“I’m at Mom’s condo. The police are here. They won’t commit her. Can you please talk to them?”
It was a frantic call from my sister Lorna in Florida. My 83 year-old mother had assaulted her aide and the police had been called. We knew she was dementing, but she refused to move into assisted living. It was only a matter of time before something like this happened.
I vividly recall talking to the officer from the dining room of our B&B, holding the phone to my ear and pacing back and forth only as far as the cord would allow me. Fortunately, we had no guests at the time.
I told him that I was a licensed clinical psychologist and explained why she needed to be committed. He replied that she did not currently appear to be a danger to herself or others and he could not commit her under Florida’s Baker Act. He told me I was a terrible son for not taking better care of her and that if I didn’t make arrangements for her, he would have no alternative but to handcuff her and arrest her for assault.
I told him to go ahead and arrest her. When he tried to do that, she did exactly what I knew she would do: she punched him. At that point, the police restrained her, brought her to a hospital psychiatric unit and had her committed. She got the help she needed.
Nearly all of what I just recounted is true, all except my vivid memory of having the conversation in the dining room of our B&B. You see, I didn’t become a clinical psychologist until 5 years after we sold the B&B.
Yet I can see this scene in my mind’s eye as clear as day. I see myself holding the phone…and that should have tipped me off that my memory was faulty, because I could not possibly have seen myself at that moment. I might have seen the table, the door out to the side porch, or my wife, but I would not have seen myself. The perspective of my memory was all wrong.
As memory expert Dr. Elizabeth Loftus tells us, “…once you have an experience and you record it in memory, it doesn’t just stick there in some pristine form you know waiting to be played back like a recording device. But rather, new information, new ideas, new thoughts, suggestive information, misinformation can enter people’s conscious awareness and cause a contamination, a distortion, an alteration in memory…”
So mis-remembering is a fairly common occurrence, but I suspect it can become more of a concern as we age, not because we are subject to new information being received, but because our memories become more fluid and permeable, that is to say, more at risk for being contaminated by a nearby memory.
In the case I just described, I tried hard to recall some other important conversation I might have been remembering that had occurred in that location, but I couldn’t. Then I tried to imagine having the conversation in the house were I actually was living in 2003 when this happened…and I couldn’t. So the mystery of this faulty recollection remains unsolved.
But it does bring to mind a similar, more recent experience. Once again, my memory is distinct and clear. We had just moved to Kennett Square and we went to the grand opening of the local Democratic Party campaign headquarters. It was 2012 and we were eager to work for Obama’s re-election.
No sooner had we stepped inside the door than the party chair walked up to us, introduced himself, and asked where we lived. When I told him, he immediately invited me to join the organization as a committee person for our precinct.
Although I don’t see my wife who is standing beside me in this memory, I feel her presence. The problem is that it’s not Sally. It’s my first wife who had passed away two years earlier.
That’s the kind of porous, mix-and-match memory recall that concerns me. I have no clue if this is meaningful or not in terms of distinguishing normal aging from the alternatives, but I’ll keep an eye on it. One thing is for certain: it’s definitely a mistake on the journey.
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