History Lessons from Dementialand (Or How I Learned to Love History)

History wasn’t my favorite class in school. In fact, that’s a grand understatement. History was probably my least favorite class in school. (I’m kind of lying. Chemistry was actually my least favorite subject but I don’t often mention this because my dad was a chemical engineer and my apathy toward chemistry repeatedly breaks his heart.)

My feelings about chemistry aside, I was not a fan of history. I remember one of my high school history teachers. He had shaggy hair and wore tie-dyed t-shirts. He tried to make it interesting. I’m sure he did make it interesting for other people. Somehow, he didn’t make it interesting for me. That’s not a complaint about him. I feel like I probably owe the guy an apology. I never even tried to take an interest in what he was talking about.

College wasn’t any better. I made a decision to dislike every history class I had to take before the semester started. It didn’t help that I was dating a history major at the time. I didn’t understand how he could find this stuff interesting. He didn’t understand how I couldn’t.

When I finished college, I thought I was done learning about history. Little did I know that I was just getting started.

My friends with dementia have taught me more about history than I ever learned in school. That’s not a knock on my education. It’s a comment on my previous disengagement in the subject matter and a nod toward the opportunities I’ve had to learn from people who were around decades before I was. And some of them are pretty damn good teachers.

A man with Alzheimer’s told me that he was in a car with a group of guys who cheered when they heard on the radio that John F. Kennedy was shot. I asked him why they cheered and he shrugged. He said he guessed they didn’t like Kennedy. And that they were teenagers. He told me that teenagers are teenagers.

A women in her late 80’s who suffered from dementia told about what it was like to go through a divorce when divorce was stigmatized. Interestingly, she was the one who wanted the divorce, even though she knew it would leave her in poverty to raise a child. Her ex-husband found a new wife within a few months. It wasn’t so easy for her. She told me that men practically sprinted away when they found out she was divorced with a young child. She called it a double standard. She finally did get remarried…in her 60’s.

I sat at a nursing home once while a man told me about having tinsel on his family’s Christmas tree as a child. It was a product of the Great Depression, he said. People wanted decorations that were shiny to spruce up a Christmas tree with few presents underneath. Tinsel was cheap but somehow fancy. It made people feel a little richer when they were poor.

It occurred to me recently that this is history. If you know anything about dementia, you know that it is typical for long-term memory to outlast short-term memory. It is common for someone to have no idea what they had for breakfast but to be able to recall rich details of something that happened 40 years ago.

I’ve heard people say that the preservation of long-term memory is a gift—that it gives people with dementia time to pass on their stories before they disappear. I once had a woman with Alzheimer’s tell me that she wasn’t forgetting her past. She was passing it on. Unfortunately, not everyone has someone to pass their story on to before it is forgotten. Many experiences don’t seem notable enough to make the history textbooks, but that doesn’t mean they lack value.

Everyone has a story. Their story is about them, of course, but it’s also about the context in which they lived. It’s about when they lived. It’s about where they lived. It’s tied in with the headlines of the era but (to me) more interesting. That’s what I was missing about history when I was younger.

I meet many people who can no longer tell me their stories. I used to say hi to a woman at a nursing home when I’d visit to do staff education. She was slumped over in a wheelchair and could not speak. She couldn’t tell me her story. After she passed away, I learned more about her. She was a white teacher at a predominantly black high school in a rough part of Chicago. You could find her students hanging out at her house in the evenings, doing homework and eating cookies she had baked. Now there’s a story (and one you could probably make into a made-for-TV movie).

I like to joke that children frighten and confuse gerontologists like me. Contrary to popular belief, I like kids. They can be fun to hang out with (for a while). They say some hilarious stuff. And, similar to those with dementia, I often find myself enjoying their brutal honesty.

Kids, however, don’t have very interesting stories. It’s not their fault, of course. They just haven’t been here long enough to develop their stories. They also don’t get to make a lot of their own decisions, which limits the twists and turns their stories can take. Give me an 80 year old any day of the week.

When I was a kid, I read “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. You’d get the end of a chapter and have a message like, “If you want to go in the house and see what’s causing the noise, turn to page 33. If you want to call the police, turn to page 43.” You come to a crossroads, and you have to make the call.

How many times has an 80-year-old had to make a life-changing decision, whether they realized at the time it would change their life or not? More times than a kid…of course….which is why I’m a gerontologist and not a child psychologist. Older adults have life histories rooted in contextual details that I can’t fully understand—the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the racial tension of the 60’s. The choices they’ve made are linked to the times and places they’ve experienced. People are not independent of historical context…because people are history.

I don’t know if it’s better to lose your short-term memory before your long-term memory or vice-versa. And it’s irrelevant to overanalyze this because we aren’t given a choice in what we lose when dementia strikes. A compromised short-term memory certainly impacts your daily functioning, and it’s one of the main reasons we have to limit the independence of those who have dementia. Having problems with your short-term memory is tough, and that’s an understatement.

However, I sometimes feel fortunate that it’s the long-term memory that sticks around when the short-term memory fails. To be honest, I am more interested in a person’s stories about what happened 50 years ago than their stories what happened this morning.

I guess I don’t hate history after all. I just didn’t really know what history was when I was in school.

One thought on “History Lessons from Dementialand (Or How I Learned to Love History)

  1. My mother with dementia passed away in 2006. She was a teenager during the Great Depression, and had a paper route in the town where she lived. (And for that time, a girl would have been a unique newspaper carrier!) She used to relate the story of how her father would sometimes borrow a nickel from her to buy a loaf of bread. Years later she came to realize that she had been the only person in the household during the Great Depression with any money whatsoever – all because of that paper route.
    For over two years before Mom died she kept insisting that another Great Depression was on the horizon. (Frankly, I got tired of hearing her talk about it because she said it so often.) Then, a little over two years after she died, the Great Recession of 2008 hit. I couldn’t take my eyes off the television, and I spent nearly every hour checking the news on Public Radio as the disaster developed. I found myself reflecting on all the warnings Mom had been so adamant about, and I wondered how she knew.
    About that same time I watched one of the Harry Potter movies with my kids, and heard the characters say, “It feels a lot like it did last time.” I decided that her insight must’ve been because of that same sort of feeling she’d experienced as a teenager. With her dementia, she couldn’t tell you what happened five minutes ago, and she might not have been able to express the historical events that preceded the Great Depression, but she definitely had that feeling. It must have felt to her “a lot like it did the last time”.


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