If you’ve ever been tested by a doctor to see if you have memory problems, or if you’ve ever accompanied someone else who has undergone the testing, you know exactly what counting down from 100 by sevens indicates. It’s a test that is commonly done to measure whether you have any signs of dementia. My husband, who was first diagnosed with dementia in 1995, has had the test many times while I have sat by and watched. I haven’t had the test done on me by a doctor yet, but I have attempted to do it on myself innumerable times. All I have to do is forget a word or forget to do something important, or have any other little memory lapse and I get a panicky feeling that is only quelled by starting to count down from 100 by sevens. Okay, I know, how could I tell if my answers were wrong if I truly had dementia! All my answers might be wrong and I would never know it. But common sense doesn’t enter into it when I’m overcome by that panicky feeling.
Why should I react so strongly to the thought that I might be developing dementia? Dementia is an expensive illness. My husband’s dementia has reached the stage known as moderate. He would not be able to live by himself; he is not able to drive; he has no idea if the bills get paid, the dishes get done, or any of the other vital tasks of running a household are accomplished. If he was a widower or if I had lost my marbles too (that is Bill’s description of his illness, by the way, not mine), he would have to be in a nursing home. Like many people in our age group, we are relatively comfortable in our retirement financially, but our budget would not cover two people in a nursing home at the same time for any extended period. That’s a cold hard fact of life. The fact that I talk about it and make back up plans is one of the reasons that some people think I’m morbid, but I consider it being practical.
I don’t really want to be morbid, but someone has to consider these issues. I don’t need someone else to tell me how foolish it is to compulsively run that little test on myself. I know it’s foolish, but I haven’t been able to stop myself from doing it. I try to keep my sense of humor and have a good laugh at my own paranoia, but there are some things that are harder to find the humor in than others. And since I’m being morbid, I might as well go all the way. If I got cancer, we would find it hard to afford a second catastrophic illness like that as well. However I would have the option of simply not treating the cancer, accepting that my number is up, and getting off of this planet quickly. But if I had dementia, the powers that be might not consider I was of sound enough mind to make that decision. We could afford one nursing home for Bill. It’s just a nursing home room for each of us that we can’t afford. Other than the wealthiest people in the world, I wonder how many people actually have retirement budgets that extend that far. Here in southern California, two people in a nursing home at once could easily cost $8,000 to $10,000 per month.
I guess like a lot of people, at some point I made the choice to play the odds. I thought the odds were strongly against both of us becoming catastrophically ill at the same time, and I was right; they are. I took statistics in college. Admittedly I just barely managed the C grade required to pass it. I was never a great student when it came to math, but I did learn enough to know that statistically we’d probably be okay with the amount that we were saving. So why can’t I let that common sense and knowledge of statistics stop me from madly counting backwards from 100 by sevens. I don’t have a good answer for that one. I spent a little time seeing a psychiatrist once, shortly after my husband suffered a breakdown and was diagnosed with dementia. I needed some extra help to cope. I remember telling the doctor once that if I ever fell over the edge into mental illness, the edge I would likely fall over would be the one marked OCD: obsessive compulsive disorder. Maybe that explains the fact that I end up counting backwards from 100 by sevens at least once a week and sometimes even more often.
I’ve tried to use a lot of common sense to calm my fears. I wish I could say that was a successful way to do it. My husband had a lot of high-risk factors for getting dementia: a serious head injury early in life; a second brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation in middle age; a parent who suffered from dementia when she entered her eighties. All of those factors put my husband at high risk. His dementia remained mild for the first 15 years that he had it, but over the last five years, it has progressed to moderate. I don’t have any of those risk factors but that fact doesn’t distract me from my counting either.
I had what I jokingly call a near-death experience once. I had been ordered to have an MRI to determine what was causing some abdominal pain. When I went to get the results from my doctor, she didn’t have them in my file so she had the nurse bring them to her. She took a quick look at them, got very pale and solemn, and told me the radiologist had found a mass on my pancreas that appeared to be a tumor. She said she was going to go check her files to get the name of a good oncologist so she could refer me right away. Then she disappeared for what seemed like eternity, but was probably no more than half an hour. I had a friend who had just died of a pancreatic tumor so I already knew what my odds would be of surviving that condition. After a moment of shock over discovering what it felt like to hear that my number was probably up, my mind went instantly to how I was going to see that Bill got the proper care.
I always thought that hearing you might be dying would result in soul searching, in getting philosophical over whether ones life had been well lived, etc. At the very least, I expected some tears and regrets. None of that happened. I immediately went into total practicality mode and started crunching the numbers in my head to figure out how we could find the best nursing home for Bill, and how far our savings and the proceeds from the sale of our house would go if I lived longer then the two years that is often the life expectancy of someone with pancreatic cancer. I grabbed a piece of paper off the doctor’s desk and started drawing up a spreadsheet so I could do the math more easily. Maybe that was my method of refusing to confront the emotional side of the diagnosis, but I promptly turned into an amazingly efficient financial planner.
Half an hour later, the doctor returned with a look of relief and informed me that, because she didn’t know the radiologist who had read the scan, she had asked another doctor she trusted to look at it and, guess what? He thought the mass was simply an unusually dense cyst. So here’s the ridiculous part. I actually felt a “touch” of disappointment that my brilliant financial plan wouldn’t be needed now.
I also thought that half an hour of thinking I was a goner would change me. But the very next time I forgot an appointment, I immediately started doing my backwards counting. I did make one change though. I used a calculator, computed the correct numbers for counting backwards from 100 by sevens, wrote the results down, and now when I get compulsive enough to start the computations in my head, I can check my answers and know if they are right or not. I’m happy to report that apparently, I’m not demented yet – just a little compulsive and a bit morbid. So if there are any other compulsive and morbid souls that have any advice on coping or fun stories to share, I would love to hear from you!