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When you stand in line in Heaven waiting to be sign the contract to be assigned a life to be born to, there are a lot of items in the small print.  I assume there are, because who actually reads the small print?  Sure they regale you with visions of happy childhood, playing on swings, going to school, being embraced in the bosom of a loving family.  They tell you about the joys of growing up, finding your life partner, perhaps raising your own children.  They titillate you with the promise of going to see Star Wars and Harry Potter, the Beatles and Katy Perry and George Strait, the Boston Pops, football, and watching Downton Abbey and The Big Bang Theory and American Idol on television.  They tease you with the absolute certainty of ice cream and pizza and beer.  Or sherry if that is more to your taste.

Stressing the challenges of getting old?  Not so much.  Didn't read the small print.  Never saw it coming.  We have been caring for a family member with escalating dementia since July, and it has not only been unexpectedly more challenging than I could ever have dreamed, but also heartbreaking as we watch a person we know and love disintegrate.  Worse, I have watched this person know she is losing herself and seeing her abject fear as she fades away.

As New Year approaches I have been thinking a lot about living in the moment.  But as this loved one's whole world changes from moment to moment, making it impossible to follow a conversation and creating the stress of guessing what we are talking about as she loops through  the same conversation over and over again, I realize how important it is to savor those moments, especially the ones with even a small spark of her former self.

Have you ever entered someone's hallucination at 2 o'clock in the morning?  If you say things that fit the hallucination the conversation progresses, although it is not likely that you are reducing the panic that results from the invasion of unreal worlds on a person's mind.  If you say things like "Don't worry, you are home and safe with me" and it doesn't jive with the imagined scenario, the person starts over.  It is like the joke about interrupting a rube who is trying to read a speech aloud and has to start at the beginning of the speech every time he is interrupted.  But it's not a joke.

A dear friend in North Lansing used to tell me, "Dan, don't get old!"  Every week he repeated the warning, and we'd laugh about it -- and then go on to solve all the problems of the world.  He didn't have any ideas on how to not get old (beyond the obvious unacceptable answer), but he good-naturedly accepted the many indignities that were foisted upon him as he neared the end.  Except for the last month or two of his life, I don't think he ever did get old.  He was lucky to retain all his marbles upstairs even as the equipment downstairs failed him a piece at a time.  When they say you're only as old as you think you are, I think they are talking about my friend.

But when the equipment downstairs remains in good shape, but the upstairs part degrades you can't help but get old.  And you are doomed to remain old for longer than you would prefer.

As that happens the people caring for you shoulder an increasingly difficult burden as they try to keep you happy, safe, and loved.  Because the person they love slowly disappears, even though she is still in there somewhere, you keep telling yourself.  You hate so see her so unhappy and fearful, and are helpless to do anything about it.  You can address the safety part, but no matter how much you tell yourself that the sometimes loving and sometimes hateful things that are said to you are the disease, not the person, it is hard to compartmentalize when it is being said to your face.  And you realize that there is no winning in this situation.  Nobody wins.

I'm not saying I would have given up my place in line in Heaven if I had been informed about this.  There are so many wonderful moments in life, and even if it is fleeting the people you meet and the things we experience are generally wonderful.  I'm not talking about cable news here.  But most of the rest of life is pretty good.

Still, it would have been nice if the Pre-life Counselor Angel had said something.  Handed out an infographic or a brochure or something.  Just a heads-up.

The experience of caring for a person with dementia has made me thing about her in completely different ways, not altogether wonderful, out of the necessity of dealing with each crisis in the moment.  But I have become convinced that while I will remember this difficult, confused, depressed person after she has gone, I will also always remember the loving, giving, vibrant person she was for most of her life, and the many important lessons she taught me.  I am hoping my more recent memories will fade so that I only remember the person I knew before her mind betrayed her.  And in the near future I look forward to a few more new happy memories sprinkled among the challenging ones.

So my New Year's resolution is to make an effort to savor all the good moments with my family and friends, and strangers I happen on along the way.  I wish all our readers a happy, happy holiday season, and a safe and celebratory New Year, and the wisdom and perseverance to maintain your balance when faced with difficult situations.  And... don't get old!

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