When the Mind Decays

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

I'm writing this week on an experience that will be familiar to many but is new to me – watching the deterioration of somebody’s mind.

My grandfather recently went into a home. This is sad enough, but the really sad thing is that, now, his memory is going, his mind is going and it feels as though his very essence is going.

What I really want to look at here is not the winding down of life in general, which is, it goes without saying, a melancholy matter; but this particular business of the deterioration of the self – the curious way that a personality just sort of vanishes, bit by bit.

Purely physical changes are a different matter. They can, of course, have profound alterations on the personality. It doesn’t bear thinking about how much, for example, losing one’s sight, losing limbs or being disfigured in an accident must affect you to the core. But putting cases of brain damage aside, however extreme the physical alteration is, the mind itself is still there.

The self-confidence might be totally decimated, the will to carry on living might be gone, the lightness and happiness might be sucked out of one, but the mind is still there, as it always was. The memories are still there. The ability to think and recognise and articulate are all still present.

However, when someone reaches the end of their life and their mind starts to go, what you see is the self almost… evaporating. The body, the physical form, is before you, but the thing that animated it is not.

In “the old days”, we would’ve called this part of a person the soul. Now, it’s not so much the done thing to label it this way, or indeed to think of it this way. However, I find the term, in a way, more helpful here than its secular equivalent “the self”. With its metaphysical connotations, it somehow sits better with the thing that I’m trying to get at – the weirdness of someone just slowly but surely un-being before your eyes.

For all that I wish it was otherwise, I have no particular advice to impart; this is just another aspect of our existence to be dealt with, to make our peace with, perhaps through writing it down, like so.