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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Forget Me Not

Vovó Flora was forgetful and confused the way a lot of elderly people are. Senile dementia makes you hazy on time frames, unsure about who people are, and prone to agitation and disturbed planning. I'm not certain how that that last symptom is defined clinically, but I'll bet it looks a lot like her living room walls. They were covered with tiny scraps of paper, notes to herself intended to help keep her thoughts organized but resulting in a jumbled mess of outdated reminders and inscrutable details. The show is on channel 7. Your granddaughter is Rosanne. Tomorrow is Sunday. 

With constant confusion comes paranoia. Even at her best, Vovó Flora was very distrustful. When the facts didn't add up she was wary and suspicious. Recognizing people was a problem. She had a hard time believing her grandchildren were old enough to have children. Once argued that that the adult standing before her could not possibly be her little granddaughter Lilly. She finally accepted it was true, but not before telling my mother, "You should be ashamed to have a daughter so old!"

There's no fooling Vovó Flora.
Vovó Flora especially had trouble keeping track of new family members. She asked again and again who our spouses were and what they were doing at family dinners. One Thanksgiving she asked who my brother-in-law was, and being told it was her granddaughter's husband, suddenly lit up with determination and pointed to the words on his 80s throwback T-shirt. "I know you're all lying to me, because it says right here he's the Karate Kid!" There is no arguing with that.

This paranoid thinking could lead to some bad choices, like the time she decided banks could not be trusted and insisted her money be withdrawn and hidden in her house. While her fear of bank failure might be considered prescient given the state of our economy, there is no way a life savings would be safer under the mattress of an elderly woman in a neighborhood with one of the highest crimes rates in the Bay Area. She would not be moved by logic, and insisted again and again to be given her money. Then, one day, she told my mother that she had changed her mind. Mr. Norte, the Portuguese banker who had served the family for years, had called and personally assured her that her money was safe. My mom was glad for the change of heart, but puzzled by the fact that Mr. Norte had been dead for decades.

Only weeks later did my mother learn that the call was not from beyond the grave nor was it the product of advanced senility.  My uncle, knowing that Vovó Flora would trust a Portuguese-speaking authority figure, asked a cousin to phone her as Mr. Norte. The plan worked so completely that it's hard to fault him for the deception. Her worries about money and her constant pestering stopped instantly. She felt special for having received a personal call from a banker and had the satisfaction of making her own decision. When you can't trust your own mind, it must feel wonderful to be sure of something. What's so crazy about that?

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