The human brain consists of millions of roads leading to countless memories and landmarks, which are stored in an orderly manner throughout your life. But what if your brain turns into a grey mash where it becomes more and more difficult to find one’s way?
Text and photos by Mila Emmer
Cees van der Maat (97) walks through the long, crème-coloured corridor with his walker. On the first floor of the residential care home, next to the door of room 123, hangs a passport photograph showing his face. “This must be it”, he says as he opens the door.
Van der Maat moved in to the home a few months ago. Across the street is the building where he lived for more than 8 years. Together with his wife, who died of cancer in July 2019. “It’s so awful, but I haven’t shed a tear yet”, he says. Van der Maat has been taking antidepressants for a number of years now, which has somewhat flattened his emotions. On a sunny day – until the age of 90 – he easily cycled 50 kilometres, talked to people on the street, and would go out for a walk for several hours. However, he hasn’t been cycling for a while now and going out on his own in a new neighbourhood isn’t an option either; then he loses his way. He finds the fact that he is deteriorating fast physically, but also mentally, difficult and very confusing.
Early May of 2019 he was diagnosed with dementia. His brain is getting worse and worse at transmitting information, because nerve cells and the connections between them are breaking down. He could spend hours searching for his wallet, which he had put next to the jar of sugar in the cupboard without thinking about it (turned out later). But for a long time this was dismissed as absent-mindedness; “something that is part of life as you get older.” Losing a wallet was soon overshadowed by ‘getting lost in the building where he had lived for years’, ‘not recognizing people he has known for decades’ and ‘forgetting the names of his four children’. Step by step, his world has become smaller and smaller.
During his wife’s illness the old couple couldn’t take care of each other anymore and Van der Maat moved into his single room in the care home Festina Lente (Greek meaning – hurry slowly). “They always keep an eye on me here. When I sleep at night they come to check if I’m still there”, he says. He is allowed to go outside on his own, but only because his current place of residence is in the neighbourhood where he has been living for over 50 years. The recognizability of the area is stuck in his memory. Fixed patterns and routines remain intact the longest.
He finds it very difficult to become increasingly aware of the rapid deterioration of his brain. “If someone says something to me and I intend to remember it, I’ll forget about it after just two minutes.” The question if whether he is afraid for the mental regression is most strongly answered with a ‘no’. “I’m being taken good care of,” he says. Van der Maat is optimistic by nature. He has always had a ‘good life’, “even during the war”, although he didn’t have much.
The walls of his room are full of pictures of his children, grandchildren and old pictures from his childhood. “And she watches over me”, he says, pointing at a wooden picture frame containing a portrait of his wife, hanging above his bed.
Van der Maat has always been a storyteller. People, ‘his audience’, would be all ears when he spoke about the war with great colour and detail. He would talk about where he was hiding and how he got food stamps from the Resistance. Over the years, these stories have changed. Now they are just falsely composed pieces and gusts of memories.
In 2008 he started answering all questions in the book ‘Opa, vertel eens’ [Grandpa, tell us]. “It was given to me by my grandchildren”, he explains. To know exactly what their names are, he has a booklet with a list of names and dates of birth next to it on the table. “All of them are just as naughty”, he smiles.
‘Health comes before all else. If you’re healthy, be glad that you are. In the past, you didn’t have the money for a good examination in a hospital; that could only be done from the year 1938 onwards’, was one of the things he wrote down. Van der Maat reads the sentences over and over again. “I still support that”, he says, looking out the window.
All written stories, events and life lessons from his long life, together (retyped in a number of word documents) account for about 0.229 MB. By no means as much as the brain capacity of a human being, but enough to keep an important part of the memories and the basis of Van der Maat’s identity alive. An infinite life.