Spell “World” Backwards

Okay, everyone out there. You had better start practicing.  Someday in your distant, or not so distant, future, someone is going to ask you questions like this: “Spell world.”  That’s easy. “Now spell world backwards.” Don’t worry. They are just checking to see if you have dementia.

Can it be that we will live into our nineties only to be asked to spell world backwards? That’s all they want to know?lesleystahl-300x219

On a recent 60 Minutes show, “Living to 90 and Beyond,” Lesley Stahl interviewed Dr. Claudia Kawas and several of the oldest of the old. It seems that Dr. Kawas discovered a gold mine for her study on aging. In 1981, fourteen thousand people in a retirement community south of L. A., once known as Leisure World now as Laguna Woods, filled out extensive health and lifestyle questionnaires. Dr. Kawas was able to find 1,800 of these same folks, now in their nineties, still living in Laguna Woods–a perfect group of nonagenarians to study. Many also agreed to have their brains analyzed after death.

These men and women were gracious and willing to answer Lesley Stahl’s questions, as well as the standard ones for assessing the on-set of dementia. The ones without dementia laughed with her about being old.

There was a certain aren’t-they-cute-and-amazing tone to the episode–as if these people were a group of pandas or some adorable pilgrims sending messages back to those who haven’t reached the land of the old.

Ruth, my mother, in her 90s

Ruth, my mother, in her 90s

I realize that all these studies of the oldest of the old are meant to help us understand the nature of dementia, but the program seemed self-serving and somehow reductive. When complicated individuals are reduced to objects of study, the world turns backwards.


Nonagenarians’ Lament

” …and pilgrimes were they alle, /That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.”

We were children once.
Our mothers took us shopping for spring outfits,
and we showed up at church
dressed in miniature suits,
white shirts with clip-on neckties.
Our sisters wore dotted swiss dresses
and patent shoes with buckles.

We were children who played roller bat
in the street and croquet and kick the can.
The girls liked jacks and jumping rope.
We learned the alphabet and sang it too
and made words from the letters in our soup.

Our hands curved around a pencil,
and we formed A’s and L’s with big looping arcs.
The Palmer method,
remember that?

We were children who fell asleep
hearing our parents laugh at oyster roasts in the yard
and rode home without seatbelts
curled up in the back seat of the old Mercury.

We knew our geography and the capitals
of all the states and the names of rivers too.
We studied chemistry and memorized
the bones in the body.

Ruth, in her 20's

Ruth, in her 20’s

We could recite in Middle English
The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
We sang in the choir.
We fell in love.
We taught school, wired houses,
became lawyers, waited tables.

Now we practice yoga, write,
eat fish and chocolate, shovel snow,
go to concerts, nap,
play the piano, walk,
paint the sunset
and palm trees in oils.

They seem surprised.
They study us.
They ask: Who is the President?
What is today’s date?
They say: Remember three words.
How did you live so long?
What did you eat for breakfast?
Blood pressure?
Did you smoke? Drink wine?
Did you enjoy sex?
If so, for how long?

As if what mattered could be
quantified, replicated,
extended, amended,
once we are suspended.

They study us.
And after we die,
they dissect our brains.

–Vicky Lettmann


Writing Idea/Jumpstart: What do you have to say about “the oldest of the old”? Or have you heard something in the news, on television, or in a recent conversation that caused the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, or prickle, at least? If so, write it down. It’s good to put some words on paper since I doubt our ideas, stories, bits of insight will show up under the microscope when our brains are dissected.


10 thoughts on “Spell “World” Backwards

    • Good to hear from you, Janet, and thanks for your comment. Lesley Stahl seems bemused by it all. As for most of the nonogenarians she interviews, they are up-beat and happy. Lots of joy for them. Not so much for the man, a former teacher, who knows he is losing his memory.
      I’ve been following your blog. You’re really cooking! I particularly enjoyed the one about your trip to Hawaii.

    • Your essay nails it, Edna. This is what I was trying to say in my blog.
      I especially liked these sentences from your essay:
      “First of all, even though most of us have white hair and stoop a little, we are not ‘peas in a pod;’ we come in a wide range of sizes, shapes and colors, have disparate interests, beliefs, desires and opinions toward life, religion and politics. We do, however, laugh, cry and bleed like everyone else.
      We detest condescension, patronization and discrimination and we don’t like being called a ‘geezer,’ an
      ‘old fogey’ or a ‘fossil.’ We are proud of the contributions we made to ‘our century’ and we appreciate being treated as an equal—socially, mentally and professionally.”
      Thank you! I’ll add your website to my list.

  1. Hi Vicki,
    I really enjoyed your piece. My dad will be 91 in two weeks. He has Alzheimer’s and may not remember what he had for breakfast . But who cares ! Breakfast is highly overrated. He enjoys listening to music, still walks faster than most of us and is now a great grandfather. He has lived through the great depression, served his country and started a new life in his adopted country. He enjoys life , appreciates my help when he needs it and deserves to be treated respectfully without condescension.

    • Thanks for commenting, Brenda. I’m glad to know more about your dad. What a neat man! Just proves that we are each so much more than the labels that sometimes are stuck on us.
      I’m looking forward to seeing you in Florida.

  2. VL,
    Wonderful line:
    “As if what mattered could be
    quantified, replicated,
    extended, amended,
    once we are suspended.”


  3. I just ran across this on Google, Vicky, and got to thinking — I don’t think I ever thanked you for your comment. It was much appreciated. I enjoy your blog.

    May I say, too, that being old(er) isn’t always bitter or gloomy!

    Thanks again.


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