Do it now!

My friends seem to be equally divided on the effect my semi-new (five months now) job working with the memory-impaired (mostly oldsters) is having on the Wilken persona.

Fifty percent of longtime West Coast Wilken Watchers, or maybe even a little more than half, feel that my 35 to 40 hours a week with formerly successful folk, reduced by fate, age or God to a nearly total dependency on the kindness of paid strangers, has been good for me.

"You seem more compassionate."

"You seem a little less judgmental."

"You're more patient."

And from some Thai friends: "It must be hard but will be very good for your karma."

The naysayers feel my exposure to the end of the line for more and more of our elderly - the Washington State Alzheimer's Association claims there are now 104,000 people in the state with the disease, and that doesn't even count numerous other forms of dementia not labeled Alzheimer's - is darkening an already graying emotional palette.

My feeling is that both sides of this tempest in a failing brain are 100 percent right.

I think I've always been compassionate, but I have never suffered fools gladly. And because of my muckraking tendencies - fueled by a pro-labor, anti-big business immigrant family, even before corporations turned citizens into consumers - and my experiences in the United States Armed Forces during the depths of Vietnam (1966-68), only those folks who got close to me saw under the semi-harsh, sarcastic veneer to where the compassion hides.

And, if I'm probably no less judgmental than ever, I cannot judge my patients. (We call them residents in corporate-speak, and we also call the wards "neighborhoods," but they aren't located on any street Mr. Rogers would be comfortable living on.)

They, poor souls, have deteriorated past having any responsibility for their previous lives, before dementia took over.

And if you aren't patient you cannot work with dementia and Alzheimer's. No way, no how.

As for karma, I don't really know. I will take the Thais' word for it.

And I can say without hesitation that I have been forced to be kinder, at least to my residents. Exhausting my limited supply of patience each day has probably made me less patient with fools who do not have a clear-cut biological excuse for their asininity.

The dim lifeview is darkening. I must admit that.

I have literally watched one resident die, been in the building when two more passed on, found folks not long after they've fallen and suffered broken bones, and seen people who once owned companies and headed ritzy garden and book clubs, unknowingly do things kids would be spanked for.

Seeing the end of the line for these poor folks, who biologically at least are no different from you and me, is shaping a darker view of life's end for me.

I feel a strange kinship with my patients, knowing that I am only eight years younger than our youngest, a victim of early-onset Alzheimer's, and not more than two decades younger than most of the folks in my care. Unlike drive-by shootings or getting run over in a crosswalk, losing your mind at the end of a long life is not really about bad luck. It is about life in this country at this particular time.

The place where I work charges a lot to take care of the residents, and by and large they do a good job. But it is still hellish.

The main thing I have learned in a mere 150 days is this: if there is anything you have yearned to do, be it write a novel, see Spain or leave a bad marriage, the time to do it is now. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. And living a long life may not be such a great thing if it stretches out a bit too long. Go for your deepest yearnings NOW!

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