Aging, Meaning and Memory

Medicine Bow National Forest

Medicine Bow National Forest

This is another contemplative post – so please forgive me.   I am preparing for a retreat on this exquisite topic of memory. . . . !   Since I find the topic of spirituality and dementia fascinating, I have been reading “Finding Meaning in the Experience of Dementia: The Place of Spiritual Reminiscence Work,” written by Elizabeth MacKinlay and Corinne Trevitt (published in 2012).  I especially enjoyed reading chapter ten “Grief is part of Life,” that speaks to much of my estate planning work with elders and their loved ones.  It begins:

Loss of relationship either through death or through geographical separation is closely tied to the meaning of life.  Meaning does not cease to exist because a person is dying; in fact, it is in facing death that it can be possible, perhaps for the first time, to see the meaning of one’s life.

Finding Meaning in the Experience of Dementia: The Place of Spiritual Reminiscence Work at 171.

Is our memory informed by our experiences and accordingly limited to our perception alone, or do we have the ability to further construct the memory so as to make it a memory of our whole being, as opposed to some event recalled which can be verified by another?  Therein lies some of the quantity versus quality aspects of memory . . .  but I am focusing today on this topic of memory in the context of aging and meaning.

So much of our important grief work is pushed aside in our death-denying and youth-glorifying culture.  I think this is a big part of the anxiety and depression and despair that so many of us struggle with in our culture because we do not see or otherwise recognize the inherent meaning of loss of youth and dying and death.

Memory is a phenomenon that is both individual and collective.  So to whom does memory belong or to whom should it be attributed?  What part of cognitive decline implicates memory and what is it that we are talking about when we use this term “cognitive decline?”  This can of course be age-associated and within “normal” limits or it can be identified with a disease process, such as the course of dementia of different types.  How do we distinguish the aging process that occurs naturally and that leads inevitably to our death from that process associated with a disease?  This may seem like a straightforward question – but I think it is far from that!  When aging becomes inextricably linked with decline in a way that is viewed as a disease process, we are essentially denying death, killing it off as the culmination of life and viewing the whole aging process and our mortality as a disease, some kind of shortcoming in our biology. If you think I am exaggerating about his, do a search on Aubrey de Grey and his so-called longevity science. . .

Dementia can further complicate a grief process as well.  Even the term “anticipatory grief” sometimes used for grief for the loss of a loved one with dementia before they die – the loss of relationship and the outward self – implicated the complexity of the grief process and the context for the grieving of surviving loved ones.

So now I will turn to the third aspect of this post’s title – memory – to connect the aging and meaning aspects.  What is memory?  Aldous Huxley wrote that “every man’s memory is his private literature.”  In “The Life of Reason,” George Santayana stated that “memory itself is an internal rumor.”  In this respect, we could say, that the memory belongs to the person.  But what about the memory that we share – isn’t that memory too?

What is it that we see and that we call memory?  In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” the poet William Blake observed “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

So does memory free us from the constriction of our lives or does it enslave us to our experience of things past?

It seems that once again, I have asked far too many questions than could be answered in a blog post (or perhaps even a lifetime?!) and with that said, I’ll conclude with Friedrich Nietzsche’s observation that “the existence of forgetting has never been proved: we only know that some things don’t come to mind when we want them.”   Yes, there will be more on this topic . . .

©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

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One Comment
  1. Yes, how could I forget something that I never knew or that never happened to me? That is a very good observation Herr Nietzsche. I’ll insist on it being so. Thank you Barb. This helped me take a step back from my everyday struggle to remember everything! xo

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