A Lesser(?) Soliloquy

(Observations on Aging)

Posted Dec 3, 2010
Last Updated Dec 3, 2010

A soliloquy is a solitary discourse: someone talking to himself about a topic. (Or talking to others as if to himself.) Shakespeare's Great Soliloquy—the Great Soliloquy—depicts Hamlet, a fictional prince of Denmark, talking to himself about a situation in which he finds himself trapped. It's called "the Great Soliloquy" (1) because it's so dramatic, and (2) because Shakespeare wrote it.

Here I'm about to inflict a lesser soliloquy on you (of course the language won't be as noble as Shakespeare's), but first I need to define my terms. The word senile refers to old age, and the noun senility, to the changes charcterizing old age. Particularly decline and impairment, and most especially to mental decline. It's inherent, a part of being human, if you live long enough.

As for senile dementia, The Free Medical Dictionary defines it thusly: dementia /de·men·tia/ (dĕ-men´shah) a general loss of cognitive abilities, including impairment of memory as well as one or more of the following: aphasia, apraxia, agnosia, that is, disturbed planning, organizing, and abstract thinking abilities. It does not include decreased cognitive functioning due to clouding of consciousness, depression, or other "functional mental disorder," a term that itself needs clarification. But read on.

[A person with aphasiamay have difficulty speaking, reading, writing, recognizing the names of objects, or understanding what other people have said.Apraxiais caused by brain damage related to conditions such as head injury, stroke, brain tumor, and Alzheimer's disease [the emphases are mine]. The damage affects the brain's ability to correctly signal instructions to the body. Agnosiais an inability to recognize the import of sensory impressions; the varieties correspond with several senses and are distinguished as auditory (acoustic), gustatory, olfactory, tactile,and visual.]

And so on. Presumably there are degrees of affliction.

When a centenarian is referred to as "sharp as a tack," it generally implies mental competence, but it does notmean that that mind is young. For example, the elder referred to is very likely to have frequent "senior moments"—in which familiar words, and names, even of close friends, duck out of sight when called on. And also being subject to confusion in the face of complexity, or change, or unfamiliarity. On the other hand, analytical and integrative functions may have grown more refined and subtle, and the person may have developed philosophical buffering against "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (senility for example), leading to a considerably less bumpy old age.

I speak from personal experience and observation.

(An aside: senile dementia does not always, or even usually, equate with a mental loss of one's own identity. Of one's name, perhaps, but not of a sense of me. Over time, however, it can result in serious personality decay, and it can certainly interfere with communication with other humans, and with the environment in general. Eventually my mom seemed almost totally unaware of anything around her, but now and then responded in a way that clearly suggested sentience and personality.)

This evening I took an automated medical test: the GPCOG. It led to a diagnosis of senile dementia—no surprise. It also led me to a set of medical tests—blood chemistry etc—that looked suspiciously like a set I went through a few weeks back in my doctor's office. No coincidence, I suspect.

(Coincidence:another ambiguous term.)

Increasingly I find myself losing useful automaticities. An example: How did I get out of a car, not so many years ago? Unthinkingly is how: a quick touch on the seat-belt latch, a smooth torso turn, unlatching the car door and pushing, pivoting my butt on the seat, swinging my legs out, left-foot touching the ground and pivoting as the right followed and I closed the door behind me. Lapsed time—what? Two seconds? Three? At about age 70 I still got out of my car that way—what other way was there?—and lo!, felt a sharp pain in my left knee. Thatknee, the one I damaged in a parachute jump in 1951, about 45 years earlier, as a 25-year-old smokejumper. But this time it wasn't from impacting a mountainside on a windy morning; it was simply the torque of pivoting as I simultaneously transferred my weight to the roadside and turned to close the door.

After orthoscopic surgery (to tidy up the scar of the old cartilage tear that had given way with the new), it seemed advisable to get out of cars more sedately. Which meant reducing the torque.

That was twelve, fifteen years ago, and the problem is no longer torque. To get from my son's car last night, I gathered my wits, so to speak; consciously raised the seat arm to more easily access the seat belt latch (pause, mentally grope); unlatch and partway open the door (pause, grope); fumble and grasp the handle of my oxygen kit (which rests on my lap while riding); scootch around laboriously on the seat; and with an effort push out my feet and legs, at the same time pushing the door all the way open; slide my butt closer to the edge, lean out of the car, find the ground first with one foot, then the other, then laboriously transfer my weight to them by leaning my torso forward and straightening my legs. Then I laboriously stand, and with a deliberate and careful turn, close the car door.

That seems to qualify as "apraxia"; in which the"damage affects the brain's ability to correctly signal instructions to the body."

The constituent movements are pretty much a slow motion reprise of how I got out as a youth of 65—but different, primarily in that the body no longer does it in one quick automatic sequence. The old program seems to be missing, or at least fragmented, disconnected.

Nor is that all of it. The same thing, with a difference, is conspicuous at my computer keyboard. Much-used procedures that worked nicely by intention even a year ago, today are either on vacation or have preceded me over the rainbow! I'll be popping away on the keys, and then…nothing. What comes next? Frowning I begin uncertainly to explore, clicking toolbar items. That? I start a sequence of tentative clicks, and suddenly we're on the move again. Minutes later the same procedure comes up once more, but now without the sense of alarm, because I'd succeeded only minutes earlier. An elusive ghost connection remains, for now at least.

Occasionally I realize the new sequence is different! More efficient, even semi-elegant. Probably more like the programmer intended! Could I be—am I—on my way to being a sort of octogenarian paleo-geek? :)

I do, in fact, continue to find work-arounds, and by using them, I start to develop new operating pathways which may, hopefully, become automaticities. But I won't hold my breath, because overall I'm getting slower. And lose focus more readily.

It seems I have more adjustments to look forward to.

Much of the above is pretty well written, for having been drafted with my blood oxygen reduced. That is, without my oxygen feed. (Not recommended!) I'd disconnected in order to shave, then forgot to shave and to put my oxygen feed back in my nose.)

Time was, discovering a lapse like that would have triggered a flash of self-flagellation. Which is counter-productive. Fact is, anymore hardly anything seems as important as it might have a decade or three earlier. Desirable yes, but not so danged urgent! I seem, anymore, to simply proceed. Some of this no doubt grows out of work I'm doing on my personality feature of Impatience. (Some new-age pop-psych practices do work, at least for some people.) You might want to look into a book titled Transforming Your Dragons, by eclectic psychotherapist Jose Stevens (no apparent cult attachments). The dragons are metaphorical, not actual, but the difficulties are very real. And manageable, reducible. If you decide to look into it, you might want to buy Stevens' book and start on his page one, reading, not skipping, your way through it.


The divider above marks the end of last night's efforts. It's now about 40 hours later, and I've opened a file I'd been working on titled "Aging 6." As you can see, aging has my attention just now beyond books, politics, government, and philosophy combined. So I guess I need to hang with it and see where it takes me.

For one thing, I seem to be losing drive. Well of course, Jussi Poika, that’s been ongoing for some while. Ah, but the loss appears to be accelerating; in fact the darn pedal is stuck! I'm getting slower faster! Presumably the world keeps going at its own rate, and I'm witnessing it more and more from an outside viewpoint.

Um, John, that's not unique to you. My impression is, there's quite a bit of that going around.

Whatever. Time's the apparent background, a critical dimension of my operating environment. But the actual problemseems to be a loss of drive; of DO. I decide to do something, then don't do it — don't even start! Other things I may start on, then forget, even forget I started till I run across the aborted beginning. "Huh! What's this? Good lord! That again!" Like this blog! Other times I'll realize I need to do such and such, and hoist myself off my duff, then an hour later, or the next day, or next week, I discover...I haven't touched it!Sometimes I then may actually do it, but often it slips away from me again.

Sometimes it's simply a matter of aversion. For example, over the last few years I've developed a major aversion to filing. On the other hand, I've had a long-time aversion to chaos, so I may actually get up and approach the heap of waiting "stuff." Sometimes — not usually — I may even file a few, and trash twice as many. But more often I'll regain awareness, an hour or two later, on my recliner or my computer chair, reading something or other that caught my eye, or writing something. The to-be-filed stuff still lies neglected on my reading table.

A time warp maybe? More like my current state of being. Which more and more seems fine to me. Heresy! Good lord! I'm getting used to it! Ten years ago—maybe twenty—I couldn't have imagined having such a frame of mind. But until this weekI was still considerably well disciplined regarding my projects. Now I find myself in the clutches of Lord Lethargy, and beginning to feel twinges of panic!

So. Just grab a project and start hammering? That's what I'm doing right now. This isn't the project I'd like to be working on, but it's probably the one I need to be working on: Because the chief emotion I've been feeling is…futility!

What's that about?! Ah, let's give 'er a look. I have a goal, a purpose: to see my out-of-print books reborn, so to speak. And a subordinate purpose: to disseminate certain political/philosophical ideas that seem worthwhile in the mix of today's world, and the decades approaching.

Well lah-dee-dah! That sounds good to me! So get at it, old-timer! You were making progress on learning Mac Pages; get back on that. That might solve some difficulties.

(Since writing that, I seem to have mastered Pages, for my purposes. It's notably straight-forward, and comes with a good user manual—including a decent index!!! Pogue Press take heed! All that separates your more recent computer books from excellence is the absence of a good index. A flunk to you!)

Diana Ashworth

May 13, 2011

I have a lot of problems with many of the things you mentioned. My answer is to have a notebook that I keep with me at all times. Whenever I think of something I need to do I make a note, so later I can look at my notebook which helps me to remember. As far as the computer goes, the back page of the book is great for listing hints that can get you going again when you forget what to do with the program. I hope you are liking your new residence and they are taking good care of you. All my best, Diana

Frank Baron

Dec 16, 2010

You seem to be doing pretty well, John. I doubt you'll lose your wits entirely. You may misplace them now and again - but they'll turn up in one pocket or another.

(Make a note to check your pockets once in a while....)

Take care, John. And keep on keeping on.

Gary York

Dec 8, 2010

Thanks, John,

I note that your 'soliloquy' is entirely lucid and eloquent. At age 62, I no longer have great hope that I will ever enjoy even half your skill.

I recently read again, "The Scroll of Man -- from your website." I think it the only book of yours that I had not already reread. It was at least twenty years ago that I first read it and I believe I enjoyed (and appreciated it) more this time than the first. Immediately after, and also from your website, I again read, "The Second Coming. I don't recall whether that's the third or forth time the book has afforded me hours of reading pleasure but -- it still does the job.

Apart from your sheer ability to tell a good yarn and the enchanting sub-genre of personal-enhancement, I've long enjoyed the staying power of your work. They can be read, with great pleasure, time and time again.

Though I own tangible copies of all your published sf novels, the majority of those books are now in storage and hard to reach. I greatly appreciate being able to access some of them electronically. I hope you continue (and, uh, remember to continue) making them available as you have time.