Senior Space Cadet

I hardly know the lady. We’ve been working together off an on for a big project for a couple months. It became clear when the project started in earnest that she wasn’t quite there. I might have called her a space cadet except she is over 50. Even stranger, she is a senior civil servant, a grade GS-15, one grade higher than I am and as high as one can get in the civil servant system without becoming an executive.

She dresses immaculately and drives herself to work every morning. She parks on the street but seems oblivious to the tickets that accumulate on her car because she has forgotten how to feed a meter. She can find her way home well enough and on the surface seems to be doing her job quite well. But she will interrupt conversations with completely inane remarks. She attends meetings but rarely contributes anything. Originally not knowing any better we gave her plenty of action items. But they rarely got done. We do her action items now. She seems to have the ability to find her way to our meetings if they show up on her calendar. But she is there in body only.

She can be very lucid on certain topics like her daughter, but new information coming in does not seem to get processed. She can stop in the middle of a hallway and just stay there like a zombie. Her speech is often halting and she will repeat the same things over and over again.

She is more than likely mentally ill. I have been told it wasn’t that long ago that she was another high charging senior employee, fully earning her pay that likely tops $100,000 a year. Now I’m not sure she does anything resembling productivity. And it doesn’t appear that she has any idea that her behavior has changed.

If she leaves through a different entrance and needs to get back in she can’t find her way to the entrance. The guards take her by the hand and escort her to the main entrance. She couldn’t navigate her way to the building across the street to attend a meeting. When these events happen she doesn’t appear upset or anything. She just stops where she is at and if she stands there long enough she may turn around and go back to her office.

I hear she is divorced and lives alone. We all know about her college age daughter since that is her one topic of conversation. Much of the time she seems lucid and in the present. And then an inanity will come out of her mouth or she will stop where she is like a deer looking into the headlights of an oncoming car.

Presumably her supervisor has observed her behavior but it doesn’t appear that anyone is doing anything about it. It’s hard to know what to do in a situation like this. Employee actions and grievances are a laborious process that requires utmost respect for the employee and frequent redundant notices. But it’s not clear whether if her boss called these issues to her attention they would even register. Short term memory seems to be gone. I’m not sure she could add two numbers together.

The only thing I know is that I am covering a lot of her slack. At first I resented it and now I am sympathetic. She makes me feel the fragility of our species. In her case though she is clearly mentally ill but she doesn’t seem to know it.

How did it happen? I have no idea. One person suggested she might have had a mini-stroke that destroyed some part of her brain. It seems plausible. I am more concerned about what should be done about her problem. Right now those of us around her simply choose to note and not do anything about the problem. But one of these days the law of averages will catch up on her, and she will be hurt by someone, or herself, because she has lost a fair amount of her wits and her common sense.

There are lots of mentally ill people out there. I’m wondering if she is some sort of future street person. Hopefully her daughter has noticed her symptoms and is thinking through her issues. But if she doesn’t see parking tickets she probably is also ignoring creditors. Perhaps one day she will come home to find all her stuff on the street corner.

I have no lessons to derive from this. But it makes me aware of the fragility of life, and how I will be lucky if I can escape one of these common mental or physical impairments and keep my wits into my doddering senior years. I wish there was someone who could do something for this woman. I just don’t know who, nor do I know exactly what it is she needs.

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