As we approach the Sunrise Senior Living Home in Farmington Hills, Michigan, my grandmother explains that it houses two separate programs. The primary one is for the elderly who cannot fully care for themselves. The second, called “Reminiscence,” is for those who also have severe memory problems. That’s where my grandfather has lived for the past six months.
The process by which we discovered that my grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s was not straightforward. My main memories of him are his fondness for saccharine sweet wine at the Passover seders we would often spend at my grandparents’ home, the pride with which he spoke to his friends in synagogue about my father, and his tone deaf but nonetheless accurate public recitations of his preferred Torah portions. I cannot recall any real conversations we had. I am sure he had emotional depth—he had a loving wife and children—but this was not something I could perceive. We did, after all, only see each other at most a few times a year on Jewish holidays, and as a young boy and even a teenager, I did not necessarily have the wherewithal to try and engage deeply with him, to penetrate the opacity produced by a heavy foreign accent and the occasional capricious reactions to minor infractions of etiquette, which I attributed to the mind-altering effects of losing one’s childhood and most of one’s family to the Holocaust. I occasionally considered how different my father’s upbringing must have been from my own, but I never felt comfortable inquiring into their relationship. When my grandfather began getting agitated more frequently, as he became more overprotective of my grandmother, when he uttered somewhat unusual or off-color remarks to friends and acquaintances, it was not immediately obvious even to those close to him that something might be deeply amiss, that he may have been suffering from something other than the mild disorientation that sometimes comes with old age.
A few years have passed since the diagnosis, and, as my interactions with my grandparents became less frequent since I entered college, I have only seen snapshots of my grandfather’s descent into memorylessness. I recall the incident when he told my sensitive, young cousin that he preferred my little sister to her. I took note as greater and greater chunks of his day were taken up by network news, and as watching became an increasingly passive activity. I observed that his participation in and real awareness of conversations was essentially non-existent. But as I prepare to visit him in Michigan, half a year has passed since I last saw him.
We park near the building entrance and are greeted by the friendly home manager, who seems quite familiar with my grandmother. We pass the main dining hall, filled with white hair, wheelchairs, and canes and proceed to the Reminiscence area of the building through a code-locked door. In the seasonally decorated cafeteria sit about two-dozen people, half of whom are clearly residents, in various states of eating and relaxation. “Reminiscence” more aptly refers to the visiting friends and family members than to those living at the home. My grandfather, his PhD diploma still hung up in his home office, sits silently at the first table, looking blankly at the small cup of salad on the table in front of him, cloth bib around his neck. My grandmother walks over and puts her hands softly on his shoulders. “Harry, look who’s here to see you!” He turns his head, and she introduces us all, quite aware, I think, that providing him with our names will not actually succeed in jogging his memory. He pauses, then smiles. Perhaps it is a response to the flurry of motion we had introduced in his vicinity: it does not appear to be a smile of understanding. He does not recognize his son, of whom he was once so proud. My father had visited fairly recently, and in the car my grandmother had warned that she wasn’t sure who he would remember “today.” But intellectual recognition of this sort of fact is not adequate preparation for the actual encounter. My father nudges my little sister forward: “Look, it’s Maya!” Maya smiles and waves warmly. She’s eleven, but she is mature and emotionally sensitive and understands the circumstances. She too receives no special reaction.
We help him stand with a walker and my grandmother brings us to a private dining room next to the main building dining room. Once there, she helps him begin eating his fish, and he continues, with moderate success, on his own. The rest of us speak somewhat clinically about the conditions of the home, how he is faring. My grandmother is lively, happy even. I cannot really grasp the emotional fortitude it takes to come in here each day and help your husband of over fifty years silently eat his food and remain psychologically intact, let alone cheerful. Every so often, someone will gesture at my grandfather’s food and ask “Good?” and hope for a response. Mostly, he continues eating, but a few times he pauses and it appears that he nods. We tell ourselves it is an act of assent. It is only when we sing “Shalom Aleichim” (the traditional song at the beginning of the Friday night Sabbath meal) at my grandmother’s suggestion that he opens his mouth and emits words. We move on to “Hava Nagila” and my siblings sing but I can only watch, trying to maintain my composure, as he annunciates “hava nagila, hava nagila”—“let us rejoice, let us rejoice.” These words strike me as inapposite, but perhaps such reminiscences are what we must now celebrate. I am moved that his recollection is of these traditional melodies. These fragments of a robust tradition, selected pieces from the collective Jewish memory, for the time being escape the abyss into which everything else—memories of wife and children, recognition of time and place, capacity for understanding and responding to ideas—has fallen.
My father and grandmother agree that he is content. Given his condition, it is impossible to know what his mental state is, but he is, at the very least, sedate. The care seems good: the staff knows who he is, and when we look around no one appears to be neglected (this apparently happens at old age homes).
We take the requisite family picture and bring my grandfather back to Reminiscence. As we situate him in a comfortable chair in front of the TV playing a black and white film, another old woman is being helped up from her seat at a cafeteria table. My grandmother informs us that she has been in the facility for nine years, and that she no longer has any top teeth (she had, in a fit, thrown away her dentures). Her room is next to my grandfather’s, and the old black and white photograph outside her door reveals a stunning young woman. Age had left neither a semblance of her memory nor her beauty.
As the rest of my family goes to place some things in my grandfather’s room, I remain with him in the lounge. Not sure what to do, I place my hand on his and tell him I’ve missed him. He smiles at me, blue eyes twinkling. My father is right: he seems content. It is not clear to me whether the faint hint of fond recognition I see in his eyes is merely an illusion, a hope that the desperate are bound to project onto the objects of their desperation for their own psychological protection. Perhaps, I think, this is all just a breakdown of communication: the memories and concepts that appear to have disintegrated are still embedded somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind, generally unreachable due to faulty pathways but subject to the occasional successful, if noisy, transmission.
The truth is bleaker. My grandfather’s primary senses remain somewhat intact, and he is, for the time being, capable of basic facial and bodily movement. But without memory to inform him he has lost the capacity for intentionality. Whatever gustatory associations used to move him to avoid tuna casseroles are gone. Smiles upon seeing his grandchildren are not a (conscious) reaction to the joy of greeting family, which requires the ability to identify faces and the relation they have to oneself, but are, optimistically, subconscious responses to the distantly familiar, and are more likely arbitrary. The eyes and brain that register a person standing in front of him do not register that person as his son. While all of our choices and emotional responses can (on a scientific/physicalist view) theoretically be reduced to neuro-chemical reactions, this seems psychically impossible to internalize or even truly comprehend; yet it is hard to avoid something resembling this brute realization when encountering someone suffering from severe Alzheimer’s. The layers of abstraction between physics and phenomenology in which our personalities might be said to reside disappear. The self absent the remembering self is the time cursor on an online video: it is a mere marker, moving toward its terminus, with no content of its own. It is an evacuated self. Without a past, there is no context from which the future can derive its meaning. It is life lived only in the ever-momentary present, which, in the words of historian E.H. Carr, “has no more than a notional existence as an imaginary dividing line between the past and the future.”
As I leave the home with my family I have difficulty speaking. I imagine my father, like his own, denied access to the world of concepts he possesses, to the experiences he has had, to his capacity for argument, stripped of wit and reason. I try and conceive of myself in this condition but cannot, blocked by an impenetrable solipsism, knowing that the inner life that constitutes my sense of self would be altogether different. I want to act, to drop everything and work to cure this horrid illness. At the very least, I feel compelled to write.
With time, these emotions dull. My attention is no longer directed fully at them, my mind no longer occupied in the same way. The vivid, intense phenomenology of sadness and helplessness and fear largely recedes from lived experience into pangs of occasionally surfacing memory. But Hume observes that while our reflections on past sentiments faithfully mirror their objects, the colors are flatter: “The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation.” We lament this dimming when it advances toward loss, but here it is probably a good thing: to be constantly overwhelmed by memory—to “live in the past”—could be debilitating to one’s development, progress, and happiness. Memory may help shape ongoing experience, but life is lived in full color, not just remembered. And now, as I think about my grandfather, who has been robbed of his memory, of the medium onto which his ongoing experiences can be projected and take form, I am at least grateful that along with my family, I can still engage in the one-sided greetings that spark our memories and reminiscences if not his own.