Summer seems to be the season for reuniting. My mother’s side of the family will be holding our annual family reunion in the coming weeks. My college is hosting its reunion soon. And right now I am enjoying spending time with a dear friend I haven’t seen in several years.
Coming together and remembering shared times seems to be an essential part of being human. Broadly looking at the development of our species suggests we are a tribal group. Anthropologists have documented ancient gatherings at sacred sights all over the world. Modern day events range from sports gatherings to concerts. Of course there are the purposeful gatherings such as market days, harvest festivals, and swap meets. These kinds of reunions and gatherings have their own economic incentives and create their own memories and traditions.
Other reunions reinforce emotional connections. They awaken shared memories, both good and bad. In some cases, the memory may be less than accurate, and have become exaggerated over time. In other cases, things may have been forgotten and become reawakened with the telling of the story as someone else remembers it. It may not matter how much time has gone by, because the emotional tie is so strong.
Long-standing reunions often are characterized by ritual. This seems true for college reunions. The gathering of the classes, the evening events, the shared memorabilia, honoring faculty and class members who have died, and tours of the campus noting the changes follow the same schedule year after year. These are familiar tent poles that hold the event together. When a familiar event is missing, there are those who mourn its passing. When a new idea is introduced, it may be challenged because it is new.
There is also the passing of the baton, so to speak, as younger participants grow into adulthood and take over roles. This is certainly true in my family. Inevitably, the older hosts have aged out and now tend to sit together watching as their progeny and grand-progeny run about and create their own memories. A few of us still remember our parents and grandparents, but these people are only characters in a story that we tell to the younger folks who never met them and only know of them from pictures. Our memories come alive with the recollections and reinforce the connection now lost to death.
Friendships formed during college years seem to have a particular energy to them. I remember when my mother went to her 50th college reunion. She had gone to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota for only two years, and ended up transferring to the University of Wisconsin for her Junior and Senior years, but her memories from Carleton were the ones she treasured most.
I remember how nervous she was. She got out her year books and sat turning the pages. Almost every page triggered a memory of an event, a person, or a classroom anecdote. She drove up to the school for the reunion unsure of herself and came back beaming and filled with joyful memories as well as reconnections to people. This event sustained her in her later years, especially as her memories began to fade.
Because of my mother’s experience with a small, liberal arts college, I ended up going to a small, liberal arts college in upstate New York. Sadly, Eisenhower College no longer exists, but we have robust alumni who gather in Seneca Falls, New York every summer and re-create our shared experiences, much like Brigadoon.
Memory and tradition certainly play a role in reunions. Shared experiences reinforce what are sometimes questioned as memories. “Did that really happen or am I just making that up?” As memories fade, we need more triggers to re-awaken the neuronal pathways associated with those memories.
Memory, however, is not well understood. While it is something we all share, understanding how memories are formed, where they are stored, and how we retrieve them remains mysterious. Most of the research on memory is actually focused on the forgetting. The work of Alois Alzheimer now pervades our consciousness, as most of us are vigilant when we forget the name of an object, can’t recall the name of a friend, or forget where we left our keys. In our fear of dementia, we seek ways to shore up our memories, practice recalling things, and eat and exercise to preserve our gray and white matter. While these practices are, for the most part, healthy adjuncts, there is no real evidence that they actually are doing anything to preserve our memory.
Dementia is the scourge of aging in the 21st Century. Statistics suggest that most of us will be forced to deal with some form of memory loss. Many of us are already familiar with the toll it takes on our family members and friends. Many of us are shocked to find that there is so little that can be done and so few resources available to meet the needs of caregivers.
As the Boomer generation ages, more and more of us will be needing care from others. There are not enough beds in nursing homes, enough money in savings accounts, and enough caregivers to see us through our lifespan. This truth has yet to be absorbed, but will become dominant in the next 10 years.
I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer here. Because of the work I do, I am, perhaps, more sensitive to this issue than many people. I don’t want memory loss to be a surprise for anyone. The power of reuniting and enjoying share experiences is tremendous. It can, for a short period of time, reawaken parts of ourselves that we have forgotten. It can stimulate parts of our brain that lie dormant and only resonate when there is music and lyrics or smells or tastes, or rituals that provoke recall.
Reunions just might be an essential part of planning for our old age, not to mention a lot of fun.