Thursday, July 31, 2014

Old Friends, New Friends

Me at 19
Recently my old college roommate was in town. About eight years ago it dawned on me that as a genealogist I was pretty good at tracking people down. I turned my lens to some of the people who I had lost touch with who were important to me at an earlier time in my life. That exploration led to a reunion with two of my college roommates, among them Toni, a woman who once knew the 19 year old me.

Back in those days my roommates studied occupational therapy and often got me to lie on the kitchen table. There they would manipulate my limbs as they applied their classroom learning to a "real" patient. After college Toni joined the Peace Corp and took off to Ecuador for a stretch. Now she sent me an email to tell me that she would be in town and would like to introduce me to her friend from the Peace Corp who now lived in my community.

As I wrote in a prior blog, my latest topic of inquiry is the loss of memory relative to identity. Interestingly her friend focused upon occupational therapy with Alzheimer's patients. Over dinner I asked what that entailed when one no longer had an occupation. She explained that the focus was on the things they they needed to do to exist in their life, but also on the things they could do to occupy their time and energies, much of which my mother managed to discover on her own. Of course I had to share my mother's story and her artistic collage creations.

She told me that the cognitive functions, reading and finance were often the first to go, but some people with strong cognitive abilities were able to sustain those skills for longer. I thought of my father, a college professor. As my father's memory faded, my mother asked him what would they do when he could no longer remember financial matters. "I'll never forget that,"he asserted. Eventually when property taxes went unpaid, I stepped in, but I was amazed that he still retained the ability to transfer money between his accounts and withdraw funds as necessary.

My mother too possessed strong cognitive skills. She returned to college as an adult and graduated with honors. A life-long learner, she loved to take in new information be it through books or experiential learning. Now faced with declining cognitive abilities, she still values being productive and focusing her energies on a consuming task. I remember her typing school papers at the kitchen table where she now does her daily collages. The same energy source fed both activities.

I google occupational therapy and dementia. Dementia, I really hate that word. As if we call someone crazy, demented, when memory flees. What I find speaks of participating in occupational tasks that meet one's need for productivity. My mother didn't need an OT to identify this need. She diagnosed it all by herself and in her "diminished" capacity she has discovered how to meet that need. And I speak of diminished in quotes as I suspect some of her success comes from the very ability to release herself from self judgment that many of us seek to achieve.

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