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. By the time you reach your 50s or 60s, you’ve likely had direct experience of this tragic suite of illnesses in older family members or friends. When friends suddenly disappear socially, you sometimes discover it was due to a crisis in finding appropriate care for a parent whose mental instability had become too worrisome to deny.

Nick Halavrezos, Georgia & Costas, late 1950s, Saint John, New Brunswick.

Nick Halavrezos, Georgia & Costas, late 1950s, Saint John, New Brunswick.

My father stopped operating Nick’s Coffee Counter in Saint John when he was about 75 years old. Over the next few years, I moved to Quebec City to work and my sister moved to the Miramichi region of New Brunswick. This left my father and mother alone in their house, with only periodic visits from their children and grandchildren.

My sister and I learned about our father’s symptoms from our mother. They were disturbing. He’d developed a delusion she was “carrying on” with some man in the rooming house across the street. If a roomer looked out through its shabby curtains, he imagined it was a signal to my mother about their next hookup.

This would be hilarious if it weren’t so painful to both parents. In my father’s broken mind, this was a real, ongoing pattern of betrayal. For my mother, every accusation went straight to her heart. She couldn’t put these bizarre beliefs in a box, as clinical evidence of dementia.

After a long and difficult process, they moved next door to my sister and her family in Miramichi. But my mother’s mere presence continued to agitate my father’s mind. By this time, my family had moved back east, so my wife and I brought Dad to live with us and our two youngest children in Dartmouth. Things improved. Without my mother as a trigger, his mind settled down.

But diseases kept adding themselves to his lengthening medical history, like strangers joining some morbid parade. They all jostled with one another to get to the front on a given week. On a sunny Sunday in June – Father’s Day – a stroke took precedence over all the others.

After that, my father was too physically debilitated to stay with us. He spent several months in hospital, then transferred to a nursing home. Despite good care, his deterioration continued.

My father certainly had several of the medical “insults” that can be causal factors in developing dementia. A lifetime of heavy smoking. A possible concussion when his Greek merchant ship was torpedoed in 1941. A two-day coma following a car accident in the 1950s.

But I recall that his symptoms blossomed when he retired from Nick’s Coffee Counter – a sudden exile from decades of daily banter and gossip with the regulars. He seemed to draw energy from that social fuel.

It’s not surprising that scientists researching dementia have found that active social networks are important to our mental health. I believe the hub of my father’s social network and mental health was that lunch counter. When it was removed, the wheels began to wobble, and eventually fell off.

I’m sure that was only one in the complex web of factors that contributed to his demise, but I think of it often when I’m at my table, selling spices, in the Historic Farmers’ Market in the old Keith’s Brewery in Halifax. Like my father, I’m happy to see my customers, and not just for commercial reasons. Instead of sleeping in on Saturday, they’ve chosen to take part in the ancient tradition of mingling in public with people you might not see the rest of the week.

How many of you make a date to meet friends at your local farmers’ market or even at a mall for coffee? This casual connecting instantly recharges the spirit and improves your quality of life.

I think this kind of socializing takes you “out of your mind” – in a good way. It pushes back against physical and mental and emotional isolation. So to all you marketgoers and kaffeeklatschers, pat yourselves on the back for practicing what I believe to be a good preventive health measure.

Now if only I could find someone to take that sofa-bed off my hands, I could move in that…that watchamacallit.

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Costas Halavrezos is a former host of CBC Radio’s Maritime Noon, a writer, and a spice retailer. @CWNH

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