In the Cards

Last summer, my father was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, or PCA, a rare progressive degenerative disease which affects the visual center of the brain. A person’s sight gradually declines to the point of functional blindness and ultimately his or her visual memories erode. Up until last summer, I had no idea that there was a visual type of dementia. I had never thought much about all the different functions our brains normally perform effortlessly without our conscious control. The more I learn about how complex the human body is and how refined all the pathways that control life processes are, the more I marvel that we are able to do anything at all. If I had PCA, one of the saddest losses for me would be to lose the ability to respond to colors.

Our brains love to fill in the blanks and have a remarkable ability to provide missing information gleaned from previous experience. This deck of cards would not be an appropriate gift for a person with PCA. Though the eyes remain healthy, the brain can no longer accurately interpret and process the constant flow of visual information. Imagine not being able to recognize everyday objects or the faces of people you know, not being able to read, not being able to reach and grab the cup of coffee on the table in front of you because you are unsure of how far away it is. One of the most bizarre problems my father has is called simultanagnosia. Let’s say there is a donut, a napkin, and a cup of coffee on a table in front of a person with simultanagnosia. Looking at the table, he notices there is a cup of coffee and a napkin but doesn’t see the donut. He hears a familiar voice and turns his head in the direction it came from. A minute later his gaze returns to the table. Where is my cup of coffee? And where did that donut come from? Now he sees the donut and napkin but can’t locate the cup of coffee to take a sip. As I get glimpses from time to time into the strangeness of his condition, I am impressed at how my father keeps his cool with all the vanishing and reappearing of objects he is confronted with daily. Talk about having the cards stacked against you.

PCA is very rare, affecting one in twenty people with dementia according to some sources, and there is a paucity of research on the disease. There is no evidence that PCA is hereditary like early onset Alzheimer’s disease, but it is a potential worry on the radar that I usually do a good job of not feeding. But still. From time to time, I think that it would do me good to take up drawing as a hobby to build up some more “muscle” in the visual center of my brain. Earlier this summer, I finally bought pencils and a small sketchbook with the idea of making a quick drawing of the cup of coffee I drink each morning. On June 23, I made one atrocious pencil drawing of a coffee cup that resembled a fighter fish with the eyes of a frog swimming in a bowl. The notebook has been collecting dust on my desk ever since. Guess I will stick to playing the foreign languages, yoga, and meditation cards – all activities that may reduce your risk of dementia.

What else is in the cards? Autumn has already entered stage left. It is noticeably darker in the evenings and I need more sleep. I also feel the urge to do more breathing exercises when I practice yoga. The knitting needles are no longer idle as cooler early mornings and nights gently remind that the wool and alpaca season is coming soon. Have you felt the change of seasons yet?

May the cards only be stacked in your favor!