Bioethics Blogs

When Words Fail

Costas Halavrezos reflects on the importance of social interactions for mental health.

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Duvet. No.
Tofu? No.
What’s the word? It’s…it’s…futon! Yes!

I’d been telling a friend I was having a hard time finding a local non-profit that would take our sofa-bed to make room for a new futon. But my real challenge was finding the right two-syllable noun which included the letter “u” pronounced as “oo.”

One of the most frightening sentences I’ve ever read in a novel is, “The nouns are the first to go.” Briony, the narrator in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, has been diagnosed with vascular dementia. She’s self-conscious enough to recognize that her struggle to find the correct noun had become increasingly common. Sometimes, she couldn’t find it at all.

I wasn’t in a panic over not being able to retrieve “futon”, but I was frustrated. Privately, I rationalized it. A duvet and a futon are both associated with sleeping. There. And tofu? Had I subconsciously stereotyped futon-sleepers as tofu-eaters? When it comes to word searches, the brain has a mind of its own.

Over the years, as an interviewer on CBC Radio, I’d interviewed Dalhousie University’s Director of Geriatric Medicine Research, Dr. Ken Rockwood, many times. He reassured listeners that searching for a word – especially as we progress through our 50s and 60s and beyond – is not proof of Alzheimer’s or of any of the other forms of dementia; it’s just part of aging. When we can’t recall a name or date or event, it’s likely fear of these diseases that underlies nervous jokes about having “a senior moment”, “a brain fart”, or “old-timer’s disease.”

There’s a reason for this fear and nervousness.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.