A confronting, but important, commentary...
Today's commentary by Dr Andrew Kania is confronting. What he's discussing is also important but be warned that neither the commentary nor this introduction are for those who are sensitive or queasy. To introduce it let me relate a personal story — some of what perhaps drives me today in what I'm seeking to do here at Catholica. (A confession: I honestly don't know what drives me. At times I think it is the kind of fantasy, Dr Kania is writing about in this commentary. Like George Orwell's confession in "Why I Write" in the end I don't fully know but, from time to time, one gets glimpses and I experienced one last night when preparing Dr Kania's commentary for publication.)
In my father's family there was a history of dementia. My mother was long concerned for my father in this department and very early on she had made contact with the Alzheimer's Foundation and, through that contact, Dad became involved in an on-going research program conducted by one of the universities researching the disease. After my mother passed away I became responsible for taking Dad for the annual tests where they mapped his progress as part of the research. I found it interesting talking to the people conducting the tests but soon learned they didn't have much knowledge of the actual research. (They were students earning a bit of pocket money and basically just took the patients through a prepared routine that gave some indication as to how cognition and memory function was changing from one year to the next.)
In my family there were two other senior members afflicted with the disease also — one of them not-so-old but about my age now. Of the three, my father probably escaped the worst ravages of the disease. One of the criticisms I had of the research program, from as much as I could work out about it, is that they seemed overly interested essentially in trying to understand the chemical/biological deterioration in the brain. I have no doubt that biological or chemical decomposition does occur. I also knew certain things in the history of my family, and in the individuals afflicted. The one who suffered the worst, ironically the one about my age now, had ended up having a tragic life after one of the very best lives anyone in our wider family had experienced. I last saw her about ten days before she died. She didn't even recognise my father whom I had taken to visit her. She had been very close to him as he'd been a sort of surrogate father to her. Basically I'd say there was no "higher brain function" operating by that late stage. She was sustained by then on the lower brain functions that keeps our blood circulating and lungs breathing — a sort of auto-pilot function and with no higher brain function that might command the rest of the being that "the end has come — it's time to "shut down"". In that situation one dies basically when one of the mechanical parts of the remaining body system finally fails.
I don't pretend to know the definitive answers in these matters. The question long on my mind following these experiences has been "do our minds literally 'break down', eventually to the point where the higher brain literally 'dissolves in its own juices' if they cannot process the conflicts that cannot be resolved in our lives?" Dr Kania's commentary today is dealing with the sort of issues I've introduced here. My advice, for what it is worth, is that doctors might end up finding some "magic pill" that can slow the deterioration of our grey matter. If you want a more lasting preventative against dementia though get yourself a really trusted friend, or a really good spiritual director, and long before you get near the end spend a bit of time resolving all the unresolved issues in your life. Dr Kania's commentary today is essentially putting forth similar sort of advice. It is well worth the investment of time required to understand what he is getting at and to quietly take it away and reflect on what is being said. <Link to Andrew's commentary> <Link to Further Discussion in our forum on the issues raised in this email>