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I prefer 'dotty'

Americans have few characteristics that distinguish them from the mere mortals of other nations - unless it is our relentless, self-gratifying drive to melodramatize ourselves to the point of idiocy. Nobody is lazy, stupid, or aging: they have syndromes, disease, and 'problems.' Last week, I chatted about alcoholism. This week, it is Alzheimer's, the disease that lets you be sick rather than old, much less senile.

Unlike, say, AIDS - which has no history and suddenly appeared - Alzheimer's Disease has been with us forever. People who got it, depending on the magnitude, were considered 'odd', 'dotty', or 'senile,' sometimes prematurely senile. Everybody understood that such things happen, however unfortunately, and that such was life.

Now, the victims of senility have had the great good fortune of being labeled, specifically, as sick. And those who care for them are now enshrined as martyrs. Ye gods, people. How has this improved much of anything?

When I was growing up, it was understood that arteries hardened and that was why parts of the brain went. The only thing new about all this is the label.

The disease gets much play now, because we live longer - perhaps longer than we should. Eventually, we will cure the slow degeneration of the brain with drugs. Now, all we can do is prevent helping it along. Do not smoke (what a shock!). Do not eat a stupid diet of fat and starch. Do not drink too much liquor. This, evidently, can help.

My mother has Alzheimer's. She started getting weird about twenty years ago, in her 50's. Things that used to seem perverse acts of attention-getting at her end would infuriate me. My mother, who was one of the dignified, gracious hostesses and home-makers of her time, would start talking with her mouth full. Would shove plates across the table rather than lifting them. Little things, but as associable with Mom as Miss Manners picking her nose. Then came conversation that always started with "Yes, but…" Then came the non-sequitors and the inappropriate laughter. My mother had something the matter. Worse, she knew it. Worse, we did not. We thought she just needed attention and was throwing childish, if restrained, tantrums.

I myself, hero incarnate, would take her aside and lecture her on her behavior. Undignified, what is the matter with you?

Well, now we know. (What the matter is with us, of course, is another question.) And Mom seems to be all right. She has the common, lesser variant of Alzheimer's, the one that has made old people the butt of jokes and rolled eyes for centuries. She can still chat and take care of herself. Sometimes she is as sharp as ever, which is very sharp.

But I am unconvinced that the labeling of her with Alzheimer's rather than, say, dotty, has improved anything except how the family looks upon itself. Now, we react to a thing (the disease) instead of incidents (her actions). In neither case, do we look deep down at her, at what she must be going through, noting the inadvertent condescension that sneaks into talk by her own grandchildren.

It is, I suspect, our own guilt that feeds this insatiable need for made-for-TV movies about the "agony of Alzheimer's." I am not convinced we are any more concerned with the victim, we just want to assuage our guilt. I know the feeling; would that I did not. But I still think we are being grotesque hypocrites.