About four years ago I returned home from high school to find three squad cars in my driveway.

The sight of the police officers congregated in front of my house threw me off, but when I saw that they were crowded around my 78-year-old grandmother I was even more baffled. My grandma lived about two miles away, didn’t have a car and wasn’t exactly someone you’d expect to get picked up for disturbing the peace.

“Ashlinka!” my grandma – a born and bred Pole – cried as she spotted me walking up to the house. I looked at the officers’ concerned expressions over her shoulder as I hugged her 4-foot-10-inch, 100-pound frame.

It turned out that the police had picked her up when she was trying to walk down the unpaved side of a main road, with severely arthritic knees, from her apartment to my family’s house. She had mistaken the day and thought that my mom had forgotten to pick her up to go grocery shopping. It was a Thursday and my mom had told her on the phone the night before that, just like every week for the last few years, she would pick my grandma up on Saturday to go to the grocery store. This was the first major incident signaling the onset of my grandma’s dementia, but in the next years there were many more like it.

Dementia is characterized by a loss of mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. It progressively impairs the memory, reasoning, planning and personalities of its victims. But you probably don’t need this definition. This is the first time in history that it’s considered to be common knowledge.

Recent studies show that neurological disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease among the elderly are higher than ever, afflicting one in seven Americans over the age of 71. The prevalence of the disease has increased by 1,200 percent since 1998, making it exceedingly likely that you’re familiar with these conditions because at least one of your grandparents has been affected. Today, Alzheimer’s disease is the eighth most common cause of death in America, marking the first time in 50 years – and perhaps ever – that a neurodegenerative disorder made the top ten.

Our parents’ parents died most often of heart attacks, strokes, cancers, pneumonia and tuberculosis. They didn’t waste away in hospital beds or nursing homes, surrendering dignity along with pride as they lost the ability to think for themselves, let alone eat by themselves as many of our grandparents are doing right now. And our parents didn’t watch them go through this.

Instead, our parents learned hobbies like cooking and fishing from their grandparents and heard them tell stories about the World Wars and the Great Depression. Our generation visits grandparents in nursing homes who may not even remember our names. We are the first generation to witness the mental collapse of our elderly – and I can’t help but wonder what this means for us.

Many of us are learning to be proactive and will attempt to nip mental degeneration in the bud – so to speak – by exercising regularly, doing crosswords daily and eating plenty of greens. Ironically, this was something that many of our parents were taught to do by their grandparents, just not for the same reasons.

But there are other less obvious, yet deeper impacts of this tragic phenomenon. We are learning that death is often ugly and painful, coming before a body shuts down but jerking loved ones through a treacherous process of letting go while one is already mentally long gone. While statistics illustrate that people are living longer, these progressive mental diseases are striking early, teaching us that life is shorter than is often planned. And more, we can look at our formerly capable grandparents slipping back into the incapacity of childhood and see the image as a symbol of life’s unfairness. Growing up surrounded by these signs of the unconquerable and unavoidable injustices of life, we have no choice but to fear our inevitable fate.

Our view, which our parents and their parents before them have held, that we will be rewarded for a life well lived seems to be disintegrating along with our chances of dying gracefully. We are growing up dreading growing old, not just because of the wrinkles. We are the first generation of true fatalists – learning to fear our own declines, instead of anticipating our destinies – when we are still studying for classes.

Ashlea Surles can be reached at ajsurles@umich.edu.

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