The Elderly and Memory

Matthew over at Esoteric Rabbit discusses some of the hassles he and his family have found with his nan and her ‘lost’ purse.

While I was home over xmas my family was quite distressed about my Nan’s impending move. They were about to begin the process of moving rooms in her retirement complex to a room in the ‘extra care’ wing of the centre. ‘Extra Care’ sadly is almost as sinister as it sounds, because it is for people who become violent and upset. I am not sure how much ultra-violence can be perpetrated by a 101 yo woman, but it must be enough for her nurses to get worried! Anyway, her memory is also quite shoddy. Once she even forgot who her daughter is (ie my mum), which was very distressing when it happened.

My mum was worried that she (my nan) would become ‘confused’ during the process of the shift. My mum’s evidence of the impending state of confusion was based on a comment that my nan repeatedly made (including in my presence when I went to see her) that she was “in a nice room, because it has plenty of light.” I thought this was quite interesting for a number of reasons.

On a superficial level, having conversations with my nan can be quite arduous because she often repeats herself, ie the so-called goldfish syndrome However, I see this as a blessing in disguise. The process of exchange and communicating involves something of a shared sense of the conversation. This is pretty obvious in everyday situations, but when you are 101 and in a retirement complex with little external stimuli there is little to engage with and/or ‘share’ the event of conversation. The topic of the conversations I have with my nan are themselves relatively meaningless, mainly because she will forget them in a few minutes (or less), but what is important is that she feels like she is sharing in something.

Now getting back to the problem of the state of confusion precipitated by the shift. I am not sure yet how it has turned out because I have come back to Sydney. However, relating to the issue of how much light there was to be in the new room, I have a feeling my nan discussed how ‘good’ her room was (and how ‘good’ the food is and how ‘good’ the retirement complex is) to enable this process of sharing in (and/or belonging to) the event of conversation. Her previous room had two windows and most rooms in the complex only have one. The extra light coming into the room was something that was obviously evident. While the light in itself certainly would make one feel nice (depending on the weather), the obviousness of the light also could serve as an immediate point of conversation.

There is another thing that I thought of regarding the windows. Forgetting Proust’s madeline and Barthes’ punctum for a second, there is an immediate viscerality to the presence of the light passing through these windows that does not come with something like a cultural object such as a photo or some text-based object (which she couldn’t really read anyway). In fact it is probably closer to Proust’s little cake than anything else, but much less ‘objectified’ (if that makes sense?). Light does not have to be remembered by our brains because our bodies already know it. It reminds me of a documentary I saw nce about light architects who work in the extreme northern countries who find themselves under the cover of darkness. Could techniques used to combat the ill mental effects of continual physical darkness be used in cases of ‘memory’ darkness?

Anyway, the sense of familiarity, so craved by elderly people as the rest of the world seems to slip by, is thoroughly embodied in the light-based architecture of the windows and the limited number of configurations in which my nan could find herself in her old room. Either she was in her bed or sitting down and there would be a window to the left and right of her. Her body would perceive the sunlight before her mind did. There was a perpetual state of familiar spatial reconfigurement akin to the tug of gravity, but produced by the light that shone through the windows.

There is a terrible sense of sadness experienced by an elderly person’s loved ones as they fight with them and on their behalf for some sort of repetition of familiarity during last parts of their lives. Hence, I was racking my brain to think of something portable that could serve the same function as the two windows, both discursively (to have something to organise conversation around) and spatially (to organise the familiarity of her immediate spatial configuration), but I couldn’t think of anything!?!?! Anyone got any ideas?