When my mother started to lose memories in her 90s, she moved into a residential community near me, in Cambridge, Mass.
I had been a cultural critic of age in America, an “age critic,” for decades. But the focus in my books — beginning with “Safe at Last in the Middle Years” — had been on midlife. I was working toward a new book, eventually to be called “Agewise,” about how and why ageism was growing worse in the United States, even targeting the baby boomers, none of whom were yet 65. I was not anticipating writing about my mother in this book, although she had played major roles in earlier books. Nor was I planning to have a chapter on memory loss in “Agewise.”
What changed me, both as a daughter and as a writer? I found first that I had a lot to learn from my indomitable mother about living well with mental impairment and, later, with physical frailty. And as I was figuring out how to help her hold up her end, I was shocked to discover how harsh the social world can be toward old people with cognitive impairments. Eventually, the story of my mother’s last years became a chapter of my book.
My mother had always been animated, funny and engaging. And gregarious: She liked to talk. After she moved to Florida in her 60s, I accompanied her on mile-long walks along the beach. Dozens of people greeted her. Between interruptions, she provided well-crafted Jewish jokes, news about relatives and fascinating information about generations past.
Through her, my world expanded back into the early 20th century. Her heroes (Paul Robeson, John Dewey, Maggie Kuhn) and her film stars (Bette Davis, Cary Grant) became mine. She was Heritage Central. Some people dismiss old stories and historical allusions. But as I grew closer to her in her 90s I came to love her jokes and stories even more. She died two years ago, and I am sorry I didn’t record her speech. She wouldn’t mind my telling the story of her memory loss: She wanted her life to be useful.
At first, focused as I was on her stories and commentaries, I was not alert to her memory loss. But she was. My mother made discoveries about her cognitive processes as if she were a neurologist. “I have no frame of reference,” she stated, factually, about people she remembered knowing well. She, with her great executive abilities, reported, “I have lost initiative.” I believed in her right to know whatever I was learning about cognitive impairment, a subject that her life had suddenly made urgent.