I always said I wouldn’t do brain training. I knew instinctively that it wouldn’t work for me. After all these years of knitting my own education – school wasn’t terribly useful – I know how I learn and I know how I think; I know what I am going to remember without even trying and what I am going to forget no matter how hard I try. Basically if I’m interested I’ll remember, if I’m not interested I won’t. I have a short little span of attention as Paul Simon once sang, and dull stuff will bypass the Leeetle Grey Cells altogether. This is the reason I have such a problem with instructions, and how I end up building bookcases and slotting pet-carriers together by trial and error, and not realising there is such a thing as a condenser at the bottom of my tumble-drier, requiring to be cleaned out at 30 day intervals, until my washing starts coming out wetter than it went in. At that point I dig out the instruction leaflet, and read (only) the paragraph that refers to troubleshooting and soggy washing.
However, yesterday I broke my own rule. I spotted this thing on Google – Discover Your Brain Age in Five Minutes and – inevitably – clicked on it. And was faced with a raft of daft games, and tiny time limits for completing them in. So I had a go, but my old failing – an inability to focus on instructions – kicked in again. And then the anxiety started up. Once that kicks in, no thinking at all takes place. What do you mean? I heard myself pleading with the computer. What do you want me to DO? What ARE all these little zoomy-about things?
That was the one I really fell down on, the Zoomy-Abouts. Never having played computer games I just sat there watching these silly little gold football things popping up in rapid succession all over the screen becoming more and more terrified. Yes, but what am I supposed to DO? It took me most of the game to work out that I was supposed to ‘catch’ them with the mouse, and then I only caught one because they were far too fast. That scored me a brain age of 96. But never mind, said the computer, that was only one game. It merely contributes to the total score. I did quite well on the anagrams – that got me a 25 – and not too badly on some of the others, and in the end my Brain Age turned out to be two years less than my actual age. If I’d realised what I was supposed to do with the Zoomy-Abouts I flatter myself it might have been considerably less. Oh yes!
Hoping to repair my damaged self-esteem I looked up the results of the experiment the BBC has been running on the efficacy of online brain-training for older persons, i.e. they split the ancient ones into several groups and gave some of them one type of exercise, some another, some another. There was also a control group, who did no exercises. The data-analysts came to conclusion that brain-training had no effect at all on memory – or at least no greater effect than three weeks surfing the internet. Since I surf the internet every day, as part of – this sort of thing – I was pleased. To say the least.
You see – trying not to get too serious here – as I have mentioned in other posts, my Mum has dementia. I didn’t mention my Dad had it too, but he died before it got to the diagnosis stage – and at that point he had Mum to look after him. As far as we know, they are the only two in the family. My Mum is refusing even to allow a diagnosis, and has now gone well beyond the stage where it is possible to reason with her about anything. So we are left with an old lady who won’t wash her hair or go to the hairdresser, who can no longer make sense of the notes we write for her (she is deaf and won’t wear her hearing aids), who is convinced that all the equipment in the kitchen is broken, who hears voices, who can’t fit her key in the front door without a dozen failed attempts, who can’t remember how to pay for her shopping, who has to be brought food on our visits and lives the rest of the time on Ryvita and yoghurts; who won’t allow carers or, indeed, anyone apart from us to cross her threshold. The list goes on.
The three of us – my youngest sister, godmother (six months older than my mother) and I – are just about managing the situation, most of the time at the moment. We lurch from crisis to crisis and, since it seems nobody will do anything and nothing can be done without Mum’s consent, we are waiting for the inevitable crisis with a capital C to take place. In a way, you have to admire her for her steely determination. But only in a way.
Much as I love my Mum, I wouldn’t wish this vile condition on anyone. She is vigorous and healthy for her age but she’s frightened and bewildered, losing touch with herself; and we have already lost her. She wouldn’t have wanted it this way. And I find it so difficult to be patient, though I suppose I am patient in effect. I need things to make sense. I need things to be logical. I can’t bear it when they don’t, and aren’t. It’s so difficult not to snap, sigh or contradict; not to try to explain or risk upsetting her by unravelling the mental tangles, the false conclusions, the tall stories and the paranoia. I can hear myself screaming inside my head Oh for God’s sake don’t be so STUPID! But I don’t scream it – nobody would.
Instead I remind myself that she’s going backwards, from a grown-up to – eventually – a baby. By now I estimate she’s somewhere around five years old and no one would get impatient with a five year old for behaving in the exasperating way five year olds tend to do. The thing is, it’s cute when a five year old has a meltdown or says something utterly ridiculous – especially if you’ve had a five year old yourself, which I haven’t. I’m having to learn child-care at an age when I would rather be free to do my own thing – at last. It’s not cute in an old person, its ghastly. With five year olds there’s the future. You can think, what will my child become? And how quickly they are becoming. There’s no becoming for a five year old octogenarian, just more and more of the same, followed by worse.
There – I went and got all bleak in spite of my good intentions. So – hence the brain games research. As my Canadian sister said recently, now we are all afraid. There’s this sinister shadow over our separate lives – the two of us in England, the one in Canada, under the same cloud. Any tiny example of absent-mindedness – like the other week I found the honey jar in the fridge instead of the cupboard, and I was the only one who could have put it there – any longer-than-usual delay in recalling a word or phrase – and all three of us will be thinking – is it me? Is it my turn next?
But who in their right mind would want to do brain-training anyway? Much more absorbing to write and research these daily (or almost) posts. I love those daily moments when, just when I think there can be nothing of interest left to write about, a new post starts to write itself in my head. Quick, grab a pencil, make a few notes before it evaporates. (Like those straw hats you used to get at the seaside: Kiss Me Quick Before I’m Sick.) I love those moments when you find you have written down something you didn’t realise you knew, or thought, or in a way that is unexpectedly poetic, and you wonder Where did that spring from?
I also found something else, in my (brain-enhancing) surfings yesterday. It’s this thing from Harvard Medical School. This is the link:
It struck me that this was good, plain advice and probably all anyone can do to protect themselves, at least until someone finds a cure or more is known about the disease. Two of their ‘Six Simple Steps’ struck me in particular. One is Keep Learning. It occurred to me to take up French again, for a start. I did A (Advanced) Level French at school and have a good memory for language – but school was a long time ago. I have found myself dropping silly bits of French into this blog – almost as if the French is still in there and wanting to be used. I do rather relish the odd bit of Franglais, but suspect it annoys genuine French people and I oughtn’t to do it. So, I am waiting for some books from Amazon – a sort of re-teach yourself French book and three Maigret detective novels.
I thought I’d tackle the Maigrets with the help of my giant French Dictionary (at present propping up the mirror along with Chambers Dictionary and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy and occasionally crashed onto the floor by that pale ginger streak of a cat Henry on one of his skittish evening strolls around the upper levels of the living room – bookcase, bookcase, mantelpiece – knock off dictionary – bookcase, bookcase, windowsill, bookcase, sofa top – land on Mummy’s head… ow!). I did try this at one point with a German dictionary and Harry Potter Und der Stein der Weisen, but my German was too bad and it was too easy to hazard guesses at meanings, having once read the book in English.
The second Harvard piece of advice was Believe In Yourself. They say not to accept the negative stereotypes connected with ageing and memory, not to joke about ‘senior moments’, not to excuse yourself from thinking hard and pushing yourself to learn. I do believe we are to some extent what we decide to be – and maybe instead of even thinking about dementia at this point I should be deciding to become Something New and Wonderful!
- A man walks down the street
- He says why am I short of attention
- Got a short little span of attention
- And wo my nights are so long
- Where’s my wife and family
- What if I die here
- Who’ll be my role-model
- Now that my role-model is
- Gone Gone
From: Call Me Al by Paul Simon