What If…?

The what-if’s of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s can defeat us before we even start to fight. They can be overcome—knowing the truth of that statement is the first step to victory—but defeating them requires action.

We’re all familiar with what-if’s. They pop up all the time, it seems. What if I get lost? What if I have a flat tire? What if I oversleep? What if…? What if…? What if…?

What if something bad happens?

Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s is difficult enough without entertaining the what-if’s. If you allow the Alzheimer’s what-if’s to get a foot in the door, they’ll suck all the air out of the room. Your caregiving creativity will faint from lack of oxygen and the confidence and determination that get you through your day will melt and run down your back like sweat.what if

Yes, it’s hard to escape fear. The extreme unpredictability that goes along with Alzheimer’s produces thoughts that can range from “What if Mom won’t get in the car to go to the doctor today?” to “What if I get sick? Really sick? Who’ll take care of Mom then?”

How do we turn those thoughts off? Well, we can’t just push them out of our heads. What we must do is replace them with other thoughts. In this case, we replace the negatives with positives, the doubts with certainties, the fears with strategies for action.

In short, we plan.what's your plan

Plan. I know from experience that’s easy to say and hard to do. Deciding in advance what you’ll do in a particular situation is especially challenging when you’re dealing with a disease like Alzheimer’s. Symptoms vary widely. There’s no dependable time-line for progression of the disease. And each person experiences Alzheimer’s in an absolutely unique way. So where can a caregiver even begin to plan?

Actually, the starting point is simple to determine:

You start with what is. Right here, right now. Keeping your mind occupied with solving the challenges of the present can turn fearful thoughts into a feeling of accomplishment.

And don’t forget to watch for opportunities to laugh. Mom trying to chew with her dentures in upside down began as a mysterious problem and ended with laughter and a potato chip snack. Thinking and talking about good memories, short or long term memories, is better than imagining disasters.

For the larger questions and situations we anticipate will come up in the future, we engage in more formal planning. First determine the issues that must be planned for. Then study the information you find on the topic, talk to people who have knowledge and experience in each area, and come up with a list of options. Alzheimer’s caregiver support groups are an excellent source of information. You’ll meet people there who are facing or have already faced the situations you’re planning for. You’ll find candid discussions, information based on personal experience, practical advice and suggestions. In addition, there will be a trained group leader who can direct you to even more helpful resources.

choices

Perhaps you’ll be able to rank the options in order of your preference, perhaps even determine exactly what you think is best to do. But at the very least, when the issue comes up and it’s time to take action, you’ll have a list of options.

Information is the best defense against the what-if’s. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be writing about some of the issues I faced as my mom’s disease progressed, things like the extra complications Alzheimer’s adds to other illnesses, legal documents you may need, the decision on if and when it’s time to consider admitting your loved one to a professional care facility, hospice considerations.  Listing those subjects here makes them seem cold and clinical and clear-cut. They are none of those things—instead, they’re intimate and emotional and confusing. But as you think about them, and as you read and hear how others in your position have dealt with them, you’ll find yourself putting your own head and heart into your own personal caregiving journey. The panicky “What-if’s” will give way to deliberate consideration of wise options for the one you love and care for.    

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How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.  I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.  (Ps. 13:2,5-6 NKJV)

Dear God, time is your creation. Protect us as we travel through it, holding tight to the hands and hearts of those we care for. Protect us from fear and doubt and panic.  Remind us of your unfailing love–help us revisit the many, many times you have held us up and helped us move forward. Give us Your wisdom to see what matters, deal with what is, and plan for what will be. In Jesus’ sweet name we pray. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Exquisite

This is not new information: Every caregiving path is different. As different as each caregiver and the person he cares for, as different as the relationship between them has been and is, as different as their environment and lifestyle and family or lack of family—as different as each of our lives is different. But unique as we are, caregivers recognize each other. With a pang of empathy and immediate respect, we recognize each other.

On Easter Sunday, my husband and I met one of my sons and his family at a restaurant for brunch. At a big round table in a beautiful dining room, our oldest son and his wife and our three senior grandchildren entertained us in the way only they can do—just by being themselves, unique individually and a unique unit in our larger family.

Though the room was full, tables were arranged so everyone had plenty of elbow room. So I was surprised when I felt a touch on my shoulder, turned, and saw that I was just a bit in the way of an older man guiding his wife’s (my assumption) wheelchair across the thick carpet. “Oh, excuse me!” I said and adjusted my chair. Without making eye contact, he nodded and continued on his way.

I had first noticed his well-polished wingtip shoes against the carpet; wingtips always remind me of my father. As he walked away, I noted carefully trimmed silver hair and a handsome dark blue suit, and wished I had gotten a longer look at the lady in the chair. Just about the time I decided they must have been leaving the restaurant, I saw them coming back in our direction. Their table for two was just beyond us. I made certain they had a clear path this time and took the opportunity to see the lady who was dining with this debonair man.

My first thought when I saw her was Exquisite! Smooth, pale skin with little makeup, just a touch of blush, it appeared, and rose-red lipstick. Her dress draped her shoulders and lay across her knees with the unmistakable soft sheen of silk; her hands lay crossed on her lap; her feet rested in baby-pink, low-heeled pumps on the steps of the wheelchair.

My second thought was Alzheimer’s. Her husband wore shoes like my father’s; she wore the expression and air that had settled over my mother during the years of her decline into Alzheimer’s.

Our lovely celebration continued. My grandsons teased their big sister as they always have and she enjoyed it as she always does. On their parents’ faces I saw reflected the amazing light of their children. Harold and I basked in the light of the generation sitting with us and the later ones we expect to see. It was one of those exquisite occasions that marks and highlights the sweetness of life.

At the table just beyond, there was silence. Courtesy kept me from watching them openly, though I doubt they—he—would have noticed if I had. I did glance over my shoulder occasionally and each look confirmed my second thought. I saw him reach across her plate and, with a smile, offer her a spoon. She looked at it, then at him; he laid it on her plate. At one point, her expression changed ever so slightly—was it a smile? He ate slowly, deliberately, watching her, always watching her. No talking. Just watching. I don’t think I imagined the look of exquisite pain I saw on his face.

We were sampling each other’s desserts when he wheeled her across the carpet again. This time they didn’t return.

Later, at home, I surrendered to the thoughts I had pushed back as we celebrated. This man had taken his wife to Easter brunch. Was it a tradition for them? Had he chosen her clothes? Put blush on her cheeks? Applied her lipstick? How long had it been since she got dressed up on her own? Stroked perfume across her wrists, straightened his tie, handed him his handkerchief? Had it been sudden, the silence? Or had it been that slow decline that let him deny reality, hope against hope? How did it feel—having someone leave who is more than half your life to you? Just leave? Leave you alone, to take care of them alone?

If I had asked my father that—how does it feel, Daddy?—while my mother was still alive, he would have given me his standard answer to my concern for his well-being: “It’s ok, Baby. It’s fine. I’m fine. We’re fine.” It was true, I knew. But I also knew far “fine” is from “exquisite.” Because they had been exquisite together. Nothing less than exquisite. Still, when she died, he wanted her back. “However she is, I want her back.” I didn’t wish her back into that empty shell, but to him, her shell was always full of his love. Always exquisite.

If you know a caregiver, pray for him or her. If you are a caregiver, know that I pray for you.

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 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.          (Rom. 5:7-8  ESV)

LORD Jesus, You call us “friends.” You gave Your life for us. In Your infinite kindness, please bless those who are giving their lives as caregivers to loved ones and friends. In Your name, we ask that You give them wisdom and strength, and please, Jesus, remind them they are never alone. Show them Your presence. May they feel You smiling on them, their loved ones, and their work. Thank you.

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.

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.

error

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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.

lie truth

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.

 

Are We Fighting FOR or AGAINST?

In the battle we wage for our loved ones with Alzheimer’s, we are not powerless.

No,  we can’t protect them from the disease.   We can’t slow it down.    We can’t stop it. If our battle is against Alzheimer’s, we cannot win.

But what if, instead of fighting against Alzheimer’s, we fight for our loved ones?     That’s a completely different war. We can win that war.

“Fighting for our loved ones.” What does that mean?  It means helping them live as long as possible.   So what does that look like?

TX winecupsbluebonnets prairie paintbrush

Dad wants to take Mom on an overnight trip, a drive down to the hill country to see the wildflowers. Bluebonnets, winecups, prairie paintbrushes! But I know spending a night in a hotel room would frighten and confuse Mom to the point of disaster. So I suggest a short drive to some nearby bluebonnet fields. We take sandwiches and eat in the car. It’s good: Mom is relaxed, looking out the car window, chewing her egg salbloomiing tomatoad with serene deliberation. In Dad’s opinion, though, the flowers are a bit sparse. So after we eat, I turn the car toward home. Once there, we take cold drinks out to the back yard and sit in the shade, where we admire Dad’s petunias and periwinkles and coneflowers and the little yellow blossoms on his tomato plants. Victory!

Christmas decorations and brightly wrapped packages cause Mom to ask endless questions. Her shuffling feet show us these sudden additions to the décor are making her nervous. So we back the tree into a corner and put the gifts in the closet for a while. But later we find a funny little motorized tree that we bring to the kitchen table. Only a few inches tall, it revolves, playing carols and shining with tiny multicolored lights. Mom’s not sure about it ’til Dad talks techno treeto her, very softly, telling her—the story of the first Christmas tree? No. He’s telling her about the technology that makes the lights glow and fade and glow and fade. And gradually she relaxes. She even smiles. Victory!

Mom has finally had to go to a nursing facility. She’s bedridden with a broken hip, unable—mentally or physically—to do enough rehab to keep the new hip joint in place. Mom’s not talking much, but I’m grateful she seems unfazed by the move from the hospital to yet another unfamiliar place. Dad, on the other hand, is heartbroken. His greatest wish remains unchanged and unfulfilled: he wants her with him. He expected to bring her home from the hospital; instead, she is in another “home.” He will never be happy, he thinks, without her. fRANK SINATRABut the next day, my sister arrives with a small lamp and a comfy chair and a radio, which she promptly tunes to the “oldies” station. And less than a week after the sadness of moving day, Frank Sinatra is serenading Mom while Dad drinks the coffee the lunch room ladies give him every day. Not home, but comfortable. And together. Victory!

Our weapons in the battle for the lives of our loved ones are not complicated to operate, but it does take some practice to learn to use them in this particular war.

Patience—to withstand the onslaught of questions and complaints. patiencePlanning—to ease transitions and nip difficulties in the bud. planCreativity—to find new substitutes for old habits and favorite activities. creativityGratitude—to encourage us to accept the help others offer. Determination—to keep us gratitudesteady in the face of constant change. optimismOptimism—to persuade us that, no matter what new pain Alzheimer’s inflicts, we will find a way to keep our loved ones OK.

And most effective of all, love—to convince us to fight, not simply for our loved ones’ survival, but for their lives.loveLord, we can accomplish nothing without You, but with You, we can do everything You call us to do. Thank You for helping us bring Your abundant Life to our loved ones.

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”      (Matthew 11:29-30  NIV)

The Bluebird of Happiness

Often it seems nothing we can do or say will bring happiness to our loved ones with Alzheimer’s. Since they gradually lose the power to choose their own pleasure, caregivers are left to use trial and error to guess what might bring a smile.

angry bluebirdFor me, when often became even more often, and even more often became ‘way too often, I re-discovered a happiness strategy from back before I was a daily caregiver…back when I was a daily mom. What I remembered is this:

Sometimes it’s what we don’t do that makes the difference between sullen and happy in those we care for.

I remembered the occasional evenings when I allowed my sons to skip a vegetable at dinner time…and decided maybe Mom didn’t need to wear fresh clothes every day. Some days I didn’t insist she drink a full glass of water at every meal; if she wanted juice at lunchtime, that was fine. No socks with her tennis shoes today? OK.

slim bluebirdWhen I let some things slide, I found that, even if I couldn’t always get her to smile, I could at least erase her frown.

Why was it that skipping an action worked better doing something?

I believe the “never mind’s” worked better because the “please do’s” were beyond Mom’s grasp. She was able to let me know if something we were doing was UNpleasant, but she could no longer think of things she might enjoy. Or maybe she could think of some things some times, but she wasn’t able to put them into words.

The things we skipped depended, of course, on our activities for the day and, even more so, on Mom’s safety and hygiene. If we had a doctor’s appointment scheduled, I couldn’t let Mom go out without shoes. And we always had to keep her hands clean. Getting Mom to take her medications was a must; making sure she drank enough fluids was a must; and there had to be a limit to how many days she could wear her favorite outfit without washing it.

The “must’s” were seldom easy. But they were possible. How? By accommodating Mom’s wishes the same way I used to accommodate my children. I said yes as often as possible and insisted on no when it was necessary.

And I went a step further with Mom. When I had to insist she do something my way, I tried to include an enticement of some kind.snowy bluebirdFor example:

If Mom scowled when I came toward her with shoes in my hand, sometimes—on days when I knew she could stay indoors—I was able to agree: “No shoes? OK.” But if we had to go out, I had to insist. “Well, you’re going to need shoes today. But here…why don’t you feed Charley-Dog some treats while I help you get your sandals on?” I knew feeding Charley was a fun–and dependable–distraction.

If Mom refused her lunch, I could say, “OK, but I’m afraid you’ll be hungry later. Tell me if you are, please.” If, however, she had already skipped breakfast, I had to insist she eat at least a few bites. And I usually had to feed her myself. Beginning with a potato chip got us off to a good start, and a couple more interspersed through the process helped me keep things moving.

When it came to clothes, I almost always let Mom wear her threadbare or hole-y favorites, which I put through the washer and dryer after she went to bed. As long as she was clean, dry, and modest, she was fine to go wherever we had to go. If her old clothes made her feel better, we were happy for her to wear them.

Please understand: when I say I used  some of the same strategies with Mom that I used with my children, I mean no disrespect to her. Alzheimer’s had robbed her of reason, judgement, and self-control. To expect things from her she could no longer give would have been cruel. Instead, I simply made it easier for Mom to go along with the necessities. And I had no fear of her expecting the same “privileges” every day–each day was all too new for her. I believe Mom remembered me and Dad when she awakened in the mornings; that much memory allowed her to trust us, at least most of the time.

Our loved ones with Alzheimer’s travel through life constantly on the edge: not remembering where they’ve been, unable to see where their next steps will take them. So it’s up to us to be flexible. We must make their paths as wide and comfortable as we can, by putting as few demands on them as possible.

nervous bluebirdHappiness for someone with Alzheimer’s? I think it’s like a little bird, a nervous little bird, to be sure, but willing to rest in a spot feathered with reassurance and safety. If we provide a house and fill it with all the comfort and security we can manage,

flying homeeven if we don’t often see the little bird, we can trust that our loved ones are all right.

Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the Lord delivers them in times of trouble. The Lord protects and preserves them—they are counted among the blessed in the land….  (Ps. 41:1-2  NIV)

Lord, you are the source of all our wisdom. When we turn to you and ask for help, you always answer. Thank You for helping us help our loved ones.

In the Beginning…. Umm, When was That?

One day — just “out of the blue,” Dad said — Mom wouldn’t drive. She told him she was afraid of the car. Dad answered her fear with, “WHAAAAT???!” Next day, she got in the car and drove across town to catch a sale at her favorite store. What? Oh, well. OK.surpriseAnother day, on returning home after a haircut, Mom announced that her hairdresser had called her a liar. She would never go back to Ima again. WHAAAAT???! Ima had been doing Mom’s hair for twenty years! What could have come between them? Apparently nothing. The next week Mom went in for her usual appointment. What? Oh, well. OK.surpriseThat’s how Alzheimer’s usually introduces itself. A loved one does or says something totally bizarre—something you can’t fail to notice because it’s so out of character or contrary to old routines. But before you have time to worry too much, everything goes back to normal. All is well…until some other strange behavior pops up, stays just long enough to get your attention, and then vanishes as if you only imagined it.

I don’t know when those random behaviors began with my mom. My father managed to keep them hidden from me and my sister for a long time. Maybe five years.

lots of surprisesHow was that possible? Looking back, I see four things that, I believe, helped Dad keep his secret:
— Alzheimer’s reveals itself more slowly in some people than in others.
— Mom always insisted on marching to her own drummer, so Dad, my sister, and I were likely to attribute some of her bizarre behavior to her already “difficult” personality.
— Even after Alzheimer’s had a choke-hold on Mom’s mind and personality, the appearance of a visitor could trigger something I called “company behavior.” When someone other than Dad was in the house, Mom was somehow able to pull forward old habits and behaviors. So, for a while at least, Mom was able to be her old self when my sister and I came to visit.
— And finally, as the illness grew worse, Dad went straight to denial. He refused to see her confusion growing worse, and remained certain Mom—and their life together—would return to normal.

Mom and Dad lived only fifteen or twenty minutes away, so I saw them often, but for only an hour or two at a time. And in those early years, with Dad’s help, Alzheimer’s could stay hidden for one or two hours.

So it wasn’t until I took Mom and Dad on a road trip that I saw how ill Mom had become. She was fine the first day, paranoid the first night, lost in the tiny motel room the next morning. By that afternoon, she was raging, fighting with me and Dad, out of control. That afternoon was the first time I had any suspicion Mom might have Alzheimer’s.

red surpriseWe’ve spoken before here about the advantages of getting an early diagnosis. There’s the chance you’ll find your loved one has something other than Alzheimer’s, perhaps something that could be treated; the chance that medication could slow the course of the disease; and the surety that once you can accurately name the problem, you can handle the present with more understanding and plan for the future with far more information about what it may hold for your loved one.

But if someone is hiding the symptoms from you, as my father hid Mom’s symptoms from me, early diagnosis becomes very difficult. With no symptoms evident, why would you even suspect a loved one might have Alzheimer’s?

questionsI have one suggestion. Looking back at my own experience, I know I should have questioned the changes in Dad’s behavior. With 20/20 hindsight, I can see all the evidence: some kind of major change was taking place in roles and activities my parents had cultivated through more than fifty years of marriage. Dad began answering the phone instead of Mom. He declined invitations for no reason, and often backed out of an event at the last minute. He began telling me all about the great frozen dinners he had found at the store, how delicious they were.

Dad asked me questions about doing laundry. I should have asked him questions about why he was doing the laundry.

Nobody wants to look for Alzheimer’s. But I urge you to be aware: the first signs that a loved one has Alzheimer’s may be the changed actions and habits of someone else in the household. Talking about what you see is better than hiding from it. Better for everyone.

“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.”   (2 Kings 6:16-17 NIV)

Father, open our eyes to what we need to see. It’s hard to look at this dreadful disease, but if we want to help our loved ones, we must face the hard sights and ask the hard questions. In Your strength, we can do the hard things. Thank you for Your care for our loved ones, and for us.