Memory's Last Breath

By Carol Zernial
WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director

I used to talk about persons “suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.” Until I met Gerda Saunders. Gerda is the author of Memory’s Last Breath. She was diagnosed with vascular dementia when she was only 61. That was seven years ago. Gerda is “living” with dementia every day.

We interviewed Gerda on the podcast, Caregiver SOS on Air, available on The Answer 930 AM and on for free on ITunes. Her book had just received glowing reviews from the New York Times. Gerda can’t remember what a glass is for or how to turn on the lights, but she has retained her gift for words. “Things” are her nemesis.

We had a good laugh at the political incorrectness of her diagnosing physician who said she was “dementing.” She thought it was such an odd word that it caught her attention, and she was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to use that old terminology. I assured her that I was kind of horrified that a professional would use such a derogatory word to her face.

We asked her how she reacted to the diagnosis. She calmly replied that she wasn’t surprised. She knew something was wrong. She said she would have been surprised by a brain tumor, but the idea of dementia never really got her down.

She told us that her favorite place to go was Las Vegas. Not to gamble, but because she knows how to get from the hotel room to the enclosed shopping mall and back. It’s the one place she doesn’t get lost. She experiences the joy of freedom to go wherever she wants, and her husband gets a much needed break. He is by her side most of the time helping her function in a world that is slipping away.

I can’t express the courage and admiration I have for this woman who is facing a fear that haunts us all as we age. Most people I interact with tell me that they wouldn’t want to know if they were going to get Alzheimer’s. Gerda’s dementia has a different trajectory, but it is still erasing her mind a little at a time. Just like Gerda, I would want to know.

I watched my mother struggle with the notion that the person she was and who we knew and loved would one day be blank. She even told us that the day was coming, and we needed to be ready. She was frustrated that there weren’t other people like her, in the early stages, who could band together and help each other out. At least not where she lived.

My mother would have enjoyed Gerda very much.

Gerda is her voice and the voice of all people who suffer from a disease or condition that causes the outside world to write them off, devalue their words, or assume they had lost their importance in this world.

Who are we when we no longer remember who we are, what we did in life, or who are our family and friends? Are we a different person just because we can’t remember anything? Gerda has reinforced my belief that who we are is immutable/unchangeable somewhere in our souls. And we truly will always exist in the collective memories of the persons who love us or whose lives we have touched in significant ways.

I will hold on to these valuable pieces of Gerda and my mother, and so many other wonderful people as long as I can remember. And when I can’t, I will pass the torch on to those who can.

WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial is a noted gerontologist, radio show host, and Chair of the National Council on Aging. The non-profit WellMed Charitable Foundation focuses on complimentary programs impacting seniors and family caregivers, including weekly telephone learning sessions, evidence-based classes on stress reduction and more. Find out more at CaregiverSOS.org or toll-free at 1-866-390-6491