Losing Your Mind vs. Losing Your Body

As people do, my grandmother has been growing old for quite some time now.

She still has her spirit, her humor, and most of her physical health, but she readily admits that her mind isn’t what it used to be. Her short-term memory in particular is quite bad.

Surely one of these guys is interested in a hug.

Knowing that she can’t trust her mind to retain information anymore, a few months ago she asked me to accompany her on a trip to the last place on Earth she wants to go but hasn’t visited (she’s quite the world traveler): Antarctica. Of course I said yes, partially because it’ll help me satisfy my 2012 goal of hugging a penguin, but unfortunately the trip fell through a month later when she decided that even with me as her guide, her mind wasn’t equipped to make the trip. Honestly, it probably would have been pretty hard on her body too.

This is completely subjective, but I feel like many old people either lose their mind or body, but not both, and rarely neither. So it got me thinking: If I had the choice, which would I lose? My mind or my body?

As much as I love physical activity–soccer, sprinting, walking, snuggling, massaging, showering, driving, hugging cats and penguins, wiping my own butt, etc–I have to say that I would sacrifice my body over my mind. I want my mind to stay active as late into life as possible. I don’t want people to talk to me like I’m a kid when I’m 80. I want to be sharp, funny. I want to continue to create. I want to be able to learn new things, like how to work the hologram projector. I want to retain long-term and short-term memories. I want to be able to tell stories.

If I have to lay in bed or sit in a chair to do those things, so be it. Plus, by then I have no doubt that we’ll be able to control robots and wheelchairs with our minds. So maybe I’ll be able to wipe my own butt with a robotic arm.

What about you? If you had the choice, which would you lose: mind or body? Have you witnessed anyone close to you lose either of those?

PS. A huge thank you to everyone who joined the conversation tonight about plagiarism on Facebook. It’s a huge discussion that I can’t replicate here, but you should be able to view it publicly if you look at my Facebook feed (even if you’re not my Facebook friend…it’s okay to friend me, though! Just let me know who you are in a message or something if I don’t know you in real life).

27 thoughts on “Losing Your Mind vs. Losing Your Body”

  1. I would rather have my mind intact than have my body be in good shape. Without my mind, my body would just be a shell for an empty soul, and what is the point in that? My personality is who I really am anyway.

    I’m in no way trying to compare myself to someone with a long-term degenerative bodily disease, but I’ve had a little taste of losing the physical independence I once had since I’ve broken my leg. Not only is it much harder to do get around and do anything (I still won’t be able to drive for at least another month), but in the hospital I was confined to my bed because of the nerve blockers they had given me for surgery that stayed in for a few days to help manage the pain. Without being able to feel my legs, they didn’t want me to get up and risk falling. Yes it was a little humiliating to have a nurse assist me with everything (and I do mean everything), but it wasn’t as awful as I would have thought. Who knows what my mentality would be if I knew that it wasn’t just temporary, but I would imagine it would just become your new norm after a while.

    I think that you could take up new hobbies that would replace things like soccer, but I don’t think you’d be able to find a replacement for your sense of humor or your long-term memories. I would much rather have a loved one deteriorate physically (as long as they weren’t in a lot of pain) than have them not be able to recognize me when I visit. Alzheimer’s is an awful disease that basically takes away your life. I wouldn’t want that for myself or anyone I love. I’d rather sit and chat and make a friend laugh even if I couldn’t be physically active with them.

    In fact, as I was apologizing to someone on my rec softball league about not being able to finish the season, he commented that it didn’t really bother them too much. They didn’t like having me around for my physical prowess (my word, not his :)) but rather because they love hanging out with me. I think that sums it all up right there.

    • Katie–I’m glad you commented on this given your current condition. Are you able to even go to work? How do you get there?

      “I’d rather sit and chat and make a friend laugh even if I couldn’t be physically active with them.” Well said. I totally agree.

      Wow, your teammates don’t mince words, do they?! Perhaps you can show them by coming back strong next season. 🙂

      • I have a really good friend that I work with who lives just down the street from me. Sometimes we commute together, and my parents chauffeur me around a lot too. I’m lucky to have a great support system on which I can rely. I don’t even want to think about how this would go if not for them. I thought I would hate commuting, but my friend and I have so much fun. We laugh the whole drive, and it’s a great way to start and end the day.

        I worked a lot from home before my doctor released me to come back in the office, and my bosses kept telling me to relax and focus on getting better. My response was that the work was the only thing keeping me sane. Since I was required to keep my leg elevated almost all of the time–and not doing so hurt quite a bit–I really was bed-ridden for a while. But the pain meds didn’t diminish my mental faculties, so I was still actively managing my team through the computer and the phone. It worked well to keep me sharp and keep my mind focused on something other than the pain and the monotony of staring at the same wall all day long. I may have been somewhat incapacitated, but I still had my wits about me.

        Love the softball team. As we’e discussed on the blog before, it’s a little competitive, but more about the camaraderie. Not sure the future holds for my softball career though. I guess it depends on the results of the bone density I’m having in a couple of weeks! My doctor has made a great point that otherwise healthy 30-year olds don’t just break their leg in three places by walking down stairs, so keep your fingers crossed that losing my body doesn’t become a reality for me!

        • Katie–That’s great that your friend has supported you to help you get to work. In fact, I really respect the fact that you found a way to continue to go to work (or work from home) instead of going on worker’s comp.

          So is the doctor implying that something else must have been going on in your body to make your leg so easily breakable?

          • Yeah, I guess it’s possible that I have brittle bone disease or osteoporosis or something. We shall see. If anything, that just gives me one more thing in common with Samuel L. Jackson. He played a character like that in “Unbreakable.”

            Besides the physical similarities, we are both:

            1. Bad motherfuckers
            2. Tired of these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane

            (Sorry Mrs. Stegmaier.)

  2. I’ve had one grandparent lose her mind and another lose his body. Both were physically healthy people and lived many years under those conditions. From witnessing those experiences, I’d definitely rather lose my mind.

    Of course, it does depend on what you mean by losing your body. From your post, I’m inferring you think that it just involves being in a wheelchair or having trouble getting around, but to me, that’s pretty normal. Most of us will eventually get to that point anyway. So when you say ‘lose your body’ I think more like really lose control of your body like a stroke might cause – where you might lose most or all of your ability to move and/or communicate.

    As a child I watched my grandfather deteriorate with Parkinson’s for many years. He was otherwise physically healthy so he lived a long time as the disease deteriorated his body to the point where he couldn’t move on his own or communicate with anyone. His mind was there though. You could tell. He was a very smart man and every once in awhile, when he was worked up enough or motivated enough he could get across a word or two to make his point. He tried to communicate in other ways too, but he didn’t have much control of his movements, so it was very difficult to understand him. He eventually passed away, but he had been trapped for so long everyone considered it a blessing.

    Later in life, I watched my grandmother (on the other side of the family) deteriorate in the opposite way. She slowly slipped away via Alzheimer’s and mini strokes that affected her memory. Eventually, she had a massive stroke that took her, but by that point her mind was completely gone and she had no idea who we were. Don’t get me wrong, Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease, but in some ways I think it’s harder on the family than the patient. When my grandmother reached a certain point, she actually became happier – which sounds weird – but she’d lost her mind to the point that she didn’t know it and she was a happier person for it. So while it was incredibly difficult on us, she was blissfully unaware.

    So hopefully, I won’t lose either one, but if I had my choice I think I’d rather be blissfully unaware than conscious, lonely and unable to interact with anyone.

    • Christine–I’m glad someone spoke up for the other side. Not that there’s a right answer or that we’ll actually have this choice, but I think it’s interesting to consider, especially as people in our generation witness our grandparents and parents getting old.

      You make a good point–it must be SO scary to feel trapped inside your own body. Mind active, body unable to abide. If your mind goes, at least you may not know how bad it is.

  3. This really struck a chord with me as it’s something I talk about frequently. My grandma is 96 years old. At 94 she moved into a nursing home because she could not care for herself due to physical limitations. Months after that, she had surgery on her spinal cord to have plates put in to keep them from compressing on each other (this was the cause of her mobility loss). She’s a rockstar, obviously, to undergo surgery like that at her age.

    Anyway – I have to say – I’d rather lose my body than my mind. For a week or so, the medication “Grammy” was on caused her to hallucinate (studies show that this BP medicine does that). I’m talking – thinking she was holding a handful of rice in her hand when she wasn’t. Scary. They adjusted the meds and she was fine.

    I can’t imagine visiting her as often as I do if she didn’t know who I was. It’d be really, really hard. And it would be even harder to ever LEAVE a visit knowing that she was completely lost.

    She’s shown me that you don’t have to be able to do everything for yourself (including, for a time, feeding yourself) in order to have a fulfilled life. Her physical limitations don’t hold her back as much as mental limitations would. She’s able to enjoy many of the same things she always did – and LAUGHS. 🙂

    • Elaine–I’m sorry to hear about the rough times your grandmother is going through. Is she aware that her mind is hallucinating? As Christine says above, if you’re not aware of it, it may not be that bad. but if you’re aware of it…that’s even more scary than being trapped in your own body, I think.

      That’s awesome, though, that you’ve learned from your grandmother. I think the lesson that you don’t have to be able to do everything for yourself is a good one for all of us (especially those of you in relationships).

      • She did know she was hallucinating. She explained it later as it feeling like dreams but not being able to tell the difference between dream and reality.

        The thing about losing your mind that absolutely terrifies me, is that a woman on my grandmother’s floor is convinced she’s in purgatory. She cries for help all day. I guess I just don’t see how that’s a better alternative to being confined to a wheelchair. My grandma is dependent on people bathing her and helping her in the bathroom. And for awhile -feeding her. But I know she’d choose that over thinking she was in purgatory.

        I went to see her last night and it always amazes me when she says she’s praying for ME. She said I should expect something amazing to come my way soon. That’s better than the best fortune cookie. 🙂

        • Elaine–I definitely see what you’re saying. I really feel for people who are trapped in their own minds like that.

          My priest recently gave a homily about the 5 things you can say to someone who is sick (and the 5 things not to say), and I was intrigued to learn that one of the 5 things you should say is, “Please pray for me.” At first the idea of that seemed a little self-centered, since it’s abundantly clear that they’re the sick one, not you.

          But he went on to explain that sick people (not your grandmother, though) often lose sight of everyone else around them because they’re so focused on their own pain. Thus asking for a personal prayer can help them get their mind off their own pain and become more relational and empathetic to those around them. I like that idea, and I’m impressed that your grandmother thought to do that without even being prompted.

  4. This is a very uncanny topic. I know many people would say mind and it makes perfect sense. The thing I would have to offer is that they are connected.
    Not being the biggest health junkie but certainly among those whose resolutions include being one, I have to chime that diet plays a role here too in prevention. For example, I assume that your cookware is stainless steel. Reason I say that is sometimes we inherit stuff and well, aluminum pots and pans can lead to Alzheimer’s. They are saying now that nitrates also do. (Check your deli meat). So, I just want to add that as we take care of our bodies now, the likelihood of having to make a decision like this diminishes.

    • Orianna–That’s a good point, they are often connected. And I agree that we should do everything we can to stay health to prevent the loss of mind or body later.

  5. All I know is that you have no control of which you loose – your mind or body. So my suggestion is to plan on loosing both and then you will rejoice when you only loose one of them.

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    No further action is necessary against Ms. Fine. If she acts out again, I will respond with appropriate measures.

  7. This post really hits a nerve (not necessarily in a bad way). I’ve had the unique opportunity to get to know my Nanny (dad’s mom) for the 2 years preceding her death. I was her sole caretaker and butt wiper. Also, I live at home (seriously, don’t tell anyone) and my Me-maw lives in a little apartment we built for her in the basement of my parents house.

    So, Me-maw is about to turn 95. Her mind is completely there. She tells the most amazing stories about how she got appendicitis 2 weeks before her nursing unit was sent to Europe (only 2 from that unit came back alive), how she grew up on a farm in Virginia and what it’s like to give birth in the back of a buggy. She plays Parcheesi like a pro and we have running totals going back several years. She debates college football with redneck men wearing FSU hats in the grocery store. She is basically completely there mentally….but her body is wasting away. She is miserable because she can’t drive, work out, go on walks, travel or pick up her great-granddaughter. She can only eat certain foods because of her health. She is having a hard time holding a pen to write letters to friends and family, something she has been doing daily her whole life. She would rather go ahead and die than to stick around like this. She hates it.

    Now, I say all this because I know, based on intimate conversations with her, that she would rather not be aware of all that’s going on. My Nanny, on the other hand, had both body and mind go. She was extremely frail and needed me to do everything for her at the end, including wiping her butt. However, she had dementia. She wasn’t really aware of what was going on. While it was SO hard for me to watch, I was glad that she wasn’t cognizant (most of the time, at least) that things were so different.

    So, I guess that I’d rather just die before either goes. Seeing my Me-maw watch her life get smaller and more restricted as the years go by is sad and depressing. I love her and loved Nanny dearly and wouldn’t trade my time with them for anything…but I wish for peace for my Me-maw.

    • Ansley–Thank you for sharing about your grandmothers. I can definitely see the point now, thanks to you and Christine, that it must be incredibly frustrating to have your mind and not your body. This may be one of those things where there is no “right” answer, just two fairly sad answers.

  8. False dichotomy, I agree with Orianna but if I had to choose, I would probably lose my mind over my body. Why? Well, then everyone can still be around me, enjoy my company and muse over how oblivious I am, make all sorts of comments and I wouldn’t be the wiser

    I’m making a very bad joke of course…it’s a really tough call. My grandfather had Alzheimer’s and the second time I went to visit him in Taiwan (I had grown about 10 years by then) he didn’t remember me. We all expected that. But then when he forgot he had a second daughter (my mom) it really struck home that although you can be physically present but mentally not all there. Unfortunately, age depletes both in different amounts.

    I don’t know if you heard of the author Ronald Takaki, who I had the pleasure of meeting. He had Multiple Sclerosis and the pain was so bad that he ended up taking his own life, despite being very active mentally. We can’t really separate the body from the mind sometimes, they affect each other. But interesting questions, as always, Jamey.

    • That is sad to hear about Ronald Takaki. I won’t get into my views on euthanasia here, but I will say that I struggle with the fact that people don’t have that choice in most states. I’m not saying that I condone it, but I think people should have that choice.

  9. I’d give up the use of my body any day over my mind. My father is elderly and
    although his body is holding up pretty well, his mind is going down the tubes.
    For the way he behaves and has paranoia and such, I’d never want to live like
    that. As long as my mind is intact I can love and receive love. That’s really
    what it comes down to.

    • Trinity–I like your point about being able to love and receive love. That’s such a key element to being alive.


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