Comfort in the Storm

For people with Alzheimer’s, comfort has much more to do with the mind than the body. If we can keep our loved ones with Alzheimer’s comfortable, we’re giving them a treasure.

My mom might have been sitting in her favorite spot on the couch, wearing her favorite loose black slacks and the multicolored blouse she’d worn four days in a row. Perhaps she had just eaten, or maybe she had a glass of orange juice on the table beside the couch. Almost surely she would be barefoot; shoes, in her opinion, were to be worn only when absolutely necessary. So was she comfortable?

surfer stormNot necessarily. Her body might have been satisfied, but, as with all of us, the state of her mind determined whether she was truly comfortable. While we can direct our thoughts away from imagined catastrophes and unreasonable fears, our loved ones with Alzheimer’s are at the mercy of whatever ideas or worries Alzheimer’s throws at them. We became accustomed to the signs of Mom’s unease. She shuffled her feet. She looked around as though trying to find the source of a noise she couldn’t identify. She would half-rise from her seat, then sit back down, only to rise again a few seconds later.

If we asked her if she needed something, she might answer through gritted teeth, or not at all. The discomfort caused by the goblins in her mind could inflame her anger, or it could reduce her to a silent form with panic in her eyes.

That kind of discomfort is hard to fight. But Dad and I tried, with encouraging success.

fighting fearThe first step was to identify, if at all possible, the source of her worry. Not always an easy task. Though certain scenarios did appear frequently, it was never something we could predict. It might be an unpaid bill, or neighbors who were angry, or people coming to the door who wouldn’t leave her alone.

In the beginning, we were stymied. Words were usually useless, but we couldn’t protect Mom from an unseen danger. At last, in a flash of understanding that could only have come from heaven, I found a way to convince her she was safe. We couldn’t see the danger, but we could produce a visible solution.

In the case of the unpaid bill, I could write a “check” in front of her, put it in an envelope, and put it out on the mailbox for the postman. When, very quickly thereafter, the envelope disappeared, Mom was sure it was on the way to the electric company. If she thought the neighbors were angry, I’d cut a rose or put cookies on a plate, go outside for a few minutes, and come back inside with a smile and an empty plate and the gracious greetings and thanks from the neighbors. With no dial tone on the phone, I called the police in front of her and let her hear me telling them about the people who wouldn’t leave her alone. When I hung up, I’d smile and tell her how grateful the police were for the information. And guess what! They had already caught the culprits!

surfer after stormThe key was doing something visible to Mom to show her we took her seriously. Some people consider actions such as these lying to our loved ones. I believe just the opposite. I believe handling Mom’s fears in this way was more truthful to her reality, and showed more, not less, respect to her. Imagine how it would feel to tell the people you trust most in the world about something that makes you worried or afraid, and have them reply, “No, no, no. Don’t worry about that. It never happened. It’s just your imagination.” Not only are the words of no use, they seem cruel to me.

When someone has Alzheimer’s, it gives them their own reality. They gradually lose their understanding of what we call the real world. They can’t come to our reality, so we must go to theirs in order to calm their fears.

Not long ago, my cousin sent me a picture of her and her mom having lunch at a diner. Aunt Sylvia’s hard days far outnumber her good ones, and the good days aren’t as good as they used to be. But in the selfie my cousin took, just their two smiling faces, I could see in her eyes that Aunt Sylvia’s was comfortable. Her hair wasn’t the groomed style she always had; her face looked thin and worn. Still, she was with the one who takes faithful and loving care of her, and on this day, that was enough for her to feel secure. Even in unfamiliar surroundings, even in a wheelchair—Aunt Sylvia’s smile was relaxed.

Comfort. Not appearance, or the ability to recognize someone, or constant cooperation. Comfort is the treasure we try to give our loved ones.

  In the multitude of my anxieties within me, Your comforts delight my soul.  (Ps. 94:19 NKJV)

Lord, we ask for your inspiration and enlightenment as we care for our loved ones. Help us, please, to understand what they want and need. We know You can comfort them even when we cannot. Thank you for Your loving care for them.

No Time to Hide

Family members and caregivers who attempt to deny the signs of Alzheimer’s in a loved one will inevitably discover the cruel truth: hiding from Alzheimer’s doesn’t work. hide-and-seek-gameAlzheimer’s always wins the game of Hide (the symptoms) and Seek (to keep living as though nothing is wrong).

Why would we try to keep our loved one’s illness a secret?

Denial—it’s the first step in the grieving process: deny the reality of an event or situation that we simply find too painful to face. Because we know the magnitude of the changes Alzheimer’s will bring, not only to the person affected but also to everyone close to that person, many of us try to overlook symptoms for as long as we can. Even when we’re finally unable to ignore them, we can steadfastly refuse to consider Alzheimer’s. “It’s stress,” we tell ourselves. “Fatigue. Maybe old age.”

For months, neither my father nor I would even say the word “Alzheimer’s.” Not to each other; certainly not to anyone else. And as long as the doctor didn’t say it, we reasoned, we didn’t have to believe it.

under the couch

When the doctor did finally make the diagnosis, it came almost as a relief to us. Hiding from reality is exhausting.

Even then we kept Mom’s illness a secret. Why? Embarrassment. When I was a child, Dad had watched my grandfather die a slow and difficult death, from what people at that time described as “senility”—in my grandfather’s case, a particularly ugly form of senility. But when Mom’s doctor looked at her medical history, he told us Granddad probably suffered from Alzheimer’s.  That’s when Dad vowed he would never let anyone know Mom was sick “that way.” Yes, eventually he did tell people she had Alzheimer’s, but only after months of making excuses and inventing far-fetched stories to explain her behavior or her absence from family gatherings.

There was a time when many people felt as Dad did. Spouses and family were ashamed of the changes the disease wrought in their loved ones. Even today, when it seems almost everyone knows someone affected by Alzheimer’s, many families opt to stay “in hiding” rather than take their loved one out of the house. A patient who refuses to bathe or tend to other matters of personal hygiene is difficult to live with at home; in public, the sights and smells that accompany Alzheimer’s can be humiliating. Erratic or hostile behavior can be frustrating at home, but it’s even more difficult to manage in public. At home, sudden mood changes charge the atmosphere with tension; in public, such changes can be frightening.

under the deskBut we repeat: hiding Alzheimer’s—or hiding from it—doesn’t work. Efforts to deny it will end in defeat. Attempts to keep it under cover are sure to fail. Alzheimer’s symptoms and behaviors will not be ignored.

And, of course, they shouldn’t be! Because maybe it isn’t Alzheimer’s. Maybe it’s a different, treatable disease. No matter what the cause of symptoms, delaying a diagnosis out of fear is always a mistake.

If it is Alzheimer’s, hiding won’t get our loved ones the help they need. They need all the relief medical science and family and community can offer. They need us to be alert for the times and situations that make life even more difficult for them. We ourselves need support, physical and emotional, from friends, extended family, counselors, physicians, professional caregivers.

open your eyesAlzheimer’s isn’t pretty. It’s not amusing, not interesting, not easy to look at,
even from a distance.

But those who have the disease are still here with us. To see them, we must look at Alzheimer’s—or, more accurately, look through Alzheimer’s. Yes, as time passes, it gets more difficult, but if we keep our eyes open, we will reap the rewards, for ourselves and our loved ones. We can claim every good day—or hour, or minute—for them; every easy smile; every instance when our love and service overcome their fear and confusion.alzh sttrongFor God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.   (2Tim:1:7   NKJV)

Almighty Savior, You have told us we need never fear. Remind us, please, that You are our Protector in all things at all times. May we hide in You, using Your strength and care to serve those we love. Thank You, Jesus.