Today, a lot of people are saying that Donald Trump is spinning out of control.
Yesterday, I spent much of the afternoon with my partner’s 93-year-old mother, Martha, who lives in a nearby assisted living facility. She called me five times yesterday, urgently insisting that she was very weak and could barely walk: “This is very serious.” So I went to see her and talk to the incredibly wonderful staff that takes care of her. Long story short: the medications that she’s been taking to stave off the symptoms of dementia are no longer effective. She didn’t remember calling me five times. She didn’t remember repeatedly paging the aides to “fix” her thermostat. Moreover, she insisted that she would never do those things. She becomes belligerent if anyone tries to contradict her. It is all very reminiscent of when my own mother suffered from progressing dementia before her death from ovarian cancer.
And then it hit me: does Donald Trump exhibit signs of early dementia?
Yes, I think he is a media-savvy, manipulative, narcissist, and he has always been that way. He has always been “an act” — “The Donald.” But has he always been this belligerent, this paranoid, this dishonest? A lot of people these days think Trump is too mentally unstable to be president. Some who’ve known him for many years say that he seems to be getting worse — lots worse. They say that his temperament hasn’t always been this crazy.
Just to be clear, I’m not a doctor or mental health expert. I’ve had close dealings with two women with dementia and casual dealings with others. But when I share the above experiences with friends of mine who are newly dealing with a parent with dementia, I almost universally hear, “I know what you mean! I thought it was just me!”
In addition to memory loss, anyone who’s ever dealt with a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease knows that it is much more pervasive and broad than just forgetfulness. Trump is 74, a bit older than my mother was when she began exhibiting signs of dementia. So let me go through the list of things he has in common with my mother.
Memory loss — “I never said that. I never did that.” How many times has Trump said this, with total conviction? How often does he switch his positions, within minutes sometimes? About as often as my mother did, and as often as Martha now does. And he says these things like he really believes them. An act or not? But this also led my mom to have very…
Repetitive speech patterns — People with early dementia don’t forget everything. Some things they remember quite well and keep repeating over and over and over again, like memories of past experiences. Early in her disease process, my mom could have easily repeated phrases like, “Build a wall!” or “Crooked Hillary!” And if we contradicted my mom, we got a boatload of...
Belligerence — Anyone who has ever tried to argue with someone with dementia knows all about this! “Mom, you just said...” “No, I didn’t!” You cannot win. You will be shouted down, yelled at, contradicted, accused of all sorts of wrongdoing. Whatever is happening, it is all your fault — or the media’s. Which is a lot like…
Paranoia — People were stealing stuff all of the time from my mom, especially me. People are stealing Martha’s stuff, too. She’s sure of it. Of course, people with dementia misplace and lose lots of things. But it is so much more painful for them to admit that than it is to blame others for stealing. As in, “Mexicans are stealing our jobs.” Which looks a lot like...
Poor judgment — Before my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she was having bouts of diarrhea, sometimes spoiling her underwear. She was too embarrassed to tell my dad, so she would try to flush her underwear down the toilet to hide the evidence. My dad had to call the plumber more than a few times to unplug it. Her drive for self-preservation and the appearance of normalcy caused her to make bad decisions. Which sometimes led to…
Impulsive behavior — The lack of self-control in people with dementia causes them to act impulsively in a number of situations. They become totally focused on whatever it is they need (or think they need) right now. Sometimes this impulsive behavior shows a clear...
Lack of empathy — My mom had no clue about how her behavior was affecting and/or hurting other people, nor did she seem to care. Both she and Martha shared a propensity for making hurtful comments about people’s appearances in public, e.g. “Boy, is she fat!” I just wanted to crawl in a hole and disappear, but arguing with my mom would have only caused a bigger scene. It reminds me of all of the hateful things Trump has said about people without having a clue as to how inappropriate these things are.
My mom had been a wonderfully upbeat and social woman, and was still able to pull herself together much of the time before she entered hospice after her ovarian cancer diagnosis. The more that her Alzheimer’s progressed, however, the less able she was to hide her disease from others and control her behavior in public. And I’m convinced that she knew she had dementia and was so angry about it that it resulted in some of the above behavior.
Lots of people have been trying to psychoanalyze Trump, trying to explain his behavior in terms that make sense to them. But I have to say that since I’ve recognized the similarities between him and SOME people with dementia, it’s hard for me to NOT see those same things in him. Is he unwilling to change his behavior, OR is he unable to change his behavior? Does he care about how his words and actions affect other people, OR is he truly unaware of how his words and actions affect others? Does he really not care about how many lies he tells, OR is he just “saying stuff” to cover up a bad memory?
And if you’re thinking that he’s functioning at too high a level for someone with dementia, think of all of the support systems he built up around him that are still in place. His family, his staff, and his money can do a lot to cover for him. Think Ronald Reagan. And remember that dementia is a progressive illness; its onset is gradual and sometimes difficult to detect because the person IS still functioning at a pretty high level. My mom knew for two or three years that something was wrong with her brain before she was diagnosed. She was sure she had had a stroke, and she just “felt funny.” She knew something wasn’t right and said so. Unfortunately, her honesty and openness about it weren’t enough to save her from the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s.
Overlay Trump’s narcissism with the possibility of early dementia and realize that he will NEVER admit that there is anything wrong with him, especially now that he is so close to the presidency. IF he does have dementia, nobody will be able to talk him into behaving any differently, not even his family. People with dementia cannot change. Period. Medications can slow down the progression of the disease, but nothing stops it. In the early stages, people can have more good days than bad days, but eventually, most of the days will be bad.
If my theory is correct, he will continue to get worse, especially as the stress of the campaign weighs on him. He will never admit that something might be wrong with him. And he will not quit the race because he will not listen to anyone who tries to tell him that he is his own biggest problem, not even Ivanka.