautiful line toward the end of his book, “Prince of Tides:” In families, there are no crimes beyond forgiveness but it is the mystery of life that sustains me now.”

It is so very precious and still an enigma at times. It slips away like mist under the sun. Yes, life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it. A jealous possessive love that grabs at what it can but life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing of a cloud.

A lifelong friend lost his son recently; he was 39, a suicide. I found the eulogy extremely hard to deliver as we tend to think that death is reserved for people my age with ravaged minds and aging bodies. I knew this gracious, highly intelligent young man from his birth and realized the mind can play tricks on the best of souls. Savor the moment because tomorrow could be yesterday.

Nick Clooney was a local news anchor here in greater Cincinnati on TV and radio for many years. He ended his broadcasts with the words, “For those you see and those you don’t.” It was a nightly reminder there are people we don’t see, people who have an important story to tell, who are suffering (physically or mentally) in silence and obscurity, and whose lives and fortunes we should never forget.

It is time to reach out to all these people who you suspect may have some difficulties. I don’t mind discussing my problems with friends. I realize some may be reluctant to address the issue of dementia; I still find it hard to use the word but I do not care to be my own best friend. You will not insult someone by engaging them in conversation; they will let you know if the conversation’s to be cut off permanently.

I recently heard the remark made that courage is fear that has said its prayers. I do not feel courageous by revealing my dementia so openly. In fact, I may have just dribbled the ball off my own damn foot, because a courageous guy is somebody who feels the fear and conquers it.

So, the ball must keep on bouncing. It may take some silly and disturbing turns, but bounce it will, until the crowds are gone, the lights are out and not a sound is heard.

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