Blog 23: The Man in the Mirror (Pt 1)

You will understand, by now, that the loss of brainpower that Bill sustained, particularly over 2009 and 2010, fell into two categories.  There was loss of competencies due to loss of memory, eg, the loss of language and the loss of the ability to measure length.  But then, there was that other deeper loss of brainpower that occurred either because his brain had “slipped”, as happened during the Taipei incident, or because it had lost its “sense of time”, as happened when he wanted to go, at noon, to his night-time Rotary meeting. These two latter occurred, I think, not only because of memory loss, but also because of an accompanying loss of perception.

There is another loss of brainpower that I want to tell you about that falls into this second category.  That loss was the loss of the ability to see a reflection as an image, rather than as a reality.  Remember how, in BLOG 10, I talked about the possibility that Bill could no longer think in the abstract?  I think that this loss could have been related to that and that Bill’s brain could now only understand a “concrete” world.  I think that, in those days, in Bill’s thinking, there was no comprehension of the “abstract” at all and, as a result, of the way reflections work.

I first came to understand that this was the case when we were walking up to the post box on the corner to post some letters.  On the way, we passed a set of two-metre high, smoke-coloured, glass gates.  At this particular time, as we passed, Bill stopped, waved at our reflected images, and called out:

“Hello!  You’re a good one!  It’s good to see you!”

After that, every time that we passed those gates, whether we were going to the post box or to the park, Bill would stop and chat.  Often, the little dog that belonged to the house would come to the gate while we were there and Bill would chat to him as well.  Bill would sometimes become so engrossed in the parleying that I would have trouble dragging him away.

Blog 023 Image 1

At about the same time, Bill started having conversations with his own reflection in our downstairs bathroom mirror. There would be chuckles and nods and “thumbs ups” and winks as the discussion proceeded and I would often hear him say, with great enthusiasm:

“Yeah! Yeah! You’re right! Yeah!”

It sounded as if he was so, so happy to find someone who could understand what he was talking about and who could converse with him without any problems.


At one time, as he was having one of those jolly conversations, I went into the bathroom with him. He very quickly let me know that he did not appreciate my presence, grabbed me by the arm and pushed me back out the door again.

“Look!” he said, “You go out! You go out! I’m ….”  And he looked in exasperation at his reflection and indicated that he was not at all pleased that I had interrupted their very important conversation.

“Oh!” he said to his reflection, after I had gone,  “I’m sorry! Where were we?”


Another time, he pointed to his reflection in that mirror and said:

“No! I talked to him and he said that I shouldn’t have a shower!”


As time went on, as was the case with Bill’s “sense of time”, this inability to perceive that a reflection was an image, began to cause us trouble.  To begin with, it was little things that bothered us.  Bill, for example, stopped combing his hair.  As was my habit, I retaught him, urging him to focus on himself in the mirror as he combed.  But, as was always the way, the relearning only stayed with him for a little while and, in the end, I had to accept the fact that Bill’s ability to comb his hair had gone.  It had gone, irrevocably and irreplaceably, into some unfathomable black hole, with his inability to recognise his reflection. The same thing happened with the cleaning of his teeth, grooming of facial hair, the trimming of his beard and the washing of his face. Because he could no longer use a mirror intelligently, all these things that he had done for himself for most of his life, fell by the wayside.  And I soon found out that that was only the half of it.

  1. Harold and Nola

    From ‘The Notebook’ by Nicholas Sparks [ a worthwhile read under these circumstances - bring the tissues, they will be used, a whole box of them. It is also an important motion picture]
    ‘Alzheimer’s: A barren disease, as empty and lifeless as a desert . . . the doctor was grim. He was a good man and this was hard for him.’
    It is hard to imagine this disease for, where does the mind go? It is such an active part of our lives for all our lives, it is hard for a functioning mind, such as yours and mine, to imagine there being just . . . nothing . . . for nothing can take its place. This is to let you understand we understand . . . some . . . Nola and Harold.

    April 10th, 2013 // Reply
    • Fay

      It often worried me, Nola ….. scared me, even ….. that, as Bill lost his ability to speak, he would lose his ability to think. You and I, when we think, we think in language in our heads. We think in sentences, talk things through. I wondered whether, without words in his head, thoughts would be able to form and crystalise. But I found that, right to the end, with his brain all but gone, he was still thinking. He was still thinking, but thinking, I believe, as an nine-month old would think. So, he was pushing chairs with purpose in much the same way that a crawling baby, as yet without speech, would push a toy car down the hall. When he was in hospital in those last days, you will remember, sometimes he would copy our modelling and nibble away at his sandwich. At other times, he would demand to know where I was, and so on. What I saw told me … and maybe I’m not correct …. but it told me that the brain had not gone, had not disappeared but it had become a baby’s brain. At the time, I was able to compare Bill’s behaviour with that of our ten-month old granddaughter and I was often struck, as was her mother, by the behaviour similarities.

      April 25th, 2013 // Reply
  2. Matt

    The loss of abstract understanding really is a big deal. So much of our lives, feelings and experiences are in the abstract. I can’t imagine trying to live in this world only relating to the concrete. It must have been so difficult for Bill and for you Fay. Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights – they help us all to understand and cope a little better.

    April 11th, 2013 // Reply
    • Fay

      Yes, I agree, Matt. That loss, the loss of abstract understanding, not only deprives the person with dementia of the ability to read calendars, but also deprives him/her of the ability to “get the joke” or to comprehend the innuendo. That loss alone takes so much richness from their lives. And, when you add to that those other losses, like loss of ability to “read” reflections, we can begin to understand, a little, the awfulness of this disease.

      April 26th, 2013 // Reply

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