The Small Stuff — Part I

Alzheimer’s changes almost everything.

Caregivers can see the biggest changes easily. It’s impossible to miss the decline of abilities like making conversation, performing productive work, buttoning a shirt.

Other changes can sneak up on us. And, though they may appear small, they may eventually cause serious problems.

That simple knowledge can help us anticipate obstacles, give us more time to prepare for them, and thereby keep our loved ones safer.

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For Mom, it was her hair.

She likes it short. For over 25 years, she’s gone to the same little shop to see the same friendly hairdresser for the same simple cut and style. When Mom stopped driving a couple of years ago, Dad began taking her. He’d drop her off, go home, wait for her to call, and pick her up.

A few weeks ago, Dad waited an unusually long time for Mom’s call. She was outside the shop when he arrived. As the car door slammed shut, she began shouting. “I will never come back here. Ima Jean said I didn’t even have an appointment. She made me wait until she finished three other women before she even started my hair!”

Dad’s question as to whether Mom had actually made an appointment only made her angrier, he told me later.  Tiny alarms went off in my head. Should I have made the appointments? Should I have gone with her? Next time, I told myself. Next time I’ll go.

Next time didn’t come. Though Mom forgot many things in the next few weeks, she didn’t forget her promise. When I suggested we call to schedule a haircut, she glared at me. “I will never,” she repeated, “go back to Ima Jean.”

Neither would she agree to go to any other hairdresser. Persuasion didn’t work. My invitation to take her to lunch after a quick trip to my hairdresser didn’t work. Neither Mom nor Dad would agree to have someone come to the house to do Mom’s hair.

While I tried to come up with other ideas, Mom’s hair kept growing. I was lucky if she allowed me to wash it. When it brushed the back of her neck, Mom complained. When it touched the top of her collar, she raged, long, loud, and often. But just as long and loud and often, she refused to let anyone cut it.

The problem was on my mind again this morning. The answer came as I drove into my parents’ driveway: I can cut Mom’s hair. I’m no stylist, but surely anything will be better than the shaggy locks that so infuriate Mom. Why didn’t it occur to me before today? No matter. I walked into Dad’s cluttered kitchen certain I had come up with the perfect solution, for now and for the future.

Mom was dressed and drinking tea with Dad at the table, which would have been a happy sight except for the floppy brown hat sitting on Mom’s head.  Mom never wears hats.

I fixed my own tea, making small talk, asking questions Mom didn’t answer. Usually that means she’s angry, but today she didn’t seem so. She just sat with a smile that struck me as – what?  Sad?

“How do you like your mother’s hat?”  Dad asked. The light words he spoke didn’t match the heavy look in his eyes. His question filled every corner of the room with tension.

“Well, yes!” I grinned, hoping bright teeth would cover dark foreboding. “That was a surprise this morning!”

Now Mom’s face brightened a bit. “Daddy got this for me,” she said, reaching up to touch the brim of the hat. She shifted in her chair, almost stood, then sat again.

Even now, in the quiet of my bedroom, I have trouble believing what I heard and saw in the next minutes. Two things, however, have fixed themselves—immediate, solid, permanent—in my mind.

One burns: I must watch Mom closer, even in the “little things.” I must weigh her needs by her standards, not mine.

The other soothes: I am not the only one looking out for Mom. The Lord is watching. Always. Protecting. Always.

Lord, help me fight the guilt that’s smothering me now. But more, immeasurably more, thank You for Your care for Mom. And please show me how to learn more about her needs and about keeping her safe.

“Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken…” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.   (Isaiah 54:10   NIV)

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For What We Have Received…

Caregivers realize better than anyone else what Alzheimer’s steals from our loved ones.

Though all too aware we cannot succeed, we keep fierce watch, fighting to keep the disease at bay. Yet day by day we see it snatch away not only memory, but activity, relationship, expression—all the things that define our loved ones as the unique people they are.

But there’s another kind of watch caregivers keep, another kind of awareness we are specially equipped to maintain: the awareness of what remains. If we watch our loved ones with eyes focused on signs of their well-being, we’re blessed with glimpses of pleasure others might miss—like a simple conversation, enjoyment of a favorite meal, or the look in a loved one’s eyes that says “I see you” or “I like that.”

As caregivers, we sense the things that make those we care for happy. The things that give them peace. The things they’re grateful for.

So…we give thanks. On their behalf, and on our own.

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He’s allowed to touch Mom when no one else can. On the very worst days, when everything inside her rebels against our efforts to help, she will stop fighting and sit with him—for hours. And he, expecting nothing, can eventually gain all that we hope for: her calm, her cooperation, her comfort.  The wonder-worker is Charley-Dog, a silver miniature poodle, handsomely groomed about four times a year, the rest of the time as scruffy as Mom. He sleeps at her feet and when she stirs, the jangle of his collar alerts us. When Mom refuses to eat, the prospect of feeding Charley from her plate can induce her to accept a few bites herself. She always knows his name, never shouts at him, never turns away his affection. And she often tells him important things she won’t tell us, like where she hurts or what she wants or why she’s scared. Thank the Lord for Charley-Dog.

Potato chips are Mom’s favorite food. Even Charley doesn’t get a share of her chips. Too salty, too greasy, with insufficient nutritional value, they’re still a life-saver when she’s refused everything else all day. They’re also the ultimate distraction from imagined offenses I’ve committed. And they’re salty too, so Mom drinks more water when she eats them. If she could, Mom would thank You, Lord, for potato chips.

A smooth wooden rail is attached to the wall on Mom’s side of the bed. At least once a week, she calls it to my attention. At bedtime I walk at her side and she grips the rail, stopping a couple of times in the short, queen-size distance to run her finger along the grain of the oak. “See this, Child?” she asks me, looking intently at the rail. Then, turning her head to look just as intently at me, she says, “It’s new. Daddy made it for me. I love it.” At the last three words, her eyes smile, and sometimes her face does, too. I admire Dad’s handiwork anew each time, and thank the Lord Mom has noticed, she has explained, she has smiled one more time.

“Daddy.” Since my sister and I were born, that’s what Mom has called my father. I heard her use his given name only on the rare occasions when they argued in front of us. But now, even when she’s angry, if she calls Dad anything, she calls him “Daddy.” Maybe she doesn’t remember his name. But by the grace of God, she’s never forgotten him. She appears to understand that he belongs in the house, that he won’t hurt her, that she can trust him. When everything else in Mom’s world seems to be going awry, she reaches for Charley and calls for Daddy. And he’s always there. Always. To him she will always be beautiful, his best friend, his love. He will fight for her health, fight to make her happy, fight to keep her with him. Alzheimer’s has a formidable enemy in Daddy. Thank You, Lord, that he is her defender and she knows it.

Finally, Lord, I believe if she could Mom would thank You for me. On an almost daily basis, she shouts at me, ignores me, tells me to leave. But she also makes sure I see the birds on the birdfeeder, saves part of her cookie for me, and lets me bathe her every month or so. She never calls me by name anymore, but on some sweet nights after I’ve helped her to bed, she smiles up at me and says, “Child, I don’t know what I’d do without you.” And I answer, “Well, you never need to worry about that, Mama, ‘cause I’ll always be right here.” The look on her face tells me she believes me.

For that look and for Mom’s smiles, for all the things that still bring her comfort,  and for showing me and Dad how to recognize her pleasure, I thank You, Father.

…Lord, make us truly thankful.

 “Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name.”

(1 Chronicles 29:13    NIV)

Autumn Basil

Caregiving is problem-solving. That’s not all it is, of course, but threading through the love and patience and vigilance, through anticipating needs and interpreting body language and calming fears and answering questions—threading like a thick red cord through the tapestry of every day, is the caregiver’s need to be a problem solver.

We solve one and another pops up.

If only the sweet moments could be so plentiful. But they appear without warning and we know they won’t last; Alzheimer’s won’t let them. So we have to be watchful. Ready to see them and savor them and remember them.

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Summer is finally past. The breeze is stronger, dryer, cooler. Autumn in Texas is subtle, and usually fleeting. But even the air inside the house reflects the change. Maybe that’s why Mom’s been sleeping a little later these days.

I took an extra hour at home this morning. As the daughter of a cleaning-dusting-polishing mother and a raking-cultivating-gardening father, I should have been torn between the undone chores inside and the ragged lawn outside. But it was no contest. Lured by the sun and wind playing across the piles of leaves swirling on my patio, I grabbed my jacket and the keys to the garden shed and, with scarcely a glance at the nine panes of dirty glass it thrust in my face, exited the back door.

I’m free.

The multicolored Texas stone of the patio is invisible beneath a layer of multicolored Texas leaves—dark brown, medium brown, light brown, golden brown, with a few orange and a couple of red thrown in for accent. The thin metal strips of the rake scratch across the rock and overhead a squirrel barks from a tree still raining leaves. Warm fingers of sunshine massage my back and I inhale a breeze scented with green, spring green.

Green? Spring green? No, couldn’t be. But yes. Spring green. Finally it registers – basil. The air is full of the scent of basil.

I harvested leaves from my potted basil all summer. A month ago, my husband carried the plant inside, to a spot in the garage where it can wait out the winter in relative warmth. But at my feet, in the cracks of the patio, are dozens of tiny basil plants, barely rising above the surface of the rocks. Seeing them, I begin to understand. Seeds fallen in the summer heat, sleeping under a blanket of autumn leaves, have been awakened by early fall rains. Now, though their season is over, everything inside them whispers Grow, grow, grow. So they do what they were made to do. They grow. Never mind that there’s little time for the plants to get tall and strong.  Never mind that cold will come and growing will become dying.  For now, for this day, this moment, the plants will grow.

I rake around them gently, smiling at the Lord’s loving message to me. Leaves will continue to fall; problems will appear every day. I’ll have to rake and solve, rake and solve. But if I look, I’ll find joy amid trouble. The sweet moments will come and though they may pass quickly, their memory will linger, like the scent of basil.

Thank You, Lord, for allowing me to serve. Open my eyes to the beauty in the work and the joy in the caring. Keep me watchful for the miracles of Your love.

“Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines…Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”    (Habakkuk 3:17,18  NKJV)