I found out a couple of months ago that my parents’ annual physical exam now includes a 20-question pop quiz after a weigh-in and blood pressure check.
My 104-pound mom with high blood pressure tackled it first.
Doctor: What year were you born?
Doctor: Where are we?
Mom: Medina, I’ve lived here most of my life
Doctor: Who is the President of the United States?
Mom paused. She glared at dad, glanced at me and then rolled her eyes at the doctor and blurted: “I voted for him — you know, that black guy nobody likes.”
Her embarrassment exploded silently, flooding the tiny examination room with a muddle of fear and shame.
The doctor, who has taken care of my parents for decades, tried to paper over the moment with reassurances. But there was no consoling mom, who, against my father’s wishes, had hammered a gaggle of Barack Obama campaign signs into their front yard in 2008.
This doctor’s visit happened in December and I hadn’t thought about it much again until an Iowa-based gerontologist I follow — Elaine Eshbaugh — wrote about something similar in her witty, insightful, in-the-trenches blog “Welcome to Dementialand.”
In it, Eshbaugh described stopping to talk to a nursing home patient after the woman hollered to Eshbaugh that she had become a grandma.
When Eshbaugh asked the woman what her granddaughter’s name was, the woman — like my mother searching for an answer her brain couldn’t come up with — paused and flashed from happy to sad. She couldn’t remember.
Pop quizzes, it turns out, don’t only happen in doctors’ offices.
They happen daily and inadvertently when many of us talk to people with dementia.
When we ask grandpa if he recognizes us, or grandma what she had for breakfast, we’re quizzing them. And if they can’t answer — when they get that sad and shameful look — they know they’ve failed.
I’ve been too thick to realize how often I do this with my own family.
Mom, I ask, where did you put the newspaper? Dad, I prod, don’t you remember you had a stent when you were in the hospital two years ago?
Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if I found the newspaper without asking? Or recognize and embrace that I’m now, and forever more, dad’s medical memory?
Eshbaugh concedes, she, too, has unnecessarily caused angst in dementia patients — including the woman in the nursing home who became a grandmother.
“Instead of asking her to recall specific info about her granddaughter, I should have said, ‘Tell me more about your granddaughter’,” Eshbaugh said.
“She might have told me that she was 8 pounds when she was born, that she had blond hair, that she cries a lot,” Eshbaugh said. “But she would be focusing on what she remembered rather than what she didn’t remember.”
That’s a good lesson for most of us.
My parents’ doctor, of course, doesn’t have that option. She is measuring memory function and a quiz is necessary.
After mom fumbled the president question in the office that day, the doc continued down a list of other queries, swapping out a World War I question for one she thought both mom and dad should know since they lived through it.
Doctor: When was D-Day?
Mom stumbled into an answer involving the 1800s and dad, trying to save her, reminded her that was the Civil War.
“Abraham Lincoln was a wonderful president,” mom said, telling the doctor she was confused now about dates because she doesn’t work any more and has no reason to keep track of time.
A few minutes later, as the doctor was typing into her laptop and the three of us were sitting quietly nearby, mom lit up.
She had found the needle buried in 82 years of memory haystack.
“Obama,” she said triumphantly, pounding her bony, little fist on the arm of her wheelchair. “His name is Obama.”
For anyone interested, here’s a link to Elaine Eshbaugh’s refreshing Welcome to Dementialand blog: https://welcometodementialand.wordpress.com