What My Elderly Mother Is Teaching Me About Evolution

First of all, my 91-year-old mother would be very unhappy to know that I wrote a blog post about her (if she knew what a blog post was). She is a private, proud woman of an era when news of one’s personal business didn’t extend much beyond chatter at church and the general store.

301px-Origin_of_SpeciesSecond, my mother would be equally unhappy to know that I’m associating her with the theory of evolution. At one time maybe, in her youth, she may have accepted Charles Darwin’s discovery of natural selection without feeling that it threatened her Catholic faith and spiritual outlook on life. But not in her old age. Only God and His mysterious ways matter to her now, and that’s fine.

My mother is more than entitled, at this stage of her life, to do/think/say just about anything she wants. I say “just” because Mom can still be imperious and peppery and she still scares me. As a mother of eight, grandmother of eleven and great grandmother of six (soon, seven), she’s had to lay down the law many times, and rightfully so. But she’s slowing down more and deserves a free pass.

Since May is the 50th anniversary of Older Americans Month, and Mother’s Day is approaching, there’s something I need to tell my mother next time I see her – that she is still teaching me important lessons about life.

That would please and surprise my mom, and I’m a dope for not telling her by now. I just visited her this past weekend in Pennsylvania. She still lives in the house where I grew up, and has excellent 24/7 care from a core group of caregivers with whom she’s formed a trusted and loving bond.

Although Mom is very fortunate to have the resources and support structure to stay at home, her big old brick colonial-style house grows larger and more obstructive as her frail body shrinks and loses mobility. Just days before my visit, my older siblings, who still live in the area, had ramps installed in her house. The ramps were placed over three sets of small steps that my mother can no longer negotiate on her feet.

So the past week has been stressful for her. Mom is rapidly transitioning from a walker to a wheelchair, and is doing so with a level of dignity and grace that I don’t possess. Darwin might nod knowingly when I say I have some of my mother’s traits but I lack others of hers I wish I had, including her emotional strength.

Darwin didn’t know anything about genetics or DNA, but his genius was in understanding the function of inheritance and its role in natural selection as the modification of inherited traits over long periods of time. As Darwin put it, natural selection preserves or creates “favoured races in the struggle for life.”

OAM Logo -- thumbnailWhat my elderly mother is teaching me about evolution, in particular, is how it affects memory as we age: As Mom’s short-term memory falters, more of her long-term memory emerges. And its vast store of wisdom and family stories is something I’ve neglected for too long.

Mom frequently frets about the loss of her short-term memory – she’ll pause in the middle of a sentence and sigh as she searches her mind for a forgotten name or date. “Damn, what’s the word…” she’ll say. Then she’ll apologize and look distressed, which makes my heart ache.

I always try to assure her that it’s no big deal to forget names and other short-term stuff. She knows how lucky she is to have as sound a mind as she does, with no signs of senility or Alzheimer’s disease unlike several of her friends both alive and dead. Still, it’s hard for her, knowing how much we have to repeat things to her lately.

Evolutionary biologists see short-term memory and its limited capacity as a survival mechanism that allows us to pay attention to a relatively small number of immediate concerns (predators approaching, where to seek refuge) so that we can make rapid decisions effectively.

301px-Mothers'_Day_Cake_cropIt makes sense to me, therefore, that short-term memory generally fades in the elderly, especially in those who are less active or retired. They are no longer looked to as often to make quick and important decisions, and that’s as it should be, because – hopefully – their welfare is ensured by loved ones and/or the community. They’ve earned their rest and our enduring respect.

So as my mother’s short-term memory weakens, I find her plumbing her long-term memory more which, by contrast, is very good. The farther back she goes, it seems – 50 to 60 or more years ago – the more vivid the memories.

Ask my mom about her first date with my late father – in 1948 – and she can tell you what day of the week it was (a Monday), what my dad wore (a bulky green tweed suit that his mother had bought him in New York), what kind of car he drove (a red Ford convertible) and how long it took him to call my mom after the date (a week and a half, because Dad drove to Virginia to break up with another girl before continuing to date my mom). My parents were married less than a year later.

Ask my mother where she went to dinner with my siblings a day or two prior, and she may not remember.

Colorful_spring_gardenI enjoy Mom’s old stories even when they jar, when she drops the long-gone into conversations of the here and now. In a phone call a couple of weeks ago, I told her how my one sister gave me a good idea for a baby gift for my niece Beth’s new baby. And Mom said, “oh yes, that’s the same kind of gift I gave to Bill and Nelly when they had their baby.”

“Who?” I ask.

My mom’s older cousin, Bill, and his wife, Nelly, when they had had a baby over 60 years ago. I said I don’t remember them.

“Oh heavens, Dear, that’s right,” Mom said, “they both died long before you were born.”

(Mom still talks like the 1930s and ’40s Hollywood screen actresses she watches in movies on TCM, her favorite cable TV channel.)

Later on, Mom told me more about her cousin, Bill, what a hard life he’d lived and how his parents – my mom’s Aunt Ann – had lost everything during the Depression. They split up the children to go live with different relatives who could take them in (Bill and his sister went to live with my mom and her parents). I knew none of that. My mother has seen so much in her life, and I’m ashamed of how little of her past I know.

What Mom is teaching me about evolution is that long-term memory endures in our elders, and for a reason – to pass on wisdom and lessons learned, to tell of calamities survived and endured. And, to recall milestone moments of a life well-lived, of what that individual valued and cherished.

In other words, Mom’s long-term memory is a treasure trove that I need to honor  — and mine – more often. It’s about time.