Snapshots of Dementia: A Step in the Wrong Direction
Where could he be?
Traffic was extra heavy the night of our Sunday school Christmas party in 2016, and although I left work as soon as I could, I still arrived at the home of our pastor and his wife about 15 minutes late.
But where was Tom? He had volunteered to bring one of our more senior class members with him, so he would have left from the church and picked her up on his way. Neither of us liked to be late, so since I couldn’t control what time I finished work, I figured he would arrive first.
Not prone to worry, I busied myself helping set up the huge array of food for our potluck meal (remember those?). Still, I kept my phone handy.
We waited, and waited, and after some other late arrivals, we finally started the meal without our two stragglers. I didn’t want to bug Tom if he were stuck in traffic. So I kept looking at my phone, holding off on my own meal until he arrived. Surely he’ll show up in just a few more minutes.
More than an hour after the party began, I got my phone call. As I anticipated, Tom sounded upset. “I don’t even know what’s going on,” he told me. “It’s like I can’t get there from here. We’re coming, though.”
“How long do you think you’ll be?”
“I have no idea.” And just like that, he ended the call.
In another 20 minutes, I had another call, this time more frantic. “Tell me the address,” he said.
The address? Why does he need the address? Wouldn’t he have already entered it in his phone? And besides, he’s been here multiple times. What on earth is going on?
Finally, nearly two hours after the party started, Tom pulled up with our friend after what should have been at most, even in holiday traffic, a 30- or 45- minute drive. Always gracious, she joined the happy group, chattering away about the traffic and ever-present construction.
But Tom remained silent. Angry? Embarrassed? I couldn’t tell. All I knew was that no, he didn’t want to eat. No, he didn’t want to play games. And yes, he was extremely upset.
For a few minutes, I thought we might need to make a quick exit. I had rarely seen him in such a state. He sat across from me at the table. But once he realized the party was well underway and no one seemed to pay much attention to his tardiness, he relaxed. We finished the evening well and enjoyed the fellowship with dear friends.
Still, I was thankful when another man volunteered to take Tom’s passenger home in the church van. I had no idea if Tom could get her back to her condo, and I knew neither of them needed the added stress.
What I also knew was that this represented a huge change. A limousine driver during our seminary years, Tom had always been one of those people who could get to anywhere from anywhere. Even when we moved to a new city, he learned his way around right away. As for me? I knew GPS was God’s mercy on my direction-impaired life.
After this Christmas-party incident, I noticed his uncertainty when he drove other places too. One day, we were on our way home from a hospital visit when I asked him to stop at a particular store for a sale. We’d visited this same venue many times.
He nodded and continued driving. The store was on our way home, so I considered my request reasonable. But suddenly, Tom looked at me, silent tears dampening his cheeks.
“I know I should know, but I can’t remember how to get there. You’re going to have to help me,” he said.
Of course I did, and as soon as I told him, he remembered. But once again, I had those deep misgivings that told me more was wrong than the neurologist had indicated. It may have been mild memory loss, but it wasn’t staying the same. It was getting worse. And now it seemed to be attacking my husband in an area of previous strength.
We weren’t anywhere close to diagnosis yet, but this was one more item for my mental list. I still remembered it more than two years later when Tom told one of his neurologists he could “drive all over Orlando without any problem.”
He wasn’t lying. For one thing, the anosognosia kept (and still keeps) him from recognizing the extent of his deficits. And for another, “an app for that” helped him navigate—most of the time.
I’ll share more about some particular issues with driving later, but please know that a loss in an area of previous strength and an inability to navigate to even familiar places represents a definite sign of problems. If you or someone you love displays symptoms like this, please visit a physician for an evaluation.
At the time, I simply added this to the concerns I’d share at our second visit with the neurologist.
Maybe this time, he’d listen.
Have you noticed issues with a friend or loved one who has trouble finding their way to even familiar places? If it happens more than once in a while, you may want to seek medical attention. Feel free to share in the comments below. Your story matters.