S1E19. My Screening Test

In the third episode ‘My Life Is Now An Experiment’ (https://tinyurl.com/3j6vaf7x), I described myself and this blog as an ongoing experiment, recording data that could later be evaluated to determine if my experiences represented normal aging or the path to dementia.

It’s not a ‘real’ experiment, of course, and that made me think that it might be valuable for me to apply to participate in a real clinical trial…and so I did.

My Facebook feed is overrun with invitations to participate in a variety of studies and so I responded to one. I received a telephone call a few days later which was described as a ‘pre-screening interview.’

I was told about the experiment and asked if I was willing to take medication, undergo periodic testing including MRIs and blood samples, and travel to a testing site periodically for ongoing assessments. I was more than happy to do so. 

The person on the phone asked what kinds of problems I was having and I related some of the information I’ve posted in this blog. She wanted to know if there was a caregiver available who could accompany me and so I had her talk with Sally.

I was informed that someone would contact me to arrange an in-person appointment for an actual screening.

I was delighted!

Last Friday, I drove an hour to the nearest testing site (this is a nationwide study) for my assessment. The office was located on the first floor of an unassuming building. I presented myself to the receptionist and was asked to complete a standard form detailing my medical history. As I did so, I smiled inwardly because the form required me to write the date on each of 8 pages. I chuckled because I knew that one of the standard assessment tests that is frequently used to screen for cognitive impairment asks you to give the current year, month, and date…and here I was practicing the answers to 3 of the questions!

The physician performing the assessment ushered me into his office a few minutes after I turned in my completed forms. He went to great lengths to make me feel comfortable, explaining that this interview would be very informal and not like a normal visit to the doctor. He explained that his practice contracts with drug companies to recruit participants in research projects.

He then asked me if I was having problems with my memory and I told him about my recent experiences. He then explored what kinds of accommodations I was using.

We talked a little about my career as a psychologist and my volunteer political work over the last decade.

At this point, my gut feeling was that I was not sufficiently impaired to be selected for the study, i.e., I had flunked the interview! But he asked if I’d like to go ahead and have him administer the screening test, and I, of course, said ‘Please do.’

As I had guessed, the instrument he used was the Mini-Mental Status Exam (MMSE). I had administered it often in my work, but if you had asked me, I would only have been able to name a few of the items from memory…like the ones asking about today’s date. However, I did recognize each question as he asked it.

(I’d like to pause here for a moment to ask a favor of you. Even though it’s easy to google the MMSE and download all the questions, I’m going to ask you not to do that. If you should ever find yourself being evaluated, you want the testing to be as accurate as possible. Knowing the questions and, far worse, practicing the answers would contaminate the results and contribute to an inaccurate diagnosis. And that is why I am encouraging you to use some constraint here.)

I wanted to do my best (even though that might result in my not meeting the impairment criteria for the study) and so I decided to take my time and double-check my responses before answering.

There are a couple of questions that ask you to perform tasks in your head using working memory. I was a little surprised at the amount of effort it took, even though I got the right answers.

There was one task that I was on the verge of messing up, but I caught myself in time and corrected my mistake.

There was another question I answered correctly, but realized afterwards that I hadn’t considered a critical element of the solution when formulating my response. 

Final result: I only made 1 mistake. If I had made 3 mistakes, I would have met the criteria for further testing.

The doctor told me I did not qualify for this study and we chatted a few minutes longer. He offered advice for maintaining cognitive health, including learning new things, eating lots of colorful vegetables and berries, exercising and staying socially engaged.

He thanked me for offering to participate and I thanked him for the work he was doing.

I drove home with mixed emotions. I was disappointed that I hadn’t gotten into the study, but relieved that the errors I was making didn’t yet meet criteria for an impairment.

So far, so good.


If you liked this post, you can follow my blog by providing your email address below. Once you do, you’ll receive each week’s post in your inbox every Friday morning at no cost or obligation. Thanks for being interested! –Wayne

S1E18. 2 Runs, 4 Hits, 1 Error

It was a near-perfect afternoon for baseball at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia: temperatures in the mid-60s under a cloudless sky with a steady breeze blowing in from left field rippling the flags and pennants. Due to COVID restrictions, fewer than 11,000 people would attend the game, giving the event the feel of a spring training game with no crowds in the walkways or at the concession stands and a greater sense of intimacy with the players on the field.

Our bleacher seats behind first base were grouped into 2 sets of 4 that were 9 rows apart. Our other friends hadn’t gotten there yet when Sally and I arrived with her sister Lynn and brother-in-law Bill. Having arrived early for the 1pm start, we immediately decided to have lunch. 

Since it was a long walk to the concession stands behind the bull pen, Bill and I volunteered to get the food. I told him that Sally wanted a cheesesteak and he told me that Lynn wanted one, too. They were sold at Campo’s where the line was short and fast-moving. I told Bill that I’d like to pay for lunch since he had driven and paid for parking, and he accepted. 

When we got to the front of the line, he placed the order for the two cheesesteaks: both with onions and one with ketchup. At first I thought I would share Sally’s, but I saw something on the menu called ‘The Heater’ and decided to get one. I added that to our order along with 2 Diet Cokes.

When our food was ready a few moments later, I put ‘The Heater’ and a cheesesteak in one carry-out box and the second cheesesteak in another. Bill asked me ‘Is that it?’ and I told him it was. We moved forward in the line to pick up our sodas and I placed one in his box and one in mine. The attendant had just refilled a bowl with ketchup packets and Bill took several for Lynn. We each took a short stack of napkins from the dispenser and headed back to our seats.

I had just sat down when Bill asked if I had the right order and I told him I did. Our other friends had arrived while we were gone and it turned out that Lynn and Bill were in the seats 9 rows behind ours. We didn’t talk with them again until it was time to leave.

The game was a pitcher’s duel with the Phillies beating the Milwaukee Brewers 2-0.

I took a nap when we got home, but woke up with a start.

“Oh my god! I cheated Bill out of a cheesesteak!”

I replayed the event over and over in my mind until I fully understood what had happened.

As we walked to the concession stand, I told Bill that Sally wanted a cheesesteak and Bill told me that Lynn wanted one, as well. Neither of us said out loud what we wanted for ourselves. In my mind, then, I fixed our order at 2 cheesesteaks. It was a silly assumption to make.

Bill was ahead of me in line and so he placed the order for two cheesesteaks. I wondered how he knew that Sally wanted onions but no ketchup. In hindsight, it was crystal clear that he didn’t know and he wasn’t ordering for Sally. He was ordering 1 cheesesteak for Lynn and 1 for himself. 

Furthermore, even though we were putting this on one tab, he would never have tried to order for both couples. That’s not the norm. Why did that not occur to me?

Having placed his order, Bill turned to me so I could place mine. Believing that the food for our wives had already been ordered, I added my ‘Heater’ order and the two drinks.

When I put two sandwiches in one box, Bill thought it was his order and I thought it was mine. He asked, “Is that it?” because there were four of us and only three sandwiches.

When we got back to the seats, he asked again if I had the right box because he was expecting two cheesesteaks (which were in the box I carried) while his box only had one.

He deferred to the certainty I expressed and assumed that perhaps he had made an error. Without saying anything else, he went back up the steps to his seat and then, unknown to me, made another trip to Campo’s.

There’s absolutely no way to gloss over or rationalize how faulty and flawed my thinking was during this episode. And even though Bill graciously accepted my apology, it had consequences involving others. Not good.

If you’re keeping score of potential symptoms, this episode qualifies as a failure in social cognition.

The final line for the game was 2 runs, 4 hits, 1 error.

The runs and hits belonged to the Phillies. The error was mine alone.


If you liked this post, you can follow my blog by providing your email address below. Once you do, you’ll receive each week’s post in your inbox as soon as it’s published at no cost or obligation. Thanks for being interested! –Wayne

S1E17. Reading Between The Lines

An interesting study was recently published in which writing samples were used to predict with 75% accuracy who would later develop Alzheimer’s Dementia. Here is the take-away finding:

“The researchers examined the subjects’ word usage with an artificial intelligence program that looked for subtle differences in language. It identified one group of subjects who were more repetitive in their word usage at that earlier time when all of them were cognitively normal. These subjects also made errors, such as spelling words wrongly or inappropriately capitalizing them, and they used telegraphic language, meaning language that has a simple grammatical structure and is missing subjects and words like “the,” “is” and “are.” (Read the full article here: rb.gy/q1igg0)

Although the finding was unexpected, with the benefit of hindsight, it makes sense. It seems to be a very early form of word-finding difficulties, loss of word fluency, perseveration and impoverished processing.

Needless to say, I’ve been monitoring myself ever since I first read about this in early February. After all, I am writing a weekly blog about looking for early warning signs of dementia!

Because I edit my drafts and polish them before posting, and because Sally proofreads them, and because I write with my spellcheck and grammar check turned on, I would be surprised if you found much evidence of these kinds of problems in my writing. For example, in a recent post, my final draft had this sentence: “If that be wisdom, then so be it.” Sally spotted the repetition of the word ‘be’ and so the published version became: “If that passes for wisdom, then so be it.”

When I look at all of my written communications (blog, email, tweets, Facebook posts), though, there is one change that stands out. It seems I avoid using the word ‘I.’ So instead of writing, “I was wondering if…’, what comes out is, “Wondering if…’ Or if someone asks me what I think about something, my response is more likely to be, “Nope” or “Not interested” instead of ‘I don’t think so.”

Let’s not make too much out of this. There are many factors influencing my writing style. Writing a blog about one’s experiences is narcissistic by nature and so I consciously try to minimize the expression of my egotism by editing out “I” references.

The unusual punctuation you sometimes see is more likely intentional literary license than it is unintentional grammatical error.

Two weeks agi, I misspelled the word ‘pejorative’ because I’ve always thought the word was ‘perjorative.’

Twitter and Facebook are inherently telegraphic media where one must capture the reader’s attention with very few words. They are their own literary art form and so it is not surprising that their influence spills over into my blog writing.

Bottom line: it doesn’t appear that we can attribute my current writing style to a subtle prodromal indication of a looming dementia. 

But the idea of the loss of the ‘I’ does intrigue me when discussing dementia. 

To what extent is it fair to describe dementia as losing the ‘I’ in oneself? 

Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” Who I am is the sum of my experiences, how I react to my world and how I think about it. Should I lose my memories in the coming years, should my personality change and become irritable and unforgiving, should my thoughts become dramatically altered…will I still be me? Or will my ‘I’ have been deleted from my existence during the final days of my journey to nowhere?


If you liked this post, you can follow my blog by providing your email address below. Once you do, you’ll receive each week’s post in your inbox as soon as it’s published. Thanks! –Wayne

S1E16. The Name Game

No…not the Shirley Ellis 1964 version (“Nick, Nick, bo-Bick, bo-na-na fanna fo Fick…).

I created a new version after noticing I was blocking on names in everyday conversation. Although I clearly knew who I was talking about, when it came time to say their name, I would blank out and it would take me 5-10 seconds to retrieve it.

That got me thinking about remembering names in general. There are plenty of articles on the web about how to better remember names when you are first introduced, but I couldn’t find anything about how to recall names of people who were well known to you.

So I decided to test myself by trying to remember names of people who I hadn’t seen in years.

I started in 1972 (the year I graduated from Brown) and tried to recall names up to about 2011 when I left North Carolina to move to Pennsylvania to be with Sally. 

I had no trouble at all conjuring up mental images of their faces. After all, these were people with whom I had long-term relationships, like professors, co-workers and neighbors.

A few names appeared right away. For the most part, though, I had to work hard to find them. I would often get the first name fairly quickly, but it might take me 15 minutes or more to find their last name. Having done this for a week, I’ve successfully recalled dozens of names from my past, with only 2 remaining unidentified.

All of which got me wondering about what was going on in my brain. 

Memories of faces and memories of names are stored in different places in our brains. Designing and implementing a strategy for finding both and linking them takes place in another area altogether. And then there are the pathways that connect all three regions.

So what did I learn about myself by playing the game? First, I can recall a lot of faces. More accurately, I can recall important faces. There are hundreds of patients I saw as a psychologist and guests I hosted at our B&B who didn’t leave retrievable memory traces.

Second, although they are hard to find, my memory for names is pretty good, too. The memory of the name is intact as is the pathway connecting it to its face.

Third, my ability to create a task, develop a strategy and implement it is also working well. I tried multiple approaches when my initial search failed: going through the alphabet to test first letters (similar to how knowing the first letter of an answer in a crossword puzzle makes it easier to solve), trying to recall how many syllables were in the last name, replaying memories of my interactions with the person instead of just viewing their face in my mind’s eye. And then there were the times when I just gave up…and the name popped into my head ten minutes later!

But it wasn’t like I could go straight to the file folder where I knew the answer was. Most of the time I was staring into empty space, knowing that the answer was not where I was looking. I could feel when I was wrong and also when I was on the right path. When I did unearth the correct name, it was as if all the associated circuits lit up simultaneously and I instantly knew for certain that I was right.

So if I had to guess, I would say that my weakest link might be the pathways connecting the involved modules. It would make sense (to me, anyway) that they had atrophied over the years for lack of use.

But is this normal aging? I have no clue! In my brief web search, I couldn’t find any published research about this subject. The failure to connect faces with names and identities is well-documented in Alzheimer’s Dementia, but I couldn’t find anything about difficulty making those connections earlier in life being a risk factor.

So if you decide to play the game, please let me know how you make out. I’d love to hear about your experience.

In the meantime, feel free to reminisce a bit with Shirley Ellis’ memorable  lyrics:

The name game. Shirley! Shirley, Shirley

Bo-ber-ley, bo-na-na fanna

Fo-fer-ley. fee fi mo-mer-ley, Shirley!

Lincoln! Lincoln, Lincoln. bo-bin-coln

Bo-na-na fanna, fo-fin-coln

Fee fi mo-min-coln, Lincoln!

Come on ev’rybody, I say now let’s play a game

I betcha I can make a rhyme out of anybody’s name

The first letter of the name

I treat it like it wasn’t there

But a “B” or an “F” or an “M” will appear

And then I say “Bo” add a “B” then I say the name

Then “Bo-na-na fanna” and “fo”

And then I say the name again with an “”f” very plain

Then “fee fi” and a “mo”

And then I say the name again with an “M” this time

And there isn’t any name that I can’t rhyme

Arnold! Arnold, Arnold bo-bar-nold

Bo-na-na, fanna fo-far-nold

Fee fi mo-mar-nold. Arnold!

But if the first two letters are ever the same

Crop them both, then say the name

Like Bob, Bob, drop the “B’s”, Bo-ob

Or Fred, Fred, drop the “F’s”, Fo-red

Or Mary, Mary, drop the “M’s”, Mo-ary

That’s the only rule that is contrary

And then I say “Bo” add a “B” then I say the name

Then “Bo-na-na fanna” and “fo”

And then I say the name again with an “”f” very plain

Then “fee fi” and a “mo”

And then I say the name again with an “M” this time

And there isn’t any name that I can’t rhyme!


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S1E15. Vivid Memories That Aren’t

“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.


If you liked this post, you can follow my blog by providing your email address below. Once you do, you’ll receive each week’s post in your inbox as soon as it’s published, at no cost or obligation. Thanks for being interested! –Wayne

S1E14. That Was Then. This Is Now.

I wrote this about my parents when I was 22:

‘They’ve been grandparents almost two years now. Grandparents twice over, that is, and a third expected momentarily. As I stepped through the doorway I was met by a heavy-sweet menagerie of home-cooked aromas. Outside, it was a crisp spring afternoon. Inside, it was a trifle too warm. They had both mellowed in recent years, but just now, for the first time, I felt as though I were entering a grandparents’ home. They’re growing old.’

When I wrote that closing line, I meant ‘old’ as a pejorative, not as a compliment.

My father was 52 at the time. He died at 60. My mother lived to be 85, developing dementia a few years before she died.

Paul Simon wrote this lyric into the song ‘Old Friends’ when he was 27 years old:

“Can you imagine us

Years from today

Sharing a park bench quietly?

How terribly strange

To be seventy”

Sally and I are 70. We quietly share park benches. It’s not strange at all.

On the other hand, Paul Simon will be 80 in October.

Our view of aging is curious, isn’t it? How must today’s 20-somethings view us? If we asked Paul McCartney today, would he say that 84 is the new 64? 

In any event, heading toward our ninth decade, the goal is to be active, engaged, wise and interesting…a group of adjectives we don’t normally associate with the degenerative effects of dementia. The good news is that there appear to be things we can do to increase our chances of achieving those goals and of sidestepping our worst nightmare. In fact, we can now reduce our risk of dementia by some 40% by adopting a brain-healthy lifestyle. We can fight back against the prejudices and preconceptions of our younger selves!

Spoiler alert: I’m not one for miracle cures or for buying into ‘secret information that you can’t find anywhere else.’ As a former psychologist and researcher, I trust the science and want to see multiple studies heading in the same direction before I accept a conclusion as valid. So here are 4 recommendations for which there is a body of evidence supporting their efficacy:

  1. Take care of your heart. Your brain depends upon blood flow to provide nutrients and remove debris. There are 400 miles of blood vessels in your brain. You want every inch of them pumping at peak efficiency to prevent neuron damage and maintain synaptic connections. Adopt a heart-healthy diet; keep your stress levels in-bounds; keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check.
  1. Exercise. The current guideline is about 150 minutes of ‘huffing & puffing’ each week (e.g., 30 minutes/day x 5 days). Walking is fine, but you need to work up a sweat and breathe hard. Obviously, this is good for your heart, but I also suspect that its moderating effect on cognitive function is also related to the fact that it engages so many areas of your brain.
  1. Challenge yourself cognitively. Read books. Learn new skills. Change your routine. Solve puzzles. Take on-line courses or, better yet, once we are COVID-clear, take courses in person. There seems to be a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ aspect to how well our brains age, so try to be open to new experiences and challenges.
  1. Socialize. We are social animals and engaging with others engages our brain in ways well beyond any other activity. Just take a moment to think about all the ways you use your brain when sitting down for a meal with a group of friends. The complexity of negotiating a social context is stunning, invigorating, challenging…and fun! 

That’s roughly where the research stands today. You can reduce your risk of developing dementia by about 40% if you adopt a lifestyle that also happens to be associated with increased longevity. You get double the bang for the buck: more years and better years.

Bottom line: We don’t have to accept the dire predictions of our younger selves. We can marshal the resources that got us this far to get us through the final years of our journey in good stead. It’s definitely worth a shot.

All of which gives a brand new meaning to Bob Dylan’s 1964 lyric:

“…I was so much older then

I’m younger than that now.”


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S1E13. A Baby Boomer’s Worst Nightmare

“Don’t ever let me get like that.”

Sally’s 7-word reaction to the movie said it all.

We had just watched ‘The Father’ starring Anthony Hopkins. It’s the story of an 80-something year-old man in London struggling with dementia. The movie is filmed in a way that forces you to not just observe him, but to experience his confusion for yourself, to get a brief glimpse of what it might be like to have dementia. 

It’s masterful. The performances are superb. It’s painfully important for you to see it.

It immediately forces us to address our worst nightmare: What if we get like that?

Our parents’ worst nightmare was becoming a burden to their children. Themselves children of The Great Depression, they feared financial insecurity that would deny them their independence as they aged. They didn’t want to add the weight of caring for them to their children who would be simultaneously carrying the burden of raising their own families.

But that generation didn’t expect to live long enough to dement. Seventy was considered a ‘ripe old age.’ The prevalence of dementia wasn’t what it is now. 

More than half of us baby boomers will live into our eighties…and the incidence of dementia will increase. It’s our worst nightmare.

If dementia is the path before me, is it possible to prepare for it like I did with retirement? What happens when I stop being me? When is being alive not the same as living? Where are the inflection points?

I’m wrestling with all of those questions.

There is one school of thought that says we are constantly changing throughout our lives and that dementia is just another aspect of that change. You might become different as you dement, but you are still you. 

I don’t think I agree with that.

Our life changes are forged from our experiences that shape how we relate to the world: how we think, feel and act. In normal aging, we continue to grow and adapt to our changing bodies and environment until we die.

The dynamic is quite the opposite in dementia. There is a physical process that is attacking our capacities, our stored memories and our adaptations. It is fundamentally changing how we think, feel and act–not in the furtherance of our ability to survive and cope with our world–but in direct conflict with it.

That’s not living. That’s dying.

Hospice and palliative medicine physician B.J. Miller, In a recent New York Times opinion piece titled ‘What Is Death?’ wrote:

“For some of us, death is reached when all other loved ones have perished, or when we can no longer think straight, or go to the bathroom by ourselves, or have some kind of sex; when we can no longer read a book, or eat pizza; when our body can no longer live without the assistance of a machine; when there is absolutely nothing left to try…If I had to answer the question today I would say that, for me, death is when I can no longer engage with the world around me. When I can no longer take anything in and, therefore, can no longer connect.

I agree with Sally: ‘Don’t let me get like that.’

In the 2014 film ‘Still Alice,’ Columbia University cognitive psychologist Alice Howland (played by Julianne Moore) develops a suicide plan after receiving a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s Dementia. She designs it to be implemented at the inflection point when she loses full agency over her life. Spoiler alert: Her plan doesn’t work.

In ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975),’ after witnessing the life-altering effects of a lobotomy on Jack Nicholson’s character, Chief holds a pillow over McMurphy’s head and smothers him to death. He knew that Mac was no longer Mac and that his life had already been stolen from him.

So it appears that there are a few questions that need to be asked and answered. First, is there a point when dementia meets Miller’s definition of death? And, if so, is there anything we can do about it?


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S1E12. I Got Scammed!

It’s the 3rd quarter of the University of Connecticut vs. Baylor NCAA Women’s Basketball playoff game. My Lady Huskies are struggling against the Bears with the score seesawing back and forth.

That’s when I receive an email saying my Facebook account was going to be deleted due to copyright infringements. I have 48 hours to appeal the decision.

I freak out!

Facebook advertising is how I introduce my blog to new readers. In fact, I’m not 100% focussed on the game because I’m monitoring the performance of a new ad campaign during the timeouts, and that is how I happen to see the email.

Splitting my attention between the game and my Facebook panic attack, I do what I usually do to see if I am being scammed: I check the email address of the sender. Usually it’s bogus and I can spot a phony quickly. 

It looks fine. It’s from a facebook.com address and the extension looks like a tracking code that Facebook uses.

Baylor 45

UConn 44

5:08 to go in the 3rd quarter

Grammar. Just about every phishing email I’ve ever seen has at least one grammatical error. This one does not. No spelling errors, either.

I realize I’m being distracted from the game. I know I can respond after the game is over, but this is bothering me.

Baylor 55

UConn 53

End of the 3rd quarter

So I click on the ‘Appeal’ button. It takes me to a new page where I enter my name, email address and birthday. I explain why I believe an error has been made and click ‘Submit.’

Then it asks me to log in to Facebook. Since I don’t know it offhand, I have to look up my password.

While doing so, it occurs to me that it’s strange to first submit information and then log in. I look at the page again. It’s no longer a Facebook ID. Something isn’t right.

I check my Facebook page. There is no similar warning there. My ad is still running. I can post to it, even though the warning email says my access is blocked.

BINGO…It’s a phishing scam after all!

I assess the damage and decide I haven’t revealed any information that someone could not easily get elsewhere, so I don’t bother to change my Facebook password. I block the original sender from my email account.

Thinking about it, I’m disappointed in my reaction to what just happened. I consider myself pretty savvy when it comes to spotting internet scams, yet I fell for this one. I did my standard due diligence, but I didn’t think it through before I reacted. That’s a pretty big mistake. 

It was a failure of executive functioning: the ability to organize and sequence your thoughts, to look at things from different perspectives, and to consider the pros and cons of a situation and give them appropriate weights in order to make a judgement. It involves not only searching for evidence that confirms your belief, but looking for and considering contradictory evidence. I didn’t do that.

I didn’t consider the fact that if Facebook had spotted a copyright infringement or some other violation of their policies, they would have taken down the post, not the entire page, especially on a first offense. And they would have notified me on Facebook, not via email. But in the moment, I was swept up in the fear of losing my account, and my emotions hijacked my thinking, resulting in a first-class error.

So I’ve added ‘judgement’ to my list of things to keep an eye on as I dribble down the road to nowhere.

The good news? UConn won, 69-67, and advanced to the Final Four!


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S1E11. The Wisdom Paradox

“There is nothing which for my part I like better, Cephalus, than conversing with aged men; for I regard them as travellers who have gone a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to inquire, whether the way is smooth and easy, or rugged and difficult.” 

— from Plato’s The Republic


The notion that we may achieve wisdom as we age is comforting. Throughout history, many cultures have revered the elderly for this very quality: wisdom born of experience. It’s nice work, if you can get it!

In the 1940’s, psychologist Erik Erikson described the period from about age 65 to death as the time we negotiate our path through the conflict between integrity and despair. We reflect back on our lives and begin to confront our mortality. He defined success as reaching the conclusion that your life was meaningful, and then facing death with wisdom and integrity.

But there has also been recognition through the ages of the other path we might follow.

In the 6th century BC, Pythagoras posited that the decay of the mind and body began in one’s 60s and in one’s 80s the tendency was to revert to the mental capacity of a child.

The physician Galen, in the 2nd century, attributed dementia to the presence of too much black bile.

Quite the choice: being revered vs. being diapered; wisdom vs. black bile.

It’s quite the paradox: just as our lifetime of experiences grants us wisdom, aging can rob us of the memories and faculties upon which it is built.

When I was in my 20s (long before I learned about Erikson’s work), I set a standard for myself that was similar to his criterion. I decided that when I was on my deathbed, I wanted to be able to look back on my life and say, “I dug what I did while I was doing it.”

I’m not yet on my deathbed, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job. I’m pleased with my performance so far. I have very few regrets.

Have my various careers elevated me to the ranks of those with wisdom? I don’t know. By virtue of having lived this long, I have a lot of stuff stored in my head. Am I able to integrate it, manipulate it, and present polished pearls of wisdom on demand? That’s a pretty tall order. I’d like to think, though, that I have a unique and helpful perspective to offer. If that passes for wisdom, then so be it.

When Erikson penned his theory, we retired at 65 and our life expectancy was in the early 70s. Today, many of us are working well past 65, and even if we have retired, our lives are full and enriched by our volunteer engagements, travel, family and community involvements. Life expectancy in the United States is now 79. It’s becoming more common to read obituaries of centenarians. When I read about someone who passed while in their 70s, I hear myself lamenting, “So young!”

So now I’m 70 and not yet focusing on end-of-life issues. Instead, I’m embarking on a new career as a blogger. I can still express myself pretty well…and people still laugh at most of my jokes!

But how long will I occupy this state of grace? With aging–whether normal or pathological–I’m losing access to my database. My abilities to think things through and connect previously unconnected dots are slowing down. How long before listeners stop listening with interest and start finishing my sentences for me? How long before the black bile makes its presence felt? How long before Plato would not consider me a worthy traveller?


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S1E10. How It All Fell Apart

In March of 2019, I was on track to be the next chair of the Chester County (PA) Democratic Committee. Two years later, I’m not even a member of the organization. How did that happen?

More importantly: Why did it happen? The answer to that question makes a big difference.

Up until now, I’ve explored specific mistakes related to specific brain networks such as memory and language. But there are also global effects related to an oncoming dementia that can generate errors on a grander scale.

As our processing speed slows or as specific deficits develop, it takes more effort to attend to business as usual. The effects can be very subtle. We might get frustrated more easily, or feel more fatigued more often. Some of us will lose interest in things we’ve long enjoyed, while others will start to withdraw from social activities.

Now let’s take a look at what happened to me over the course of the past two years.

In March of 2019, I had a falling out with the Chair of the County Democratic Committee and resigned my position on the executive board. This was not planned and it immediately ended any chance I had to be elected County Chair.

Surprisingly, however, I felt relieved. I realized that–for the first time in my life–I had taken on more than I could comfortably handle. In retirement, I was feeling more stressed by my volunteering obligations than I ever had as a full-time employee or business owner!

Two months later, I resigned my seat on the Kennett Square Borough Council. The reason was pretty straight-forward: Sally and I were planning to travel a lot in the second half of the year and I wouldn’t be around to do my job. I thought it only fair to resign so that my fellow Council members could appoint someone to complete the 8 months remaining in my term who would take over my workload.

Again, I felt immediate relief after my resignation, even though relief was not my goal.

(By the way, Sally and I thoroughly enjoyed our trips in the second half of the year!)

At this point, having resigned two positions, I was still Chair of our local Democratic committee, the Kennett Area Democrats, and I was still a committee person responsible for my precinct.

In January of 2020, instead of further lightening the load, I took on a new assignment when I became the campaign chair for our candidate for State Representative. Once again, I was a full-time volunteer.

I thoroughly enjoyed the work, embraced it and learned a great deal from the experience. I was busier than ever, but not feeling the pressure.

My job as campaign chair ended on election day in November.

In December, I resigned my position as the Chair of the Kennett Area Democrats. It had been my intention ever since I was first elected three years earlier to guide the organization through the 2020 election and then step down. And so I did.

Let me pause here for a moment to provide some important context. As I’ve explained in earlier posts, cognitive impairments are defined as declines from previous levels of functioning, so it’s important to know a little something about my history.

Interestingly–or maybe ‘strangely’ is a better word–my life pattern has been to change my career (not just my job) every ten years. It seems my interest and enjoyment have an expiration date assigned to them. My careers as the manager of a performing arts center, as a B&B owner, and as a clinical psychologist all lasted just about 10 years, more or less. 

Each time I shifted, I embraced my new life with all my heart and soul and never looked back, never regretted the change, and lost interest in the old job. Now it appears to be happening again as I transition out of my career as a political activist, which began in October of 2010, a month after the death of my first wife.

The final separation came this past week when I resigned as the committee person for my precinct. During recent Kennett Area Democrats’ monthly ZOOM meetings, I realized I was losing interest in the organization. And then when a motion I offered was defeated, I thought: ‘I don’t need this aggravation and I don’t have the fire in my belly anymore to fight for this stuff. I’m done.’

Other than Sally, writing this blog is now my only passion.

So…what do you think? Does what I’ve described sound reasonable? Or is it a series of rationalizations to mask what’s really happening to me? Am I experiencing signs of cognitive decline on the journey to dementia? Or am I just beginning my 5th career?

Time will tell.


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S1E9. When Words Hide

I was 45 and they were 22 the first time I met informally with my 6 new classmates in the clinical psychology Ph.D. program at the University of Connecticut. They were all incredibly bright and I couldn’t help but marvel at how fast they talked. For the first time in my life, I had to concentrate to follow the conversation…and I frequently discovered that they had moved on to a new topic by the time I had formed a thought I wanted to express.

It was my first encounter with the normal decline in brain processing speed as one ages. I, of course, attributed it to my having so many more experiences and neural connections than they did so that it took my brain longer to sort through all the information I had stored up before responding. 

That was a soothing theory to which I clung, but the fact is that our processing speed slows down as we age.

Fast forward 25 years. I no longer have to compete with 22 year olds in the classroom, but I’m sure my processing speed has continued to slow. There are some television shows where the rapid-fire dialogue is a challenge. I’m convinced they are written for a younger demographic.

Even among my peers, there are times when I listen and follow the conversation, but nothing witty or relevant occurs to me that is worth sharing. 

On the road to nowhere, this subject is known as ‘verbal fluency’ and it is one of the abilities that is measured to test for problems with language, 1 of the 6 domains in which impairment may be the basis for a diagnosis of mild neurocognitive disorder or dementia.

We all know its most common symptom: difficulty with word-finding. You know what you want to say, you can see it in your mind’s eye, you can recall any number of facts about it, but the word eludes you.

If you pause in mid-sentence while you search (which is uncomfortable for everyone), someone invariably tries to fill in the blank. Or worse yet, a guessing game erupts!

Or you don’t pause and instead try to work your way around it: ‘You know, that thing you hit with a stick at a party and candy comes pouring out.’

Worst of all, though, is when you just try to muscle your way through and the wrong word comes out: pinball; pintail; pintata.

There are simple tests that have been developed to detect problems with verbal fluency. In general, you are given a short period of time (e.g., 1 minute) to come up with as many words as possible that meet a certain criteria, such as names of animals or words that start with the letter ‘y.’ 

I just gave myself 1 minute to list words that begin with ‘y.’ Here’s what I came up with:

Yacht, yen, yin, yang, yank, yankee, yawl, yam, yak, young, youth, yap, yahoo, yard, yardarm, yikes, yipes, yarmulka.

As I took this make-believe test, I noticed that I began quickly with several words at the ready, but then my production tapered off. By the end of the minute, I was staring at an empty room in my brain. 

It’s now several minutes later and a few additional words have come out of hiding: yarrow, yes, yell, yellow, year, yearling, yield.

If I were being evaluated, the psychologist would compare the 18 words I found with the number found by 70 year old men with more than 16 years of education. If my score was below the average range, I would be on my way to meeting one of the criteria for a diagnosis.

But I’m not ready to take the test just yet.

Post script:

I went for a walk and came up with: you, your, yourself, yeti, yoga, yogi, yogurt, yew, yenta, yearly, yearn, yearning, yore, yurt… Where were all of these words when I needed them? Where were they hiding?


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S1E8. Splotchy Thinking

I look at the back of my hand and I see veins running under a splotchy, thin skin. It is the hand of an old man.

I know I am 70. I know this is normal, just as I know that a decline in brain function is normal. Yet I want my brain to look and act the same as it has for the past 50 years. I reject splotchy thinking. I bristle at the errors I am noticing with increasing frequency. Even though this might be normal, I don’t like it.

It happened for the first time the other day. I was putting things away after dinner and I put the butter on the upper shelf of the refrigerator. Only problem is that we keep it in a covered compartment on the refrigerator door. I caught the mistake as soon as I made it, but something tells me that this wasn’t the last time that this will happen.

We don’t have a regular set of dinner dishes. Instead we have an eclectic collection of dinner plates. I was looking for the ones with the colored dots design and couldn’t find them. Did the housecleaners move them? They have their own sense of fengshui and we find all sorts of things have been re-purposed after their visits. Instead of going down that path, though, I asked Sally if she knew where they were. As we talked, I recalled that some plates had chips in them. Did we throw them out? Sally remembered our conversation about throwing them out, but neither of us could say for certain that we did. I’m going with the ‘we threw them out’ theory.

At Sally’s request, I haven’t cut my hair since COVID hit a year ago. It’s now ponytail length and so she gave me one of her hair ties. I used it the other day when I went out and took it off when I returned. Later, when I had to go out again, I couldn’t find it. I looked all over. Sally gave me another one. Later that night, when I undressed for bed, I found the original one. It was on my wrist, hidden by my long-sleeved shirt.

I was walking on the track at the YMCA and I got to thinking about impressionist art. I set about trying to remember who it was that painted scenes of Tahiti. It didn’t come to me easily. I knew it wasn’t Van Gogh, Mary Cassatt or my favorite, Renoir. Not Seurat, Monet or Manet. Not Pissarro. I went through the alphabet to see if that would trigger a name, but that didn’t help. I visualized one of his paintings. I recalled a scene from the movie ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ where Richard Benjamin gives the name to a young black boy in the stacks of the Newark Public Library. It took about 10 laps around the track, but it finally hit me: Gauguin.

When I got home, I googled ‘major impressionist artists’ to see how many artists I knew whose names did not occur to me: Matisse, Cezanne,  Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec. That means I was able to conjure up 8 out of 12. I think that’s a pretty good percentage. Ask me again a year from now.

When I drive somewhere, I take a moment and look around to lock in my location after I park. So far, I haven’t lost the car once!

I turned on the tap in the upstairs bathroom sink, reached into the medicine chest and took out my toothbrush and toothpaste. There was nothing wrong with that…except my intent was to shave, not brush my teeth.

And that, my friends, is what a splotchy brain looks like.

Post script: I think I really dodged a bullet in the tale of the missing dishes. In dementia, it’s very common to fabricate explanations when your memory fails in order to fill in the gaps. A brain, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Paranoid explanations are quite common. Instead of concluding that I must have thrown them out because they were chipped–even though I don’t recall doing so–I could have decided that the housecleaners stole them. Or that a thief or neighbor had come into the house at night and taken them. If you told me that didn’t make any sense because no one would steal 2 chipped plates when there are plenty of better ones right there for the taking, I would argue with you, confabulate another rationalization, stick to my guns…and wonder why you were being so difficult.

If/when I start doing that, I will have traveled well beyond splotchy on the road to nowhere.


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S1E7. A False Sense of Security

It’s both gratifying and reassuring when readers leave comments reporting that they, too, are making errors similar to the ones I describe in a post. If you are of a certain age, you worry about these things. It’s nice for all of us to know that there is a community out there that embraces us.

But I don’t want to mislead anyone. Just because I am making mistakes that I can write about doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not a problem…for me or for you. You see, I don’t know whether what I’m describing is normal aging, a mild neurocognitive disorder or early signs of dementia. I don’t want to scare you with this blog, but neither do I want to give you a false sense of security.

So now would be a good time to talk about what it takes to determine where one actually stands. In other words, to make a diagnosis.

A diagnosis is a traffic light on the journey to nowhere. Normal aging is green: full speed ahead. A mild neurocognitive disorder is yellow: proceed with caution. Dementia is red: stop and revise your travel plans.

The first criterion for earning a diagnosis is that the mistakes are disrupting your life in a meaningful way. If they are occasional and only mildly irritating, then it’s probably normal aging. If they are more frequent, have actual negative but minor consequences, and you have difficulty compensating for them, then it might be a mild neurocognitive disorder. If the errors are significant, disrupt your daily activities, place you in danger, or you are unaware of them, then they might reflect the onset of a dementia.

Unfortunately, the above paragraph isn’t really all that helpful. There are too many squishy, undefined adjectives like ‘meaningful,’ ‘mildly,’ and ‘significant.’ We need to drill down.

The second criterion is that the changes you are noticing in your thinking and behavior represent declines from your normal or prior levels of performance. I’ve never been good at remembering faces or last names, so not being able to do so now doesn’t necessarily tell me anything about my status today. It’s new problems that we’re looking for.

But satisfying these first two criteria alone won’t earn you a diagnosis. Your performance should also fall below what is considered average among your peers. ‘Peers’ are often defined as those of the same age, gender and educational background. ‘Average’ is defined as scoring between the 16th and 84th percentiles on standardized cognitive tests. If you score between the 2.5 and 16th percentiles, you will meet the criteria for a mild neurocognitive disorder. If you fall below that level, it is most likely indicative of a dementia. 

Finally, this isn’t just about memory. There are 6 broad areas of brain functioning that need to be evaluated. Significant problems in any one of them are sufficient to earn the diagnosis of mild neurocognitive disorder. Significant problems with memory and in at least one other domain are required for a diagnosis of dementia:

  1. Complex attention
  2. Executive function
  3. Learning and memory
  4. Language
  5. Perceptual-motor
  6. Social cognition

I hope to discuss them all in future posts. Meanwhile, here’s a link where you can learn a little more about these categories: https://rb.gy/xdhwnu.

Bottom line: The only way to know where you stand is to be tested. I have not yet been evaluated, so I don’t know where I stand. I can have no sense of security.


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S1E6. Did I Do That?

Instead of electric blankets, we have electric sheets. If you’ve never tried them, please do! One of the highlights of our day is getting in bed at night, just to feel that head-to-toe warmth. Sally and I both squeal with pleasure!

But in order to make sure our bed is toasty warm at 11pm, I go upstairs and turn on both sides of the dual-controlled sheets at 6pm. 

(No…that is NOT where I’m going with this. I NEVER forget to turn on the sheets and I don’t need any reminders or accommodations to make certain I do. Clearly, memory is fine when one is highly motivated!)

So each night at 6pm, I walk up the stairs to our bedroom, turn on the sheets on her side of the bed, place her nightshirt under the covers so it will be toasty warm when she puts it on, and then place 2 pillows on top of the covers to weigh them down so they have contact with the sheets.

Then I walk around to my side of the bed and do the same (except I don’t have a nightshirt).

I am about to leave the bedroom when I stop in my tracks. Did I turn on the sheets on my side? I can see the pillows on top of the bed, but from where I stand, I can’t see the control. I have no memory of turning the sheet on. So I go back and check.

It’s on.

I check the control on Sally’s side–just to make sure–and it’s on, as well.

I wouldn’t be writing about this event now if it were not for the fact that the same thing happened the next night, and the night after, too. With the same result each night: I had turned my sheet on, but had no clear memory of it.

This was very different from the experience I described in my second blog entry (https://mistakesonthejourneytonowhere.com/2020/12/12/peek-a-boo/) where I forgot what I intended to do on the way to doing it. Forgetting that I did something after I had already done it, though, was an error of a different magnitude.

There are many aspects of daily life for which we don’t create episodic memories. Things that are rote, routine, automatic, done without thinking and/or repetitive are not worthy of space in our memory bank. Memory is for experiences that are unique, special, emotional, important and/or worthy in one way or another.

I decided to make this activity important to see if that would make a difference. Instead of automatically going through my routine (and allowing my mind to wander where it would while I turned on the sheets), I made a special effort to stay in the moment. When I clicked on the sheet on my side of the bed, I looked at the control. It registered an ‘8’ on its digital display. There was one red light to the left and 3 red lights to the right.

When I walked out of the room, there was no doubt in my mind that I had turned on the sheet. The image of the digital display was clear and vivid.

So, too, the next night and the night after and the night after that.

. . .

A week later, I had cataract surgery which requires using eyedrops for several days during the recovery period. Sally was my nurse, administering the drops 3 times daily. But one day, she wasn’t available and so I did it myself. 

And an hour later, I wasn’t sure that I had…

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S1E5. Testy & Edgy

“Do you remember that I have a ZOOM session with my sisters this afternoon?”

It was a simple question and a fair one that Sally asked. She uses my ZOOM account and I have to start the session before making her the host. I do it all the time. So why did I resent her question?

“Noooo,” I replied with attitude, “I haven’t checked today’s calendar yet.”

She picked up on my tone and shot back, “Aren’t we testy and edgy today!’ 

Why did I snap at her like that? The therapist in me knows that emotions are triggered by underlying beliefs, so I knew I needed to think through what it was about her question that triggered me.

As I explored my thoughts, I realized that I felt as if I was under attack, as if Sally was questioning my ability to remember and not just my memory of this one specific event. Was she keeping an eye on me? testing me for signs of decline?

Sally has volunteered with hospice since her 20s and she truly is a comfort to those with whom she works and their families. She’s familiar with reminiscence therapy and she knows how to help dementia patients stay in touch with their memories, even as they fade.

Is that what she was doing with me? She loves to ask me about my life before we got back together 9 years ago after not seeing each other for 41 years. She is fascinated by the details…most of which I can’t remember. I often get frustrated when I can’t answer her questions.

The more I reflected, the more I came to wonder if her questions were also part of her concern for my mental status…and the more I resented her for it.

So after apologizing for my testy & edgy retort, I told her what was going through my mind. She reassured me that I couldn’t be more wrong and I immediately felt silly for thinking those things of her. But since I knew it was still a trigger, I asked her to try not to start conversations with: “Do you remember…” She was more than happy to do that for me. I felt a lot better.

This conversation unfolded several weeks before I made the decision to start this blog. I was already monitoring myself and thinking about writing it all down, so I was sensitive to the topic of dementia. I hadn’t yet told Sally about it, so she didn’t have a clue when she inadvertently stumbled across it.

So, as usual, there’s good news and bad news here.

The good news is that I was aware of my feelings, was able to think it through, and then talk with Sally about it to allay my fears and work up an accommodation. That was nice work for me as an individual and for us as a couple.

The bad news is that my mind wandered down this dark path. There is a word for when you suspect people of having ill intentions towards you when they, in fact, do not: paranoia.

It pains me to admit that paranoia describes what happened. After all, I’m probably the #1 fan (with Sally a close #2) for #TeamNormalAging. The episode was brief and easily resolved, but an episode nonetheless. I’ll have to keep an eye out going forward.

Sorry to leave you on a down note, but I promised to follow the road wherever it leads…

S1E4. Mistakes on the Journey

Making morning love. Delightful. Surprising. With a different kind of awe and sense of discovery we experience now as lovers pushing 70 than we would have felt at 17, but awe and discovery, just the same. 

A beautiful way to begin the day, yes? Making mistakes was the furthest thing from my mind, but it wouldn’t be long before I committed my first.

I got out of bed and went downstairs to the kitchen to take my medicine. I had the two pills in my hand en route to getting water when I picked up a scrap of plastic left overnight on the counter. I pulled out the garbage can to deposit the scrap and dropped the pills in, too. 

See what I mean?

Or the check I put in an envelope without signing it first. Fortunately, I caught it before I sealed, stamped and mailed it. No harm; no foul. But the fact remains, I did it.

I was looking for the keys to Sally’s car on our key hook near the kitchen door. The keys to my car were on top, and so I removed them. When I lifted her keys off the hook, I saw that there was yet a third set of keys that remained. I asked her if that was also for her car. She correctly identified them as the 2nd set of keys for my car. When I looked a second time, I saw she was right.

Sally corrects me as I am telling a story because I said ‘wedding’ when I mean to say ‘funeral.’

And here’s one that we all know all too well: the word you want is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t find it. Your listener is kind enough to provide it for you.

The mistakes are becoming more frequent. I monitor them.

The good news is that I catch a lot of my mistakes as soon as they happen…or, at least, I catch the ones I catch. (Obviously, I can’t catch the errors I don’t know I make–unless Sally flags them for me–and there is no way to tell how many of them there are.)

Making errors, though, is not really a problem. When they happen more frequently, it is a sign of subtle changes in mental status, but that might very well be normal aging. 

It’s only a problem when the errors become so severe that they get in the way of your successfully completing your daily activities. Or when you become so upset about the errors (or being corrected by friends and loved ones) that you lash out at them. Or when you start to make up stories to convince yourself and others that you didn’t really make the error, or that it was someone else’s fault. 

In clinical terms, mental mistakes are diagnostic of dementia if (1) they represent a substantial decline in your previous level of functioning, (2) what you are experiencing places you significantly below average for your age and education level, and (3) the mistakes are causing problems in your life.

So here I am, 17 days short of my 70th birthday. I’m still hitting pretty much on all cylinders. After all, I’m writing this and making edits as I go. And I’m paying bills. And I’m taking my medicine. And I make love in the morning. And I’m aware of errors I’m making and correct them when I can. 

In the great scheme of things, I’ll take that as a win.

S1E3. My Life Is Now An Experiment

Like most Ph.D. doctoral programs in psychology, the University of Connecticut’s program is research-oriented and designed to produce psychologists who will teach at the university level and publish their research. As first-year students, we are given the opportunity to sit in on the research teams led by each member of the faculty before deciding which team to join.

When I arrived on campus in the fall of 1996, I only had to sit in on one team to make my decision. It was the one led by Dr. Irving Kirsch, one of the world’s leading researchers in hypnosis and the placebo effect (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irving_Kirsch). I recall being in awe that first day as I listened to him work with the students on his team, asking questions to help guide them to a better understanding of their own projects, and displaying a level of thinking and intellect that I had never before witnessed. And he did it in a way that even I–who was unfamiliar with the content of what was being discussed–could still understand the principles that were being applied.

I joined his team and in the next several years conducted a number of experiments with him. Several were published. One is even considered important in the field of hypnosis (APA PsycNet). He became the faculty advisor on my doctoral dissertation and my friend. 

I quickly learned that most young researchers make the same error: they get an idea that they want to prove and then design an experiment to prove they are right. The problem with that approach is that after you run your experiment, what if your results don’t support your hypothesis? Then what? You’ve done all that work and now you have nothing to show for it…and you can’t publish it…and that’s not a good thing.

One of the most important principles of doing research (and subsequently having it published) that Irving taught me was this: Design your project so that no matter what the results, your findings are meaningful and publishable. The trick is to design your research so that it pits two competing theories against one another. In this way, your results will be important no matter how things turn out.

I tell you this in order to explain one of the reasons I am writing this blog. You see, my life going forward is a kind of experiment. The data I’m collecting and reporting to you are the mistakes I make throughout the day over the course (I hope) of several years. There are two opposing hypotheses: Wayne is dementing vs. Wayne is experiencing normal aging. As I write this, neither you nor I know the answer, but it will become clear over time. Most importantly, the record I leave behind should have value, as it will be a case study of either what normal aging looks like or what the path to dementia looks like.

I think Irving would approve.

S1E2. Short-Term Memory Peek-A-Boo

I’m sitting on the couch in the corner of the living room, the lamp beside me illuminating a jumble of flotsam on the end table below it: my wallet, scratch pad and pen, small spray bottle of eyeglass cleaner and cloth, a bag of almonds, assorted business cards, 3 tv/vcr remotes. As I compose an email, it occurs to me that I’ve been putting off the trip to the grocery store. I click ‘send,’ set the computer aside, and get up to check the refrigerator to see what we need.

I pause in front of Sally’s recliner to ask if she wants anything from the kitchen. She pauses a guided tour from the Barnes Museum, removes one earbud, asks me to repeat the question, and then tells me, ‘Thank you, but no.’

As I pass through the dining room, I notice she’s printed something that is still lying in the tray. I make a note to myself to bring it to her when I return.

I flick on the kitchen light and stop. The question forms itself quickly: Why did I come in here?


Memory. The Big Kahuna. Everyone’s worst nightmare because memory failure is an essential feature of all forms of dementia. It’s the group of errors to which we all pay exquisite attention. Not a day passes on social media when there isn’t a meme referencing the experience of going into a room and forgetting why you went there.

Sound familiar? It’s probably been happening since we were 40, but the increase in frequency draws our attention to it as we get older. You don’t need fancy neuropsychological tests to identify it. It’s just there…and becoming more commonplace…and so we worry…and the memes help us laugh about it and not feel so alone…and then we learn it’s part of normal aging and might not mean anything more…but we still worry.

At least I do…or did.

A little over a year ago, I noticed that when I had these episodes, what I had forgotten would come back to me a few minutes later when I was thinking about something else. It was a comforting to know that the thought wasn’t completely gone…I just hadn’t been able to hold it online in current, short-term memory. It was still there in intermediate memory and I was still able to access it and, more importantly, go do what I had originally set out to do.

(Before going any further, and in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I am not a neuropsychologist, but I did take 2 graduate courses and 3 practicums in neuropsychology en route to my doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Which means I have a sense of what dementia looks like and have some understanding of the basic principles of brain function. Please take what I say with a grain of salt because although I haven’t kept up with the literature, I’m not one to shy away from offering theories, observations and conjectures for discussion!)

It occurred to me that perhaps a circuit here and there had shorted out and that was what was causing periodic breakdowns in my ability to hold something in mind for 30 seconds if I wasn’t actively trying to remember it (e.g., by repeating ‘Check to see if we’re out of milk…Check to see if we’re out of milk’ over and over again as I walked to the refrigerator). If so, then maybe I could grow new connections (brain cells are very good at that!) to provide an alternate pathway around the short circuited area. 

The next time it happened, then, instead of giving up and walking away, I stayed right where I was and consciously tried to recall my purpose. 

It was work. It was effortful. It was successful! 

Over the next few weeks, I discovered that I could reclaim the memory in 15-20 seconds. And it seemed that the more I did this, the more easily I could expose the lost trace the next time it happened. 

I don’t worry too much about that kind of error anymore. It still happens, of course, but I don’t worry about it or get frustrated when it does. I know it will pass momentarily. 

Now I have a new worry. It’s the same kind of thing, but it happens more quickly, within just a couple of seconds.

After looking up an email address to send to someone else, I forget the extension before I finish typing it. Was it ‘@yahoo.com or @comcast.net?’

I can’t keep an entire 10-digit phone number in my head while dialing.

While surfing the net, I get the idea to open a new tab and check out another website, but by the time I open the tab, I’ve forgotten where it was I wanted to go. I end up staring at an empty address bar until I can reclaim my intention from its hiding place just outside of awareness.

So that’s the bad news. The good news is that I’ve come up with accommodations. I copy and paste the email address instead of trying to remember it; I’ll focus on the last 7 numbers because I can quickly press the area code numbers without having to memorize them; I force myself to open the new tab and go to the target site as soon as the idea appears instead of waiting until I’ve finished reading the article that triggered the idea in the first place.

The really good news here is not that I can complete my phone call, etcetera, but that (1) I am aware that I am having the problem, (2) I can problem-solve to find an accommodation, and (3) I use the accommodation going forward. Those are all examples of what’s known as ‘executive function’ and as long as you have that working for you, you’re in relatively good shape. With a modicum of thought and effort, you’ll find your own accommodations, too, and that’s one of the keys to aging successfully.

So that’s where I find myself today: In relatively good shape and playing peek-a-boo with my thoughts.

S1E1. Happy Box

I’ve been hauling it from place to place for nearly fifty years, dating back to when you could mail a first-class letter for six cents. Never had time to spend quality time with it before. It always sat in a corner or in the attic or was relegated to the basement, a labelled box, usually re-discovered whenever it came time to move to another house. Never considered throwing it out and always thought I’d get around to looking at what was inside someday.

I’ll turn 70 next month. Someday is now.

We are preparing for the next downsizing move, so we need to slough off some of the skins of our former lives that we’ve been carrying with us. It’s hard to let go of these things. They are part of us, even if we never use them for their intended use again. Like the vinyl LPs in original dust jackets. More than 100 of them. How do you say good-bye to yourself?

Old pictures, wedding invitations, mementos from the places I’ve worked, resumes and letters of recommendation, newspaper articles, my term papers from Brown, transcripts and diplomas, birthday and anniversary cards from my first wife of 36 years along with all the cards and photos from our wedding, condolence cards upon the deaths of my mother and father, programs for sports events, from a racetrack in Mexico City, to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta to the 1999 NCAA Mens Basketball Championship in Tampa, letters from old friends, some passed away, others passed from recent memory.

I know why I saved some of these things, yet others astonish me. Why? What was I thinking? What would have convinced me that this item met the high standard for preservation in my Happy Box? 

I’m savoring every discovery, like the courses at a tasting menu at the table of a gourmet chef. So unexpected, the feelings and memories ferreted out and released. So warm and wonderful…I’m all aglow!

I share important finds with Sally. It helps her get to know who I was during the 41-year hiatus when we disappeared from each others’ lives. She’s heard me tell the stories, but now there is evidence she can hold in her hand, and imagine herself to be a fly on the wall in the rooms where it happened. It’s nice to be able to share myself with her at this deeper level of intimacy.

This is the moment my Happy Box was waiting for. It did a great job. I know I’ll look back at these few days fondly and cherish the moments when I was surrounded on my couch by all those I loved and who loved me throughout my life.

But my work is not done. I’m also performing a triage to determine which of these memories will move on with me. 

It’s not just about reducing the volume of what we carry to our next home. It’s also about doing a favor for whoever will clean up after us when we die. We’ve both been the ones to do it for others, sifting through dusty attics and deciding what might be meaningful to pass on to relatives and what needs to be thrown out. So we’re taking the time now to do it ourselves so as not to burden the sister, niece or great-nephew who will draw this assignment. 

And it’s about one more thing, too: creating the Happy Box that we and our caregivers will use to help us reminisce as we near the end of our journey to nowhere.