Words: A Matter of Timing

As valuable as words may be in maintaining a calm attitude in those with Alzheimer’s, words can also make a bad situation worse.

In the beginning, I was certain I could make everything ok for Mom: explain away her fears, talk her down from imaginary ledges, even spin reality to suit her mercurial moods. It was a matter, I reckoned,buddy-birdsof being kind instead of threatening and accommodating instead of bossy.

 

But, to put it succinctly, I was wrong. My explaining and talking and spinning did little to help Mom find peace once she’d lost it. On the day she responded to my encouraging talk by throwing a chair in my direction, I learned that persuasion was not a caregiving strategy I should rely on.

As in many issues related to caregiving, when it comes to using words, timing is all-important. For example, quiet small talk about familiar things could distract Mom while we sat in a doctor’s waiting room. But on a difficult day, if Mom said no to leaving for an appointment, trying to persuade her did more harm than good. My words were very likely to turn her flat refusal into an all-out battle. A physical one. Mom couldn’t throw that chair hard enough to hurt me, but she did persuade me to leave her alone about going to the doctor.bluebird-fight

Another example: Sometimes Mom would sleep late, get up without our help, and skip the bathroom stop that was so critical to getting a good start on the day. I would gently take her elbow to lead her to the bathroom, but on some days she simply refused to go. She planted her feet, jerked her arm away from me, and said “No” in a voice that threatened to wilt the leaves on the ivy plants in the window.

So I’d try a different approach. In dread of a loud, angry day, I became too determined to make Mom happy. I’d offer juice, toast, a bath robe to keep her warm. Maybe a cup of tea?

In effect, I was only increasing her anger. My words-words-words, though meant to accommodate her wishes, were actually putting more pressure on her. Her confusion expressed itself in still more anger. Often Mom left the room to sit alone on the couch. And I was left to contemplate my failure.

bossy-bird2It took a while to shut me up, but gradually, as all caregivers do, I learned from experience. I found that using words to keep Mom comfortable was usually effective. But using words to make Mom happy when she wasn’t? No. To talk her into doing something she didn’t want to do? No. To make her believe I was doing what was best for her? No. At those times, words were worse than ineffective; they were fuel for Mom’s flame.

The solution turned out to be simple: I did the opposite of talking. When Mom said no, I backed off. I waited. And then I tried again. Beyond checking on her every few minutes with a smile but few words, I left her alone. I prayed she would find the kind of comfort she most craved, and I would sense any of her unspoken needs. When I went back to her, I always brought up the troublesome subject as if it were the first time we’d talked about it. Sometimes it took a while, but, with few exceptions, Mom eventually agreed to what we needed to do.

Yes, a lot of time could pass while I waited for Mom. Still, even if it made us late to an appointment, waiting was my only option. I would never use physical force, unless she was in danger. I did learn to make appointments later in the day. And I didn’t hesitate to reschedule if that became necessary.

Two more pieces of advice from one caregiver to another: In time, I ceased worrying about other people so much—their schedules, what they might think about how Mom looked or acted. And I gave up trying to keep everyone happy. It was never a good idea in the first place.

soaringDoing what was necessary to keep Mom in her life as long as possible became my major goal. With that goal in mind, I did my best to put my fear and dread away. We tend to create what we focus on; I made myself focus on peace and expect the best.

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And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:14  NKJV)

Father, we thank you for sending Your Word, Jesus, to redeem us. Through Him, we accept Your constant companionship. May we use Your grace and Your truth to help our loved ones through this earthly life until they behold Your glory their heavenly home.

The Opposite of Familiar Might Be Frightening

In general, “new” is not a friend to people with Alzheimer’s. Unfamiliar people, places, and situations can make them anxious, afraid, even angry.

If there were a scale to rate a fear as rational or irrational, most of us would put fear of the unknown solidly on the rational side. We can’t prepare ourselves for the unknown. Being unprepared leaves us vulnerable. Vulnerable means we have no protection against something that might harm us.

Of course the unknown isn’t always bad, but the not-knowing can be frightening.

Our loved ones with Alzheimer’s find the unknown particularly frightening. At first, as the disease steals their mental capabilities, they may be able to hide their confusion. But gradually the forgetting picks up speed. The scope of what qualifies as “unknown” enlarges beyond their ability to hide their fear.

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In the beginning of her journey through Alzheimer’s, Mom could tolerate unfamiliar things—maybe a new restaurant or new shoes—pretty well. And, mercifully, when she was close to the end of her life, her brain didn’t register familiar or unfamiliar any more. During the time between those two phases, however, activities like taking Mom to a new place, introducing her to someone new, even offering her new clothes provoked her anger, which she expressed with waving arms and loud words: “What are you trying to do to me? Get away from me!”

I saw anger as Mom’s defense against the fears she couldn’t name. I learned to keep most things as steady and unchanging as possible. Same thing for breakfast every morning? Fine. A wardrobe of faded clothes and worn-out tennis shoes? No problem. Sitting in one of only two spots in the house, her chair at the kitchen table or the stained cushions of the green velvet couch? Why not? Always shopping at the same grocery store, going to the same clerk at the bank every week—I accommodated Mom as often as I could.

Still, there were times when we simply couldn’t avoid being someplace, meeting someone, or doing something unfamiliar. I couldn’t prepare Mom for the experience in advance; just talking about what was going to happen agitated her only slightly less  than the event itself would. Knowing in advance how Mom would react made me agitated, too.

Eventually, regular doctor’s appointments became some of the toughest times Mom and I had. The three-month period between visits stretched Mom’s memory much too far. I, on the other hand, remembered our last time in the waiting room only too well.

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As another appointment loomed in the near future, I was desperate to find a way to make the experience easier for Mom. What could I do? Bring someone along to help? The only people who could come with us were as unfamiliar to Mom as the doctor would be. Just as I decided there was no way out of our dilemma, an idea came into my head: If our destination held nothing Mom would recognize, we’d have to bring familiar things with us. Brilliant! I knew the thought came straight from heaven. But what would I bring? I couldn’t carry Mom’s kitchen chair into the waiting room. She had to fast before the appointment, so I couldn’t bring along the little bag of potato chips I kept in the car for “emergencies.” What could I bring? What?

The solution came when I took the spotlight off myself and pointed it toward Mom. Of course! Mom could be the source of her own security.

We started with her clothes. Instead of pulling out dress clothes from the back of the closet, I laid out all her favorites: the knit pants with the hole burned in one leg (cigarettes and Alzheimer’s do NOT mix), the navy shirt dotted with faded orange and yellow flowers, the old tennis shoes, and the green cardigan with two pockets Mom kept stuffed with carefully folded tissues and paper napkins. Clean, dry, and modest—that was good enough.

Dressed in her favorite clothes, Mom accessorized with her favorite purse. After retrieving it once from the post office and twice from a shopping cart at the grocery store, I had decided to put the purse out of her sight when I knew we’d be going out. Hide something that gave her pleasure? My mistake. I corrected it before appointment day.

As we walked into the medical building, Mom clutched the purse against her body like a suitcase from Fort Knox. The vinyl bag had two zippers dividing it into three sections—all empty. The once-heavy keeper of all important things held only memories. Mostly mine, of course. Still, I believe she recognized, at least, the feel of the two handles resting on her left forearm. Even if her mind didn’t remember, I think her left arm did. It remembered with such certainty, it could convince her not to worry, all was well.

We talked about her purse while we waited for the doctor, me patting it and asking leading questions like, “You’re ready for anything with your good ole’ purse, right, Mama?” And she patted the vinyl as I had, with just a hint of a smile.

I told her I really liked her shoes and bent down to look at them. Mom bent down too, and when our faces met, hers was calm. When she grew restless, I asked her for a tissue. As I anticipated, she went digging in her sweater pockets, looking, apparently, for just the right one. In years to come, I’d need quite a few tissues in that waiting room. Mom never let me down.

Problems like taking our loved ones into unfamiliar situations can be made less challenging if caregivers face them instead of trying to avoid them. Mindset and attitude are critically important. We can’t always prepare in advance for such times, but when they present themselves, we must meet them with the knowledge that we’ll find a solution that helps us do what we must do. Searching with no firm belief there is anything to be found is rarely successful and usually ends quickly. Searching with the expectation of finding what we need keeps us alert, makes us more creative, and helps us recognize a solution when we see one.

The unknowns of Alzheimer’s are frightening for all of us, caregivers included.  We’re tempted to feel we have only a small lantern to light our path as we guide our loved ones through the wilderness. But that’s not true.brightWe have past successes to encourage us. We have the broad, bright light of faith to bolster our attitude and mindset. “New” might be scary for our loved ones, but it’s not impossible. We’ll find a way.

Have you never heard? Have you never understood? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding.      (Is. 40:28  NLT)

Lord Jesus, protect us, please, from the darkness of fear and despair. Thank you for making your presence known to us with ideas, solutions, and answers, especially when we’re tempted to give up. May we bring your comfort and care to our loved ones.

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Do you have any tips you can share with other caregivers? If so, please use the comment section to tell us about them! A tip that might make our job easier brightens any caregiver’s day.

Christmas Remembered

The techno tree stood on a maple table in front of the windows in the den. An unlikely hero, it was less than two feet tall counting the motorized revolving base. Forest green branches stuck out from its black metal trunk, short and spikey at the top, longer toward the bottom, giving it the approximate shape of a fir tree. A Christmas tree, unadorned save for fiberoptic lights that, at the flip of a switch, glowed in changing colors from the tip of each branch.

My sister gave the tree to my parents in the hope it would brighten this holiday dimmed by Alzheimer’s. But my father had little faith anything could penetrate Mom’s darkness.  Thanksgiving had passed like any other day, and the weeks that followed carried no promises of Christmas cheer. As I made daily trips from my home to theirs to help him care for her, I saw no signs this year would be better than last.

A year ago Dad and I made cookies, wrapped gifts, lit lights and hung ornaments on a small, fragrant fir tree. I draped a white sheet over a side table and there, on 250 thread count snow, I arranged the old figures around the shaggy stable. Joseph, bound by human devotion to a task of divine magnitude, held a pottery lantern in his upraised hand. Mary, all fear erased from her scratched peach face, gazed upon her sleeping Son. Even the donkey and the sad-eyed cow looked to the manger where Jesus, Light of the world, dozed in the flickering rays of Joseph’s paint-chipped lantern.

But Mom had forgotten about the stable and the Baby, and though she ate most of the cookies, she professed to like “those regular ones” better. As for the gifts, they evoked so many questions, repeated hour after hour, day after day, eventually I put them out of sight.

So I understood Dad’s doubts. This year, until the gift of the funky little tree, we made no Christmas preparations. Twelve months had stolen so much more from Mom and filled the empty spaces with new fears, more confusion. The good days were rarer; the bad ones, worse.

Almost forgotten, the tree sat dark until late evening on one of the difficult days. As Mom sat at the kitchen table with Dad and me, her face still wore vestiges of the anger that had propelled her through the day. She perched crooked and stiff on the edge of the chair. Her feet shuffled like children who couldn’t be still. Our spirits were brittle with fatigue; the house, chill with despair.

Perhaps it was desperation that turned Dad’s gaze out of the kitchen, away from the heaviness that shrouded the table. Then his feet followed his eyes into the den.

“Where are you going?  What are you doing?” Mom’s voice was hoarse and hard.

christmas-treeI watched with her as Dad walked to the table where the metal tree with the bottle-brush boughs stood almost invisible against the heavy drapes behind it. He said nothing, only bent down and flipped the switch on the tree’s plastic base. From the fiberoptic branches tiny beams of color, delicate as starlight, shone on the curtains and ventured out across the room.

With a tiny hum, the tree turned ever so slowly. And ever so slowly, Mom relaxed. Her feet were still. Her shoulders sagged into the back of the chair.

“It’s a Christmas tree, honey.” Dad’s voice was low and soft, like the muted sound of church bells traveling over snow. “Do you like it?  It’s a Christmas tree.”

Just as softly, I began to sing.  “O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches….”

The old German carol. Mom’s favorite. In the time of my childhood when the first strains of Christmas music opened my heart like a jewelry box ready to receive all the bright treasures of the season, I waited each year with great anticipation for my mother to hear “her” carol playing on the radio. When she did, she would stop what she was doing and sing along. My sister and I watched her, smiling in wonder at the change in her face.  Every feature softened as she lifted her chin and raised her eyes to a long ago past. We could feel the room grow warmer as she sang. When the music ended, she always said the same words: “We learned that song in school.”

It was like a story to us, Mom’s singing and her words. Most of the story was told in the look on her face and the emotion in her voice, with the outcome always the same:  love for the fair fir tree.

Peace. Happiness. That was Christmas, she taught us, using only her memories and the words of her favorite carol.

Now, in the December of her life, all unaware, Mom reminded Dad and me what the season was about. Apparently not even Alzheimer’s could steal that remembrance from her. Somehow, evoked by the techno tree with its sweet hypnotic light, the melody of the old carol had survived in her memory, like a gift still wrapped in bright hope, the paper unwrinkled by age, the ribbons unfaded by the experiences of a lifetime.

“O fir tree dark, O fir tree fair…” I sang on to her. Then at the end, “You learned that song in school, right?”

And once again the gift unwrapped itself on Mom’s face. Anxious lines opened into softness and, subtle as candlelight, her eyes flickered in recognition of…what?

Peace, the heart of the Christmas story. A tree, a Gift. The sweetest story.  The oldest, the eternal carol.

“Glory in the highest!”

And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”  (Luke 2:7,13-14 NKJV)

Dear Jesus, help us to care for our loved ones in this joyful season. Send us Your joy, Your love, Your peace.

Tissues in Your Pocket

Most Alzheimer’s caregivers realize early on that we have little control over what any day will bring. Planning each day in advance may give us a sense of control, but so much of Alzheimer’s is unpredictable. Based on my experience, caregivers spend at least as much time reacting as acting.

are-you-ready

One of my mom’s major goals in life was to be prepared for anything that might happen to her or her family. I remember her purse was both tool box and first aid kit, containing a screwdriver, bandages, string, scissors, various nuts and bolts she had found on streets and sidewalks—once I even saw a fish stringer in there. But the things we used most often were the tissues she always carried. She stuffed her already bulging purse with them and stashed them in every pocket on any piece of clothing she wore, “just in case.”

“Just in case.” That phrase covers a lot of territory for caregivers. We can’t predict what might happen in the next few minutes, much less the next few hours. But…unpredictable doesn’t have to mean unprepared.

For caregivers, being prepared is a state of mind.

I wish I had seen that truth earlier. Instead, of all the emotions that rolled over me during my first weeks of caring for Mom, fear was predominant.

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Fear hung around long after shock left. I spent only a couple of weeks being surprised at things like Mom putting Dad’s shoes in the trash, or telling me how lovely the artificial flowers smelled at the grocery store, or accusing the neighbors of peeking into the windows. I soon learned such things were simply to be expected.

Anger lasted longer. I was angry at the disease, at my father for hiding it for so long, at myself for missing the signs, and, yes, sometimes at my mother who often seemed to enjoy the chaos she created. But after a while, anger became a motivator. My frustrations prodded me to look harder for cause and effect relationships I could use to smooth the rough road we traveled each day.

For example: I learned I didn’t always have to explain to Mom what I was going to do. Announcing I was about to brush her hair or help with her shoes often resulted in a barrage of “No’s,” maybe because she felt I was telling her what to do. So I began to say less and simply do what had to be done. When my actions were a surprise to Mom, it took a minute or two for her to puzzle them out. By that time the job was usually finished. Using the disease against itself lessened my anger and fueled my confidence.

Still, fear of catastrophe stuck around for a long time. I was afraid the time would come when I couldn’t control Mom’s anger and she or someone else would get hurt. Would I be able to get her to take her medications every day? What if I couldn’t make her get into the car? Or out of it?state-of-emergency

Adding to the pressure of my fear was the feeling I absolutely had to make things work. I had stepped into caregiving of my own accord. No one asked me to. Dad couldn’t do it alone, and he refused to allow a nurse or professional into their home. So, ignorant of what I would be facing, I just jumped in. But after only a few weeks, I began to question whether I could manage Alzheimer’s alone. I started each day with dread, praying for help, praying for a miracle.

And you know what? Miracles came. Not the sudden cure I hoped for, but miracles nonetheless. Little ones I almost didn’t notice at first, like a close-in parking space when we were running late to an appointment. There were big ones, too, huge ones like the doctor who finally found that Alzheimer’s wasn’t the only danger Mom faced: He diagnosed her severe depression and prescribed the medication that gave her, for a while, more good days than bad.

miracles-ahead

In fact, so many miracles came my way, I began to expect them. On some otherwise-impossible days, Mom would at least agree to take her meds. When we were out of the house, I realized people seemed to sense her instability. I learned how to steer her away from situations that, I knew from experience, might provoke her anger. If she refused to get in the car, I postponed the errands and rescheduled the doctor’s appointments. If she refused to get out, I sat with her until she got tired of saying no.

Although some of the solutions worked pretty reliably over time, I knew no amount of advance planning could ever address the daily challenges of Alzheimer’s. But I was freed from paralyzing fear because I began to expect an answer in difficult situations. And because my trust was based, not on my power, but on the power and faithfulness of God, I stopped imagining disaster. Because I believed  the Giver of all good gifts, the Maker of all miracles,was on my side, I could think more quickly and clearly, come up with a way, find one more miracle.

As the Alzheimer’s progressed, Mom continued to pick up her tissues and put them in the pockets of the old green cardigan she wore every day. I took a few out every now and then, secretly of course, so she’d have room to add more. The day came, though, when it no longer occurred to her to pick them up. So Dad and I did it for her. Putting a fresh tissue, carefully folded, into her sweater pocket made us feel a bit more powerful in the face of Alzheimer’s. “Now, Mama,” I’d say. “Now we’re ready for anything.”

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For me, the miracles that carried us down the rocky roads of Alzheimer’s are like tissues I saved in the pocket of my spirit. There were so many problems, but so many more miracles. And each problem solved was a promise of more solutions to come.

I pray you fill your own pockets with confidence. Begin to expect miracles. Watch for them. And in the hardest times, remember the ones God has already sent. Each one carries His assurance: He is with you, to help you. He will never leave you alone.

With a pocket full of faith, we’re ready for anything.

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You will not need to fight in this battle. Position yourselves, stand still and see the salvation of the Lord, who is with you….Do not fear or be dismayed… for the Lord is with you.     (2 Chronicles 20:17   NKJV)

Loving Father, we know You are on our side. We know You can do all things. We know You want us to come to You with our fears and our needs. Thank You for fighting on our behalf. Even in the face of Alzheimer’s, Your constant love casts out our fear.

 

A Big Mistake

My father was going blind when I began helping him care for Mom. There was a lot he couldn’t see: how dirty her hands were, the stains on the shirt she’d been wearing all week, the mold on the cheese he and Mom were still eating. Dad thought he’d been doing a bang-up job with taking care of Mom and the house and the shopping and laundry, and I couldn’t bear to burst his bubble.

So I made a big mistake: I didn’t mention the dirt. I just cleaned it up.

red error

Some days I found it hard to climb the three steps to the porch, put my key in the lock, and sing out a cheery “Good morning!” to Mom and Dad. There was no way of predicting how Mom would feel and act—would this be the day I feared most, when I couldn’t find a way to calm Mom down and had to call for help? I knew Dad felt the same dread—I could read it on his face—but I wanted him to be able to relax while I was there.

So I made a big mistake: I smiled and acted calm all the time, happy and confident and never flustered.bad idea

When Dad and I took Mom to the clinic, the doctor directed most of his questions to me. I didn’t want Dad to feel insulted that the doctor turned to the patient’s daughter instead of her husband.

So I made a big mistake: I sat back and let Dad answer all the doctor’s questions. If I had anything to add or correct, I did it by telephone later.

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I didn’t recognize my actions as the mistakes they were until Mom was no longer in my care. As she lay in a hospital bed after surgery for a broken hip, the hospital social worker told us Mom would be released, but only to a care facility. She was unable to do the necessary rehab and wasn’t strong enough to go home. She had to go to place where skilled staff could meet her needs.

Dad shook his head. “No. She won‘t go to one of those homes.” When I didn’t immediately back him up, he turned to me with a look of shock. “We can do this, Katrinka. There’s no need to send her anywhere. We can do it at home, right?”

My father was a  reserved man, but virtually everyone who met him came to know one critical fact about him: he lived for my mother. He needed no one but her. Wanted no one but her. And from the very beginning of our journey through Alzheimer’s, I knew his one goal was to keep her at home. With him.

So my heart broke to hear his plea: “We can do this, Katrinka, right?”

He expected me to say yes. To smile with a can-do attitude, let him do all the talking, let him make the decisions.

That’s when I realized the mistakes I’d been making. Essentially, I had lied to Dad.

  • I had let Dad think he’d done a great job caring for Mom before I stepped in to help, keeping from him the dangers posed to both of them due to his bad eyesight.
  • I had purposely let him think that taking care of Mom (and him) was no problem for me at all.
  • I had let him assume that he was alone responsible for directing the doctor, that all decisions about Mom’s care were based on his input alone.

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I should been frank about the sometimes filthy conditions he and Mom had lived in. I should have told him how overwhelmed I felt, how exhausted I was handling the caregiving alone—especially since it might have prompted him to share his own feelings with me.  I should have spoken to the doctor in front of Dad, so he’d know that what he saw of Mom and her illness was limited by what he wanted to believe, and that the doctor needed to hear all the truth in order to keep Mom as healthy as possible.

I should have told Dad the truth.  Telling the truth back then might have eased the pain I was about to inflict by speaking to him now what he had to hear.

“Daddy, no,” I said. The social worker stepped back to give us some privacy.  “We can’t do it at home. This is different.”

His square hands hung at his sides in a way I’d never seen before. I was used to seeing them hold something—a wrench, a hammer, clothes for Mom or a glass of juice. Or if they weren’t working, they were thrust in his pockets, jangling his change and car keys. Now they just hung from his wrists with nothing to do.

In the face of his pain, I willed myself to continue. “Mom needs more care now than you and I know how to give, Daddy. It’s up to us to see that she gets what she needs. We have to let this happen.”

It did happen. More swiftly and smoothly than I could have imagined. In his relentlessly hopeful way, Dad spoke of it as a temporary situation, just while Mom rested and regained her strength. Then she’d be back home with him. Again, I didn’t contradict him. It was far too late for that now.

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My point for other caregivers is this: Be honest. Don’t pretend.  Do what you have to do; say what you have to say.reality

In my case, the truth might have resulted in better care for Mom. Being truthful with Dad would have shown him far more respect than trying to protect him from hard realities. And being honest in expressing my feelings and asking for help would have resulted in a better situation for all of us—Mom, Dad, me, and my family.

I thought I was being kind. I wasn’t. I thought I was being strong. I wasn’t. I thought I was protecting Dad. But I was trying to protect myself, too. It didn’t work. Trust me: facing the pain together—from the very beginning—would have been easier on both of us.

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He shall cover you with His feathers, And under His wings you shall take refuge;
His truth shall be your shield and buckler.  (Ps 91:4  NKJV)

Father, with You there is strength in the face of all difficulty and pain. Be with us, we pray, and help us serve and protect our loved ones with the shield of Your truth and mercy.

 

The Choices We Make

Some decisions are harder to make than others. And usually the most difficult decisions must be made in the most stressful circumstances. No wonder we don’t always choose the best solutions to the agonizing challenges of Alzheimer’s.

Drawing a line in the sand in the beginning of the caregiving journey isn’t a good idea. It leads us to believe we have no options. The truth is, we always have options. 

My father was losing his sight due to macular degeneration, but he refused to let “strangers” come into their home to help him care for my mother. He also vowed never to put her in a care facility.

lonely beachHe justified the first decision by saying “I don’t want someone else in this house. I’d feel invaded.” In other words, that choice was motivated by his personal preference for privacy.

The second choice he justified on the basis of his experience with his own mother many years earlier. When my grandmother was bedridden as a result of a stroke, one or another of my father’s siblings arranged for her to live in what was then called “a nursing home.” My father visited her one time, with me and my sister. We wandered the halls and finally found her room by the sound of her crying “Help me help me help me.” We entered to see Grandmother lying naked on top of the bedclothes. Dad’s first reaction was a shout at me and my sister: “Get out!” As we scuttled out the door, we heard him cursing at all the nurses and doctors who were nowhere close enough to hear him.  Years later, I wasn’t surprised to hear his promise to keep Mom out of a care facility. She was better off at home with him, he said, just the two of them.

storm beachSo I stepped in to help care for Mom.  Someone had to.  Untrained, inexperienced, and, yes, frightened of what the future might look like, I spent most of my days at their home, returning to my family after dinner. As grueling as the schedule was, as difficult as the challenges became, Dad and I managed. But only with the help of God. He alone could have helped me come up with the practical ideas I came to call miracles. I tried out first one and then another and then another until the problem of the day—or the hour—was addressed. With His help, we not only survived, but Mom was able to enjoy pleasures we thought were long past.picnic beachStill…I should have pushed Dad harder to get professional help. A trained aide would have added greatly to Mom’s safety, especially with bathing and other issues of hygiene. I was surprised to see that, when Mom did have to be hospitalized for a broken hip, she gave the nurses much more cooperation than Dad and I had enjoyed.  Later, because she couldn’t do the rehab necessary to walk again, the doctors said she must go to a care facility after all. We feared she’d fight the caregivers there, engage in the long term shouting matches we had experienced at home, or refuse to eat, drink, take her medications.  None of that happened. Mom was calmer and seemed much more comfortable at Golden Acres than she had at home. Dad visited every day. He made lots of new friends among the “strangers” at the home, and was free to enjoy more activities both at home and away than he had in years.

oler men at beachSo Dad’s decision to reject outside help worked out ok. But in hindsight, I see that everyone—Mom, Dad, and I—would have been better off with the additional expertise of a professional. No less important, Dad and I would have benefitted greatly from some time away from caregiving.  Three or four hours a week in the beginning, three or so days a week as the disease progressed—having that kind of help would have allowed all of us to enjoy more of Mom’s last years.

In addition, I see that, because the doctor overruled Dad’s decision to keep Mom out of a care facility, her last weeks were comfortable for both of them. Someone else, not Dad or I, talked her into eating and taking her medications.  Someone else took care of her hygiene.  Which left Dad with the opportunity to just spend time with her. He could see for himself she was not upset to be away from him. He could see her needs were met. And he could see in her eyes that, even in a place strange to her, she still knew him.

beach lineMy point is that lines drawn in the sand at the beginning of a caregiving journey may be erased. Tides such as additional information, progression of the disease, or just clearer thinking can wash away the logic or emotions of early decisions. What’s important to remember is that we always have options. If we can’t see them, someone less involved often can.  

We have to believe. Believing we have choices helps us find them.

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Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, Where there is no standing; I have come into deep waters….

Hear me, O Lord, for Your lovingkindness is good;
Turn to me according to the multitude of Your tender mercies.   (Ps. 69:1-2,16  NKJV)

Father, please give us wisdom to care for our loved ones. When we struggle to help them, let us seek Your guidance. Remind us that You are always with us, and Your desire is to give us and our loved ones abundant life. Thank You, Lord.

 

Pure Pleasure

Fun is a commodity in short supply in homes where Alzheimer’s lives. Who can tell what will bring our loved ones pleasure? Well, if we pay close attention, sometimes they tell us themselves.

Searching for pleasant activities for our loved ones with Alzheimer’s is like seeking the end of the rainbow: you’re not even sure it’s out there to be found. One by one, the usual pastimes fall away. Reading a book, watching TV, sewing, crafts, even talking on the telephone—now these things bring more confusion than pleasure.

I tried working simple puzzles with Mom. I got out old photographs. I named farm animals and we (well, usually it was only I) made barnyard noises together, and at least once a week I heaped all the napkins and washcloths in a pile in front of her so she could  fold them, painstakingly, one by one by one.  All those activities were successful at some times, and decidedly not at others. So I spent lots of time searching my brain for rainbows I just couldn’t see.

And then, one particularly frazzled evening, I discovered that sometimes Mom could find her own entertainment.

It wasn’t unusual for Mom to be grumbling nonstop while Dad was trying to watch the evening news. The louder Dad turned the volume, the louder Mom talked. This night she was upset about illegal birds on the fence and dirty rats (squirrels, actually) on the lawn. I was preparing dinner as quickly as possible, when she called me out of the kitchen.  “Look, Child!” she said. I looked. She was staring at a closeup of the weatherman on TV.

talking teeth“Look, Child! Look at his teeth!”

I looked again and, since some comment was clearly in order, I said, “Oh my! What nice teeth!” As the weatherman bowed out and the news anchor returned, I had an inspiration. I said, “Look, Mama. Look at his teeth.”

Thus began an hour or so of dental reviews. Mom watched for people on TV to open their mouths; when they did, she had a prompt comment on their teeth. I chipped in my opinions a few times, and we were entertained ‘til almost bed time. I never knew when Mom might begin another tooth pageant, so on ragged evenings I learned to start them myself. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not, but it was another tool in the arsenal. And Mom discovered it.tooth examPlease know I’m not suggesting you try doing dental reviews to entertain the person you’re caring for. The point, of course, is that something caught Mom’s attention and I capitalized on it. She was alert and comfortable and calm for a while. That’s entertainment.

I noticed other pastimes Mom initiated. One day at the megamart, she stopped beside a display of artificial flowers. Leaning over to put her nose against the petals, she drew a deep breath. “Oh, they smell good,” she said. “Smell!” I did. From that day on, we often stopped to smell the flowers, real or artificial.

artificial flowersSometimes when Dad and I were talking, I could tell Mom wanted in on the conversation. She rocked forward and back in her chair, looking from me to Dad to me to Dad. When she was finally ready to say something, it was often a compliment. Maybe something like “Child, I like your hair.” One day, instead of simply saying “Thank you!” I returned the compliment. “I like your sweater today!” With another word to use, “sweater,” she commented on my sweater, whether I was wearing one or not.  Back and forth we found other things we liked about each other. Sometimes Dad joined in, too. If Mom ran out of words, we just started all over again. During times when she was anxious, I could often calm her with a compliment. And sometimes a whole conversation would ensue.

Did these diversions always work? No. But when they did, they were pleasurable to all of us. Mom was able to take off the blinders Alzheimer’s had thrust on her and look at the world around her. She wasn’t nervous or scared, searching for words or wondering what was going to happen next. And yes, I was willing to examine every tooth, smell every flower, and compliment her ‘til the cows came home just for the pleasure of seeing her that way: engaged, comfortable, with life in her eyes.

compliment quoteI spent much of my time as a caregiver protecting Mom. As I watched her, I was asking myself “Everything ok? Everything ok?”  Sometimes I’m sure my caution prompted some of her anxiety. But my close attention also helped me understand something miraculous: Mom could still find pleasure, and I could help her enjoy it.

I urge you to watch, too. The key, of course, is to notice what they notice, and mirror their reactions back to them. Take your pleasure wherever you and your loved one find it. Run with it and don’t look back to see if people are watching. If they are, they’re seeing miracles.

The Lord upholds all who fall, and raises up all who are bowed down. You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.  (Ps.145:14,16  NKJV)

Father, we thank You for the miracles You give us every day. Please continue to open our eyes to the help and comfort You are faithful to send us as we walk the Alzheimer’s road.