I live at a university town where I am freshman at a senior high school. Some years ago a car steered by an inebriated driver smashed me off my bicycle and run over me. Nowadays I am a paraplegic sitting in a wheelchair. I can keep my head upright and move my left arm and hand. Any other limb of mine currently is still -eh- out of order.

Due to my physical deficiencies I don't do much sporting activities. I get along with little sleep (about 4 hours/day).

I have permission to go to the library of the faculty of mathematics and natural sciences of the university. I am interested in number theory and therefore I use to spend large parts of the evenings and nights at the library.

Two weeks ago at the cafeteria of the library building I got into conversation with an elderly gentleman who started small talk. After about half an hour I realized that the small talk had turned into a private lecture that I was recieving about the topic which I learn about in the library (quadratic diophantine equations with 2 unknowns). The gentleman didn't seem to perceive the surroundings any more and he was engrossed in monologues at dissertation level. I was deeply impressed. At some point of our conversation I learned that he is 86 years of age and a professor emeritus.

The next evening I met him in the cafeteria again where he seemed to have been awaiting whether I would drop in too. He had brought along some books and papers which he thought I might be interested in. Again the conversation turned into a lecture after a while and again he seemed to enjoy teaching maths and being in his element.

We met every evening since in this constellation and I enjoyed these meetings.

But today a woman who introduced herself as his daughter cut our conversation short. She told me that her father in fact is a retired professor of the faculty of mathematics and that he suffers from Alzheimer's disease and that she wished to apologize for any inconvenience her father might have caused.

To me the point is: Subject of our conversation was number theory. I did not realize myself that he suffers from that disease. Thus to me it seems that the disease did not affect our conversation in a negative way. I enjoyed our meetings and to me it seems that he also enjoyed talking to me about maths.

At the moment I have the feeling that currently he still is capable of talking about number theory and that currently he still enjoys talking about that subject. I fear that discouraging him in doing so by now would mean anticipating some aspects of the disease having reached levels that probably aren't reached yet.

How would you deal with the situation?

  • 5
    "her father in fact is a retired professor" -- in case you didn't realise, that's what "professor emeritus" means. Some professors emeritus continue to work full time despite being "officially" retired, and not all retired professors receive the title. But those holding the title can basically do what they want, from no work at all on upwards. Sep 13, 2015 at 11:04
  • 36
    This question is definitely off topic, but I don't have the heart to vote it as such.
    – Cape Code
    Sep 13, 2015 at 16:07
  • 10
    The tortuous way that one could argue that it is on topic is this: Academia is about the only profession where retired individuals can still remain in the same environment that they had spent their working years in -- and still contribute to the community. Any other profession and this poor old man would have been stuck in a nursing home regaling the spotted fern with stories of how he filed his TPS reports.
    – RoboKaren
    Sep 13, 2015 at 17:54
  • 6
    @RoboKaren He could be a member of the House of Lords? ;)
    – Calchas
    Sep 13, 2015 at 22:55

3 Answers 3


One of the things that helps Alzheimer's patients the most is routines - especially routines from earlier parts of their lives (such as when he was a full-time faculty member). Keeping the brain active by thinking through number theory is also very helpful in staving off further progression of his dementia.

So if it was part of his routine when he was active faculty to go to lunch everyday in the dining hall and then to lecture, then you have now become a living part of his past and current world and helping him (and his family) stay functional. As long as you are both enjoying it, there is no reason not to continue.

As gnometorule says, I think his daughter would be heartened to hear that 1) you enjoy this and 2) you would not have known he had Alzheimers had she not told you. As gnome says, though, I would keep her apprised if you notice any changes.

  • 9
    I would add, get the daughter's number and assure her that if there are any problems, you'll call her and you are happy to hear from her if she has anything to say.
    – Calchas
    Sep 13, 2015 at 22:56

In addition to RoboKaren's answer I fully agree with, 2 thoughts: (1) if you haven't yet, tell the daughter that not only did her father not inconvenience you, from your interactions you never even guessed his affliction - it will put the daughter at ease, and possibly even cheer her up a little about something surely hard on her; and (2) if the man can talk number theory at 86, his Alzheimer's is very early stage; and this could go on for a while (it tends to degrade discretely though, so be ready to step back as needed when you notice a sudden change).

(Per @jakebeal's suggestion, made into an answer)

  • 1
    Why step back? Why not let the relationship morph naturally as the professor's condition changes? Sep 13, 2015 at 6:04
  • 4
    @aparente001: Note that I wrote "...as needed." I agree with what you point out (as I understand you), that a mere noticeable change doesn't necessarily mean to stop talking with the professor. But from my (limited) personal experience with Alzheimer's, there will (not might) be a day where drastic changes will make interacting painful for OP, at which point I - in his shoes - would talk to the daughter, if only to make sure that whatever happens after respects the wishes of her family...and they might prefer to have OP step back then. Sep 13, 2015 at 6:13
  • Oh, I see. To protect oneself from the pain of seeing the person losing basic functionality, if and when that should happen. Fair enough -- and thanks for explaining. Sep 13, 2015 at 6:21
  • 3
    Also the needs of the sufferer of Alzheimers might suddenly change, for example he might not be able to hang about the university any longer. It may or may not be necessary for the questioner to fairly abruptly stop seeing him when that happens. You'd hope some kind of visits would be beneficial for both of them, but questioner should be prepared for the possibility that won't be the case. Sep 13, 2015 at 11:00
  • 3
    So... let him be a person until he can't? Surely anything else would be inappropriate.
    – Peter Wone
    Sep 14, 2015 at 0:17

Please read

The Housekeeper and the Professor is a novel by Yoko Ogawa set in modern-day Japan. It was published in August, 2003, by Shinchosha and was the first recipient of the Hon'ya Taisho award (Japan Booksellers Award).[1][2]

The story centers around a mathematician, "the Professor," who suffered brain damage in a traffic accident in 1975 and since then can produce only 80 minutes' worth of memories, and his interactions with a housekeeper (the narrator) and her son "Root" as the Professor shares the beauty of equations with them.

The novel received the Hon'ya Taisho award, was adapted into a film version in January 2006, and after being published in paperback in December 2005, sold one million copies in two months, faster than any other Shinchosha paperback.[3]

These paragraphs are from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Housekeeper_and_the_Professor

  • 3
    I read that book and enjoyed it, but I wonder whether a fictional story of a professor with a (different) mental affliction is really so relevant to the OP's situation. Sep 14, 2015 at 16:25
  • 1
    @PeteL.Clark Yes, it's a bit of a stretch. But I think anything that can shed light on the nature of a similar affliction (even in fiction) may help one think and feel about how to respond to it. I know that book would come to mind if I met the professor in the OP's question. Sep 14, 2015 at 16:35

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .