Unlike those of the past generation who tend to remember things better as they need to commit everything to memory, we rely a lot on modern gadgets to do our remembering for us. In a way, we have forgotten to make use of our most important tool – our brain.
IT has taken me a while to finally watch the movie Still Alice, a 2014 drama about a linguistics professor at Columbia University who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Award-winning actress Julianne Moore plays the role of Dr Alice Howland whose fight with the disease began soon after she celebrated her 50th birthday.
She began to suffer memory lapses of words which she wanted to use at her lectures and, at one point, she even got lost while taking a jog around the campus.
That was the early onset of Alzheimer’s and her condition would deteriorate and take its toll on her and her family. At one stage, she could not even remember where the washroom in her home was located.
Alice could not even remember appointments or names of people she had just met a few minutes ago.
Her eldest daughter tested positive for the Alzheimer’s gene but fortunately her unborn twins tested negative. As the story goes, Alice’s son, a doctor, also did the test and it was negative. Her youngest daughter, an aspiring actress, decided not to be tested.
It is an incredible and amazing story and while Hollywood may sometimes use its creative licence to dramatise the situation, I believe that many families with an Alzheimer’s patient in their homes can identify with this movie.
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia and as it progressively worsens, patients sometimes cannot even carry out a conversation.
There are reported cases of patients who cannot perform even the most basic activities of daily living like brushing one’s teeth and putting on clothes.
In Malaysia, it has been reported that there are 50,000 people who are suffering from this disease which has no cure.
Famous figures diagnosed with Alzheimer’s included former US president Ronald Reagan, singer Glen Campbell, actors Charles Bronson, Charlton Heston, Burgess Meredith and singer Ray Robinson.
Peter Falk, who was the star of 1980s TV series Columbo, reportedly could not remember the famous role he played towards the end. Closer home, we have just read reports of the legendary Malaysian musical maestro Ooi Eow Jin who is also suffering from Alzheimer’s.
I don’t usually have time to watch movies at the cinemas but I finally managed to watch Still Alice on a long haul flight on a recent overseas trip.
By the time the movie ended, I was already sobbing quietly. It was that emotional. I walked into the toilet of the plane and had a good cry. I just had to let it out.
I kept thinking of my 90-year-old father throughout the entire movie. He does not suffer from Alzheimer’s but his old age is causing him to lose his memory fast.
My Langkawi-born dad is still remarkably healthy for his age. He has no problem with any kind of food and his early years of physical hard work have helped him to be strong.
He has no sins like smoking, drinking or gambling, insisting that people should sleep early – as early as 8.30pm – if they wish to live long.
But the lapses in his memory are beginning to show. Many times he cannot remember what he just ate and recently, my mum, who is 84 years old, narrated how he ate the shells of the mussels instead of the flesh.
He also has to be reminded to take his bath and sometimes does so with great reluctance, claiming the cold water could kill him.
There have been times during my trips home to visit my parents when he would ask if I had just returned home, when I had actually been back for three days.
Once, he spoke to my well-tanned daughter in Malay because he mistook her for my Indonesian maid, whom he has met only a few times.
Thank God, he never fails to remember me, his youngest son. My brothers and nieces who stay next door are still not a problem for him.
His long-term memory is intact. He can remember clearly he was born in Kuah, Langkawi, in 1925 and speaks fondly of his childhood days in Kedah.
I have made it a point to see my ageing parents at least once a month, no matter how busy I am with my packed schedule in Kuala Lumpur because I know time is running short.
There is no way we can fight against the biological clock and it will be a shame that I cannot spend time with them when they are still alive.
I do think a lot about them, especially in my moments of solitude. I think about how my dad or mum would cope if one of them were to depart first. It is a reality that we all have to face as much as we hate to think of such unpleasant moments.
I am 54 but think of myself as still being in my 40s, with songs from the 80s playing away in my head. But lapses of memory have begun to surface.
I would jokingly tell my family and friends that the brain cells have burnt out, a classic case of overwork and stress.
I have to jot down the things I need to do in case I forget, which is probable, as my colleagues can testify.
At my age, I have accepted that such physiological changes can cause glitches in brain functions, as one medical report aptly describes my predicament.
I have been reminded that the slowing down of mental processes should not be regarded as true memory loss.
The fortunate part is I also usually cannot remember the foul-ups of my colleagues that caused me to lose my temper in the first place. My assistants are the ones who have to remind me to issue follow-up memos.
I think we don’t use our brain cells that much to remember things these days because of the convenience of modern facilities. My parents, and people from their generation, have amazing abilities in committing telephone numbers to memory.
For us, we just add the numbers to our contacts function and just press a button when we need to call anyone.
I am travelling in Europe as you read this, and despite the different time zones and the holiday mood I am in, I am sticking to my schedule of filing this column. Nope, I haven’t forgotten.