Exquisite

Caregivers recognize each other.

Yes, each caregiving path is unique. As different as each caregiver and the person he or she cares for, 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, the tables were arranged so everyone had plenty of elbow room. But when I felt a touch on my shoulder, I realized 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. I adjusted my chair, noting as I did so the gentleman’s well-polished wingtip shoes. (Wingtips always remind me of my father.)

Without making eye contact, the man nodded and moved on. As he walked away, I noted his carefully trimmed silver hair and handsome dark blue suit, and wished I had gotten a longer look at the lady in the chair. Then, 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 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 thoughts I had pushed away 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 question—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 know. But I also know how far “fine” is from “exquisite.” Because yes, my parents had been exquisite together. Nothing less than exquisite. And when she died, he wanted her back. “However she is,” he told me, “I want her back.” I didn’t wish her back into the empty shell of Alzheimer’s, but to him, even that 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.

 

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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Do They Know We Love Them?

How can we show them our love?

It’s a painful question most caregivers must eventually face. How can we help someone with Alzheimer’s know, believe, trust our love?IMG_0064In the beginning, we caregivers are almost as confused as those we care for. We struggle mightily to appreciate the difference between our loved ones’ willful actions and the words and actions dictated by Alzheimer’s. We ache with the knowledge of what is to come. We do our best to do it all, do everything for them, and yet everything grows every day and what we do is never enough.

Meanwhile our own fear and frustration are a weight we carry, not entirely invisible, revealed in sighs and frowns and impatient words. Time passes while we learn more about the disease and the role we must play.not quite full moonIf we’re wise, we ask for help and accept it when it’s offered. We take care of ourselves as well as our loved ones and in doing so, we keep going. For them.

And eventually we realize that everything we’ve done for them has also been for ourselves. Looking back to before Alzheimer’s, we realize: we’re different. Whether we’ve seen it as a duty to them, a job no one else could or would do, a way to repay the love and care we’ve received, or a privilege we’ve been accorded, our care for loved ones with Alzheimer’s has made us grow.

But we can’t avoid the ugly truth: while we’ve been growing through the pain and the work and the caring, our loved ones have been shrinking. moonliteThough we do our best to see them as they were, we must admit they’ve changed.We can’t see the mother she was, the father he was; can’t imagine her twisted hands sewing a wedding dress, his crooked fingers tightening a bicycle chain; can’t hear the words she used to sing while she polished the floor on her hands and knees; can’t feel the solid safety of his arms as he carried us asleep from car to bed.

We can’t see them as they were. But we remember.

And they remember, too. They must. Somewhere inside our loved ones, they still know what love is, and the memories remain. Where else would they go? They weren’t flesh that they could die, so we have to believe they live on, out of reach because of Alzheimer’s, but living in spite of it.

In those memories, they know our love. They remember when we helped them dress and held the spoon they couldn’t manage. They remember how gently we washed them and how slowly we walked with them and how often we answered their questions. They haven’t forgotten, at least not forever.IMG_0071So it’s up to us. We can choose to trust in the pain we see, the sadness of their forgetting; or we can choose to believe in the joy of the unseen, the happiness of their remembering.

For me, it’s an easy choice. I choose joy.

I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. (Ps. 27:13 NKJV)

Lord, help us to believe. Help us to trust that in Your perfect care for our loved ones, You make certain they know we love them. Thank You, Father that our love for them is only a shadow of Yours. Thank You for being our Guide through the wilderness of Alzheimer’s.

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.

The Things We Do

The things we caregivers do…sometimes they don’t make a bit of sense!

Or do they?

piecesThe other day, looking through the closet where I stash new toys for my grandchildren, I came across some puzzles stacked in a corner on a high shelf. I didn’t remember them at first.

I opened one box and touched the odd shapes of cardboard; clearly the puzzle had never been worked. The edges of each piece were still crisp, not rounded or soft as they would be if my grandchildren had squeezed them into the right—or wrong—places. There were three boxes, each with the same “new” look.

turtleCool! I thought. Must have gotten these a while back and then forgotten them. Clearly they were for children: large pieces; cute pictures of animals; bright, primary colors. The turtle had 4 pieces; the teddy bear picnic, 15; the kitten on the fence, 30. Good! They must have been intended for three different age levels; that would mean years of entertainment.

That thought led to a discovery; the discovery triggered my memory. Looking for the age designations on the boxes, I found instead a neatly cut hole on the side of each lid. I frowned with irritation—who would so intentionally remove that information? Then I remembered: me. I removed it right after I purchased the puzzles.

teddy bearsBack when Alzheimer’s still allowed Mom some good days, I was always looking for activities that would keep her challenged and entertained. The activity had to balance on a thin line: too difficult and Mom would get exasperated and angry; too easy and she’d be insulted and angry.

Somehow I came up with the idea of children’s puzzles. I could get several, each for a different age level. That way I was sure to find one she could do and enjoy. It seemed like a great idea.

Until I envisioned putting the puzzles in front of Mom. What if she noticed the “Ages 4-7” label on the side of the teddy bear picnic box? Or “6-10” on the kitten or “2+” on the turtle box? Surely she’d be confused, even hurt. The thought of her looking at the numbers and seeing I had chosen children’s puzzles for her almost brought me to tears. So I carefully cut away the offending section of each box top.

kitten on fenceAs I recall, when I brought out the puzzles, Mom scarcely looked at them. I’m sure I called her attention to the animal pictures and started putting some of the pieces together. But Mom wasn’t interested. She ignored the bright boxes, and me. I guess I hadn’t chosen the right day to give them to her. And, apparently, the right day never came along.

At times like those, I had learned not to take Mom’s actions personally. A hard lesson, for every caregiver, but an extremely important one. Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia rob those we care for of the ability to consider a situation or a person or an event and decide how they should react. The disease can be as cruel to family and caregivers as it is to its victims. So gradually we must adjust, accepting that it’s the disease acting, not the person we’re caring for.

But what struck me last week when I found the puzzles wasn’t disappointment that Mom never got to enjoy them. Instead, I wondered what on earth I was thinking when I worried about words on the side of a puzzle box! Worried about them to the extent that I cut them off very carefully, hoping that straight lines and un-frayed edges would disguise the holes in the lids.hole in puzzleWhat was I thinking??? So much worry over something so silly!

Looking back, seeing how desperate I was to protect Mom when she was already so far away, has left me with a hangover of sadness. Since then, I’ve struggled to enter that ache, and name it. I know if I can name my pain, I can take it apart, see it for what it truly is, and use it for something good.

So I’ve thought a lot about those neatly cut holes.

Why? Why? Why? If I really believed I was protecting Mom, it was protection she didn’t need. She didn’t read anymore, and even if she did, she was long past being able to understand the concept of age levels.

But…

I understood that concept. And it pained me to hand a teddy bear puzzle made for 5 year olds to my beautiful, talented mother. So I removed the evidence of her decline. For myself. For my father. And I did it carefully, with great precision. In contrast to the crooked and wandering trajectory of our days, I cut out the painful words with straight, controlled strokes. The edges were clean, not messy and frayed like our lives and our hearts.

heart peopleNo, I didn’t see back then that my motivation for removing the labels was anything other than shielding Mom from possible confusion or hurt. But I knew taking that action made me feel better.

And now I know why.

As a caregiver, are you ever tempted to call some of your words or actions “silly”? Look carefully first. Or better still, just give yourself the benefit of the doubt. If those seemingly pointless activities make you feel better or safer or happier, then they are important. They make sense.

mended heartTrust yourself. The same intuition and instincts that make you a good caregiver for someone else will help you take care of you.

How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures….All creatures look to you….when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. (Ps. 104:24, 28 NIV)

We need You, Father, every day. In every circumstance, we need Your guidance. Show us what our loved ones need, and open our eyes to our own needs also. Thank You for Your care for all of us.

Parenting Our Parents

An incident I witnessed on a vacation many years ago continues to shine a light on one of the hardest tasks of caregiving.

During our hike through a national park, our family stopped in a picnic area to have lunch. As I made sandwiches for my three young sons, I could hear wails from the picnic table next to ours.

“But Mom, it’s my money.” The little boy’s face was red; his eyes were swollen.

An older girl and another boy, siblings, I’m sure, looked almost as sad. They watched the mom as she said, “John, I know you worked hard for this money. But you aren’t taking good enough care of it. If I hadn’t seen it and picked it up, your allowance would still be back there on the counter in the gift shop. You can spend it, but I’ll carry it with me.”

I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t escape hearing John’s next plea: “But Mom! I’m old enough! I’ll do better. Please?”

monkey parent“Johnny,” his mom answered, and I’m pretty sure I heard tears in her voice, too, “I don’t want you to lose everything you worked for. If you lose it, all of us will be unhappy. I’ll take care of it for you.”

I remember how sorry I felt for Johnny. But I hurt for his mom as well. We want so much to make our children happy, but there are times when we just can’t. Sometimes we have to say no.

Since my children are grown now and have children of their own, I thought I was free from having to make those hard choices. I was mistaken. Like many caregivers, I had to step back into the parenting role again.

Parenting my parents.

Mom was in her sixties when Dad realized she could no longer balance the checkbook. Mom had always paid the bills; Dad took over that job, too. As pots and pans were scorched on the stove because Mom forgot about them, Dad became the cook. When he ran out of clean clothes, he started doing laundry. They went to the grocery store together; Dad did the shopping while Mom wandered up and down the aisles, stopping to look at greeting cards or artificial flowers or bars of soap.

Dad kept these changes to himself for as long as he could, but eventually Mom’s behavior became so bizarre it could no longer be hidden.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Dad?” I asked after one of Mom’s harder days.

“Now Katrinka, I wasn’t hiding anything. I figured your mama just wasn’t interested in her old routines anymore.”

Balderdash. You don’t raise your children or your parents without coming to know them inside and out. And I know that, inside, Dad was 1) afraid of the possibility Mom was ill, and 2) determined that if she was ill, he would keep their home running just as it always had. “Normal.” That’s what he wanted. The two of them living in the pink brick house, taking care of each other, as they had ever since they were married.

help when you need it

While they did stay in their home, “normal” became me spending my days with them in the pink brick house. At first I helped Dad take care of Mom. Later on, when macular degeneration rendered Dad almost blind, I found myself more often in the role of parent, mainly to Mom, but sometimes to both of them.

Remember when you put things like scissors and knives and matches away, out of sight and out of reach of your children? That’s one of the first things I did when I discovered Mom had Alzheimer’s. I hid anything I could imagine might cause her harm if she used it incorrectly.

And that was just the beginning.

Dad and I had to watch closely to make sure Mom didn’t turn on the range or other appliances. Once I found her using one of Dad’s screwdrivers to open a package of paper table napkins, so the tools were moved to a safer place. We no longer left Mom at home alone, even when she insisted she’d “be fine.” She would sit right where she was, she said, while I drove Dad to the bank or the post office. But I had to say no; Mom had to come with us. She didn’t cry like little John did. She became angry, shouting and waving her arms. We’d wait, ask her later if she’d like to go for a ride, and sometimes she said yes. When she said no, Dad and I postponed our errand.

Out of desperation, sometimes I treated Mom as I had treated my sons when they were children. I often bribed her with ice cream or lunch at her favorite café if she’d go to the doctor with us first. Sometimes I made up stories about the magical powers she would gain by taking the medications she didn’t want to take.

Like Johnny’s mother, I knew I had to take charge. Certainly Mom, and often Dad, too, simply weren’t capable of using good judgment when making choices and decisions. Mom, of course, was impaired by Alzheimer’s.

rabbits eye to eyeDad’s judgment was impaired by his love for Mom.

The no’s to Dad were always hardest. No, it wasn’t a good idea to plan a big party at a restaurant for Mom’s birthday. No, taking Mom camping “one last time” in their bright yellow tent might be fun for him, but not for her. No, I didn’t think it was wise to take a long trip in their travel trailer. No. No. No.

Like Johnny, Dad made promises. He promised to ask people to be quiet at the party. He would gladly pat Mom’s back ‘til she fell asleep in the tent. He was sure she’d love a trip in the trailer, but if she asked to come home, he’d bring her home, right away. He promised to tell me when he couldn’t see well enough to drive.

normalFrom Dad’s perspective, I’m sure it didn’t seem too much to ask for simple, normal life. How I wanted to give him just that! And I tried. But from my perspective, it was a struggle to maintain whatever modicum of normal we could hold on to.

Of course, Alzheimer’s was the problem. Both Dad and I tried to say no to Alzheimer’s. Neither of us was successful…except in one regard: somehow we managed to say no to the disease stealing all our joy. Specifically, I kept my eyes and ears and heart alert for the occasions when life felt like old times. I made sure Dad noticed on mornings when the three of us sat at breakfast with toast and tea. I rejoiced openly when we arrived home from the store and Dad and I put away groceries with Mom telling us what to put where. I prayed with gratitude as my husband and I watched Gunsmoke with my parents: Mom asking the name of each character, Dad answering her and then offering everyone something to drink.

foxesNormal.

As I held on to as many of the routines as I could, I also held on to my temper. Usually I was able to resist the frustrated tone that tried to creep into my voice; instead, I held on to the respectful attitude I had learned from my parents. There was no question in my mind that each of them deserved my respect as much at this time of their lives as they ever had.

Easy? No. Whoever said, “The hardest thing about everyday life is that it’s every day” spoke truly. And most caregivers recognize the words as an extreme understatement.

But let’s also be sure to recognize the bigger truth of caregiving:
As we work to preserve what we can of the “normal” life of the past, we’re also safeguarding—in the present—something even more precious: our loved ones’ dignity.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”   (Eph. 6:1-3 NKJV)

Father, help us to be patient with those we care for as You, Father, are patient with us.