Don’t Call It Dementia


When I showed up at pre-school yesterday afternoon, the Bean dropped his toys and literally ran across the room and jumped into my arms.

He had not been expecting me.

The run was his exclamation of delight. Don’t you wish everyone would greet us with such joyfulness?

Last Sunday I met a new friend. We had that Southern upbringing in common. She was raised up a New Orleans girl. Me a Georgia girl. She heads up a non-profit for those suffering with mental illness. I wrote a series of books dealing with mental illnesses. She’s worked on building programs on racism for the church community. This particular church became our new church home after the pastor answered an email I had sent him asking one specific question: Is this an inclusive church community? I don’t have the time or will to deal with a church that spends it time throwing people out of the boat.

After our brief chat at church, we said a pleasant goodbyes. But then this new friend said to me: “You are from Georgia. Give me a hug.”

I was picking up Bean for an impromptu date. We headed out to our favorite spot – Barnes & Noble – for a cookie and coffee and an hour of exploring books. Bean is pretty routine in his treat choices. It’s either a bagel with cream cheese or a sugar cookie. Yesterday was a cookie kind of day. As we waited our turn, the gal in front of us turned and spoke to Bean.

“Are you four?” she asked.

Bean held up 3 fingers, paused, then quickly added another finger.

“He’s three but he’ll be four in a month,”I explained.

“They grow up so fast,” she added. There was a wistfulness in her comment, a remembering of another moment in her own life.

“Yes.” Every parent and grandparent knows the truth of this.

We chatted long enough for me to catch her name. Everyone at B&N seemed to know this charming woman with the leopard-print coat. She placed her order, then turning to me, she offered to get my coffee as well. An act of complete graciousness and so unexpected.

As Bean and I carried our drinks to the table by the fireplace, I noticed that the gal who bought my drink was sitting near a window with a woman who looked like she could have graced the cover of VOGUE. She possessed the stern posture of a dancer and her angular-face was shrouded by a white halo of hair, expertly cut. Her smile was generous, revealing an innate kindness and light.

Inbetween bites of his cookie and sips of his ice water, Bean told me that his mama was his best friend but Pa was too. He told me apple starts with A and his name started with S just like the S on the cookie bag. He said he loved Christmas and that he liked the paintings of the famous authors above the coffee bar. He kept brushing away the crumbs of his cookie with his napkin. Bean is a mannerly boy.

When he finished his cookie, Bean and I stopped by to visit for a moment with the nice lady who bought my coffee and her friend. Bean and I thanked her again for her treat. We learned that both she and her friend had moved to Central Oregon eight years ago. That’s when they became good friends. The elegant woman with the halo of white hair told me she had not wanted to leave Portland, where she had worked and had so many lovely friends. It had been a difficult transition made smooth only by the friendship she had struck up with the gal in the leopard-print jacket.

We talked about our new environs and transitions and a bit about our own histories. Bean was patient but eager to go look at books, so I offered my card and told the women to get in touch, we’d do coffee together sometime. As we walked off, this new friend we met in line called out to me. She had followed Bean and I a little ways.

“I’m not sure you noticed,” she said, “But my friend has dementia.”

“No,” I replied. “I had not noticed.”

“She was an attorney in Portland. A brilliant woman. That’s why the move was so hard on her. She really did not want to leave.”

“Did she come here because of the dementia?” I asked.

“In part,” she said. “Her daughter wanted her closer by.”

“The first book I wrote was on a woman attorney,” I replied. “She was brilliant, too.”

Before her own dementia set in, Rufe McCombs could not only recite Georgia law, she could tell you what page in the law books to find it on. She had a photographic memory. She never forgot anything.

Until she forgot everything.

“She is fortunate to have your as a friend,” I said. “How good of you to be a comfort to her.”

We had chatted, these two women and I, briefly but coherently. I did not pick up on anything amiss.

Rufe used to ask me if she sounded “lucid” whenever I would watch her rule from the bench. She was mocking me for some comment I had made once about someone else.  We would always have a good chuckle over that.

But dementia is really no laughing matter. It is a great grief to witness someone you love and admire, some with worth and value and a life of good works and a brilliant mind, reduced and marginalized by a society that tosses around dementia comments like confetti at a pre-teen party.

I’ve grown weary of the references by many, talking heads and Facebook users alike, who attribute every wrong-headed decision that this administration makes as a sign of an onset of dementia. I suspect the hateful acts of this administration have nothing whatsoever to do with dementia or age. This particular president has always been a hateful bigot. Advancing age hasn’t changed him. It’s only revealed his ugly nature more fully.

We do a disservice to those who are dealing with dementia and a disservice to democracy when we dismiss acts of great harm and criminal activity as the result of aging.

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Christian Bend (a novel) Mercer Univ. Press.



Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

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