My Inner Four-Year-Old

Coping with Pick’s Disease

Story and Photos by Mike Turnlund

I just finished refurbishing my third walking cane, each one of which is a classic type: wooden, a crook in the handle, and a black rubber foot at the tip. In public I walk with a cane, and now I have three to choose from, all very beautiful, each with its own finish. One is in ebony, another in cherry red, the last in a warm, translucent brown that shows off the wood’s grain. Each was purchased at a second-hand shop. I took them home, stripped off their old finishes, even added a couple inches of length to two of them, refinished them in pleasing hues, and completed the restorations by adding fresh rubber tips.

I don’t need to walk with a cane. It’s more of a prop that has become a crutch, both puns intended. The problem is I move so slowly (invariably grabbing my thighs as I walk) that kind strangers I pass here in Sagle are always trying to help me or ask if something’s wrong. I don’t enjoy such encounters, and a cane serves as a wordless way to tell the world I’m okay, leave me be, I’m just an old man.

In truth, I have Pick’s Disease, a form of early-onset frontotemporal dementia. The condition was named for Czech physician and psychiatrist Dr. Arnold Pick, who first described it in 1892. Hence my joke: God let me pick my own disease, so I picked Pick’s. All types of my condition used to be called Pick’s Disease but today the common term is frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Pick’s now refers to a behavioral variant, which means that I often act differently than I used to. The frontal and temporal lobes of your brain are where you live. It’s where your personality, your ego, resides. My residence has issues.

Many people eventually get dementia. As the saying goes, for every ten people who reach the ripe old age of a hundred, nine of them are unaware of the fact. Dementia erases understanding and memories and, in a way, that is where I am: while my age is only sixty as I write this, my mind is in many ways much older. I guess I’m precocious. I was diagnosed with the disease five years ago. The typical prognosis is eight to ten years of life after diagnosis. My doctor gave me a decade, and I’m hoping to live to sixty-five. My wife Robbie is hoping I’ll reach eighty-five. We have a bet, but I’m not sure how I’ll pay up if I win. Maybe I’ll leave her a check.

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