mindful mental decline
Five years ago, Charlie Day received a diagnosis of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). MCI is an intermediate stage between the expected cognitive decline of an ageing person and the more serious decline of dementia. As a retired psychologist and meditation instructor, Charlie is well-versed and comfortable with "in between" stages. It is evident that 50+ years of teaching, researching, world traveling, and meditating has created a pragmatic and inpenetrable spirit in this smiley, spectacled man.
Charlie attributes his no-nonsense, in-the-moment character to the following of Buddhist philosophy. "It teaches in a way that is very logical, practical, and easy to practice in every day life. Plus, it can be practiced by people of any or no faith. In my classes and lectures, I likened many of the ideas of Buddhism to the meditative relaxation techniques I would employ as a psychotherapist. To think I spent all these years studying how to empty and quiet the mind and now I can do that so easily. It's called dementia. Ironic, isn't it? I can still practice meditation but now I call it nap-itation," he says with a wink.
He's right though. I haven't been able to stop thinking about the irony of someone who spent their whole life devoted to mindfulness entering their last chapter of life mindful of losing their mind. Perhaps that makes him all the more prepared to endure this peacefully and presently, continuing to teach others by example far past his retirement.
Charlie's apartment is cluttered with fascinating objects from all over the world. Art adorns the walls. Inspirational quotes cover the fridge. A cat rubs against my leg.
"This is my cat. Her name is Missy but I call her Poo. I got her a couple years ago from the Animal Rescue League. She's 16 years old you know? That makes her about my age in human years. I got her because I figured we could die together. But she's a lot younger in spirit and energy than I am, let me tell you!"
Poo's company is wonderful, as Charlie never married or had children. His neice Jennifer lives just down the road and cares for him, as well as many friends and meditation students. But I'm a sucker for love, so I jump right in by asking Charlie who his greatest love was.
"This woman I was with for 15 years. She was a social worker and we worked in the same clinic in California. I came back to to the US after teaching in Thailand thinking I'd end up in California again, but while visitng my family in Des Moines, I was offered a job at the Child Guidance Center. She and I stayed close but she ended up dying from breast cancer. It was such a shame because I always told her we'd get married when I got old. Too old to want to be free and travel."
It was difficult for Charlie to make commitments as he spent many years traveling and teaching at universities in Asia, specifically India and Thailand. Charlie began his professorship at California State University in Los Angeles after completeing his post-doctorate work at Cedars-Siani Medical Center. He received all his Psychology degrees from the University of Iowa.
If these two things formed Charlie's character, then the legacy of that character is one of peace.
Charlie told me about the unarmed student protestors being shot and killed by the National Guard at Kent State after Nixon invaded Cambodia during the Vietnam War. As a response to this atrocity, some college departments across the country voluntarily shut down in solidarity. Charlie called a meeting to try and sway his department at California State University to do the same. He even pledged to reimburse his colleagues for any loss of wages they might incur as a result of being absent without leave, but his efforts were unsuccessful. It didn't stop him from carrying out his own protest, though.
"I'm not lost, I'm exploring the nieghborhood."
I can imagine Charlie some years from now as his dementia worsens, repeating this very sentence to a loved one. No longer a 4 year old, but still approaching life with that childlike self-assurance. In fact, he reacted to his MCI diagnosis with the same humorous poise.
"I just tell people there will probably come a time when I can't hide my own Easter eggs anymore," he laughs. Charlie knows there will probably come a time when a lot of things can't happen anymore and he knows this quite intimately because his younger sister passed away from early onset Alzheimer's.
Living in the moment is something Charlie has pursued through meditation all his life. But he still questions whether a lifetime of practice will keep him zen until the end.
30-some years ago Charlie started meditation groups in his city and they're still going and growing to this day. This, he says, is what he's most proud of accomplishing in life.
I asked Charlie if he had a meditation group full of people with dementia, what would he tell them to focus on?
"It's all about coming back to the breath. In fact, that's the one thing we're sure of having until we die. But definitely letting go of the shame and embarassment. There's no need for it. Knowledge is power. Trying to educate yourself and your care takers ahead of time so you'll know what to expect is extremely helpful."
He continued, "But it is also important to note that what is helpful towards the beginning might not be helpful later on. My neice knows she'd get into a habit of saying, 'oh, it's alright' or 'that's okay' whenever I would get frustrated with my memory problems. I finally had to tell her, 'don't say that anymore!' because it was just a reminder that I was losing it and I didn't need to be reminded. I knew. Early on it was a nice way of reassuring me, but it's not effective anymore."
Turns out communication is always key to keeping the peace. And cat cuddles, too.