There is no greater challenge to human dignity than the loss of mental faculties.
It is our ability to think, to reason, to problem-solve and to create complex social networks of support that separates humans from most of the biological world that simply exists to reproduce and provide input to the food chain.
When we lose our capacity to utilize our minds, in essence, we lose ourselves.
In the short time I have been writing with a focus on eldercare, I have been touched and educated by the stories of those who have mourned the loss of their loved ones, not through physical death, but through mental attrition. I have heard of long, gentle losses of individuality and sudden, violent changes of personality. I have heard of families torn apart through the difficulties of dealing with relatives who have lost the ability to care for themselves or to even know who is caring for them.
I believe it’s fair to say that while any loss of physical attributes certainly poses challenges, for the elderly and their caregivers, the options for dealing with such losses are often numerous.
There are many medical procedures, assistive devices and therapeutic treatments that can support an individual who has suffered such a circumstance. I don’t mean to imply that such losses are not traumatic, and recovery and adjustment difficult, but for the most part, there are strategies that can be followed that are generally clear and well understood.
The mind, and perhaps by extension the entire nervous system, is not so well understood, or so easily supported.
While research into the brain is taking place at a breakneck pace, and new discoveries are being made regularly, the reality is that there remains a great deal of mystery into the workings of our brains and the qualities that make us each unique in our thoughts and feelings.
We certainly know that the brain has an enormous capacity to change over a lifetime and this plasticity continues throughout our life.
While the speed of processing new information tends to slow down with age (beginning at the age of about 20, I might add), it is not necessarily true that the only direction our mental health can take is a downward spiral.
There are both genetic and experiential reasons for changes in our brain functioning, and while we cannot control much of our genetic inheritance, we can certainly create the optimal conditions to maintain the best mental functioning possible for us and for those who we might be looking after.
Like the physical side of our being, mental health begins with proper nutrition and proper exercise.
There must be the right chemical components to support brain function as well as a continuous series of mental exercises to reinforce processing skills. A senior who still has strong mental functioning can and should recognize the need for such exercise and engage in daily activities to stimulate the brain. For those who are not as capable to initiate such a program, then it is important for their caregivers to understand that a big part of the quality of their life will come from continuous mental stimulation to maintain their best intellectual fitness.
Graham Hookey writes about education, parenting and eldercare