Pick only one: A sound mind, or a sound body

Mr. David Meadows, author of Rogue Classicism, links to a fascinating if depressing post in Psychology Today‘s Adventures in Old Age blog.  Dr. Ira Rosofsky, Ph.D, compares the situation of Thaao, a long-lived captive Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) with that of elderly humans—also captive, in a way—requiring care in nursing homes.

Would you like to be 80 and be physically health with dementia, or with a sound mind in a ruined body?

Pick only one.

In my work, I get to ask questions from the Geriatric Depression Scale like, “Do you think that most people are better off than you are?”

The 80something, I asked this of said, “No, not most, particularly some of the other people around here, whose minds are totally destroyed,” the fairly common response from many who still have a mind that always reminds me of the first line of Ginsberg’s Howl, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”-a line appropriate to the most garden variety of nursing homes.

I’ll call him Mr. Jones. He was a long-time, semi-prominent classicist who forsaking Herodotus–I told him I could barely finish the first book of The Histories, in English–now lies in bed when he’s not in his wheel chair, mostly watching TV. A Yankee fan, he’s happily waiting for the first spring training game only weeks away.

“If only I kind walk,” a refrain I’ve heard scores of times over the years, “my life would be so much better.”

But Jones, unlike some others or possibly me in the future, is making–pick your platitude–the best of a bad bargain and playing the hand fate dealt to him.

Jones told me that, like Thaoo, perhaps, he never expects to leave the nursing home.

“I recognize I can’t live on my own. My son says its an ordeal just to take me for a car ride. But my friends still visit.”

…Although he admitted, who wouldn’t? that he’d like the sound body as well as the sound mind, but he’ll settle for the mind.

— Rosofsky, Ira.  “World’s Oldest Condor Dies–In A Cage.” Psychology Today | Adventures in Old Age, 30 January 2010.

This is a subject very much on my mind as I have seen elders in my family age and become ever more dependent on nursing care.  They have all, almost without exception, suffered a mental decline more precipitous than that of their bodies.  While I am not related by blood (and thus have no concerns about heredity of these conditions) to all but one of the sufferers, it is nonetheless disconcerting to see such a transformation.  When a person’s body declines, you may at least maintain some semblance of conversation and inquire after their interests, needs, wants, news and current affairs, et cetera.  Managing their affairs is easy, they can tell you about the state of their health, their income and expenses, how they would prefer for things to be administered, and so on.

But when a mind declines, conversations can become circular or nonsensical.  The person has no ability to make small talk, they cannot impart useful information to their caretakers, or discuss how they want their medical, social and financial care administered.  Worse, the personality that you once knew fades into nonexistence, replaced by some new hybrid entity combining a few ghosts of memory with a childlike innocence of all that was once familiar.

Aging is a bit of a Morton’s Fork; everything tends to deteriorate, and whether it’s the mind or the body that goes, the results are rarely pleasing to those who must endure it.  Dr. Rosofsky notes further one that as we age into the senior years our autonomy decreases, and that in a nursing home “sometimes the only autonomy you have left is to say, ‘No,’ or ‘Go away.'”

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