On Death and Dementia

by | December 2, 2019

A close relative of mine died recently.  He was in his 80’s. I am uncertain of the cause of his death.  The most important fact for our  discussion is that the  last few years of his life were touched by the effects of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

I believe that this is one of the worst afflictions for our elders.  It seems to eat away at what we often use to define ourselves – i.e. our memories. From what I’ve heard, it is like living your life in reverse.  The most recent memories are cut away first, and the others beneath them next…one layer at a time.  At the end, many of the afflicted see themselves as children, pining for their mother.

We could make an argument that our present-moment awareness is influenced by how we define, or see ourselves, and this in turn is girded  by our memories and how we interpret these memories.  Now, if these memories that support our self-definition are the lenses through which the light of our consciousness passes as we interpret the world, what happens when some of these lenses crack or turn to dust?  Will we have become someone else?  Will our personalities contort, disappear, or morph into a previous version?  Will the wizened, responsible elder see him/herself as a reckless, randy teenager, or a helpless, frightened pre-pubescent child?

Is there an essential core that goes unchanged through the deletion of memories and personality traits that seems to be the hallmark of Alzheimer’s? Can we say, with conviction, that the soul goes unchanged?  Would it be like the person high on THC, who says ludicrous things, while still having a pocket of lucidity in a corner of the mind that is well-aware that much of their mind is affected by the drug, but says the foolish things anyway?  Is that pin-prick of true awareness akin to the unchanging soul?  Or is the soul just a crock of shit and when the computer that is the bran can no longer turn on the electrical animating force that moves the body, can we say that that person is dead like the car battery that can no longer be re-charged?

Why so many questions?  Because there are no conclusive answers.  Ultimately we must choose a paradigm to make sense of the world.  We can choose an atheistic, materialistic paradigm, a theistic, idealistic one, or an agnostic one that can’t choose either.  For good or ill, I choose agnosticism, or more specifically, a theistic agnosticism.  I don’t know if there is a God, or an afterlife, and can’t say with certainty of objective proof, that there are unseen, unembodied beings with powers beyond our ken, like angels, daemons, spirits, etc.  

After years of studying philosophy I have developed a healthy skepticism, but there has always been a part of me that wants to believe, and some of my strange, “mystical” experiences make it difficult not to suspect that there may be more to existence that what our five senses allow us to speak of with certainty.

Perhaps I should see belief as a tool and a conscious choice, such as the Chaos magicians do.  In that way, despite a lack of physical evidence, I can choose to believe in the unchanging soul and its eternal existence, a glorious afterlife, or a  return to  physical existence in a type of reincarnation. 

I can put on these beliefs like a favourite sweater, or a shirt of chainmail – in order to comfort me, and/or protect me from the seemingly bottomless pit of despair and depression that threatens to suck me in at this moment.  Thus I say:  “Viva L’Anima!”