Words: A Matter of Timing

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Making Assumptions

Making assumptions can be a good strategy for caregivers. Why? Because making an assumption will lead us to try something, take some kind of action that just might improve life for the ones we care for.

So many times in a day I was baffled by my mother’s actions. Or her words. Or the expression on her face. I could try to guess what she needed or wanted and come up with a lot of possibilities. But then I spent time trying to decide which possibility was the correct one. And as the clock ticked on, Mom either got upset because I wasn’t helping her, or she said—by word or action—“Never mind. Just forget it.”

meme-thinking-face-1920x1080My guessing game left us both unhappy.

But what if I had assumed? “Assume” carries the idea, not simply of guessing, but of acting on a guess. And where our loved ones who have Alzheimer’s are concerned, trying to do something for them is almost always better than standing around worrying about what they want.

good ideaA simple example:
Dad, Mom, and I walk into a large discount store. She’s pushing a shopping cart and I’m right beside her. Dad goes ahead of us with his own cart.

Usually Mom and I sit for a while in the coffee shop while Dad roams the store. So I gently steer the cart toward our regular table. Mom gives me an angry look. Asking her what’s wrong gets me no response. So I try again to turn the cart. This time Mom hisses, “No!” Before her temper is fully engaged, I stop to investigate. Her shoe isn’t untied. She’s not trying to sit down. Her hands aren’t in her pocket searching for a tissue. She’s just staring straight ahead. So I look that direction—and see a large display of poinsettias. They’ve arrived just in time for Thanksgiving.

And I assume that’s what Mom wants to see. Rather than ask her, I simply steer the cart in the direction of the flowers.time for action

The closer we get, the bigger Mom’s smile grows. We walk around and around the large display, circling the blooms of red and pink and green and cream, some glitter-sprinkled, and all stretching their graceful necks above gold and silver foil collars.

After Mom’s admired and sniffed and pointed for a few minutes, I see her shoulders start to droop and assume she’s getting tired. So I start talking about our favorite table and the hot coffee we can enjoy there. And soon we’re there, sipping our coffee, Mom pointing toward the flowers again, me talking about each color, the three sizes of pots, and gold and silver ribbons.

I could have asked, of course. “Mama, do you want to see the flowers?” In the absence of a reply, I’d likely have gone on, “Or do you want to look at the popcorn tins? Or walk down the produce aisle? Or go find Daddy? Or….”

pls stand byBut on that day as on most days, Mom either couldn’t or wouldn’t have answered. The frown on her face would grow deeper with each question. So, knowing that almost any pleasant action is better than another question, I made an assumption and started moving. If I had found my assumption was false, I could have made a different one and moved in a different direction.

There are, of course, two other possibilities to consider:

Maybe Mom didn’t know what she wanted; maybe her reactions had more to do with a difficult mood than a specific desire. In that case, steering with my shoulder and my body, I’d have led her over to sit down or outside to wait in the car.

Or perhaps I had no idea what Mom wanted to do. What then? Well, I could still try all the likeliest possibilities, and sooner or later the activity would tire her and we’d just sit and wait for Dad.

The thing to remember is that making an assumption leads to some kind of action. For the caregiver, doing something feels better than standing around wondering. And for those with Alzheimer’s, our actions, even trial-and-error actions, are easier than questions. Even if what we end up doing isn’t what our loved ones had in mind, all our attention is focused on them. We’re touching them, talking to them, smiling at them. In Mom’s case, all of those gentle realities were less threatening to her than a question she couldn’t answer.

forwardFor me, doing something was progress. Finding out Mom would eat cranberries when nothing else pleased her, seeing that sometimes she wanted me to help with the left shoe first instead of the right—making discoveries like those helped me to see that I wasn’t just watching and waiting with her. I was helping her live a life, her life, in spite of Alzheimer’s.

He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, And carry them in His bosom…. Isaiah 40:11 (NKJV)

Lord, we ask you to guide our actions with our loved ones. Show us the possibilities, the opportunities we have to help them continue to live here on earth until You show them the infinite beauty of life with You.
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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.

Beached — The Unpredictable Days

Trying to plan a day with an Alzheimer’s patient is a little like building a sandcastle: you know the look you’re going for, but the castle rarely comes out as you planned.

Lots of conditions influence the outcome: where you begin, whether you’re working alone, your allotment of patience on this day, and, of course, the sand itself. Is today a day the sand wants to cooperate with your plans for it?

Okay—that last one kind of breaks down the comparison, but I promise you: some days on the beach are sandcastle days for me; some are not. I can’t say for sure what makes the difference, but I usually blame it on the sand.

empty sand pail

Trying to map out in detail a day with my mom is an exercise I learned to avoid whenever possible. Alzheimer’s has a way of shutting down plans, even well-made, long-held plans. I found it worked better for all of us—Mom, Dad, me—if we let each day take its own course. What did that look like?

Sometimes Mom awoke early, sometimes she slept till lunchtime. When she did get out of bed, some days she’d cooperate with the necessities of hygiene, some days not. This particular variable served as a barometer of sorts: if Mom let us help her get clean and dry, the day always seemed to go more smoothly; if she insisted on sitting in wet clothes and eating with unwashed hands, her mood tended to go downhill. Ours did, too.
But we didn’t give up on downhill days. We knew we could turn them around; we had a strategy that worked almost every time. We’ve discussed it in a previous post, but here it is in a nutshell.

If Mom refused a cup of tea, help with the bathroom, a piece of toast, her favorite shirt—we learned to simply leave her alone. Sitting on “her” couch in the den, she could see and hear me and Dad at the breakfast table, and of course we could see and hear her. Dad and I would talk quietly to each other, while Mom stared at the wall opposite the couch, shuffling her feet, sometimes talking to the dog. After twenty minutes or so, either Dad or I would try again to help Mom start her day. If she refused, we’d wait a while and offer yet again. The most important part of our strategy was that, each time, we spoke to her in a cheerful voice and made our offer as if it were the very first time.

Sooner or later, Mom’s answer changed. Did her mood change? Her mind change? Did she feel better? We never figured it out. We knew only that her answer changed. And the day started moving again. Thank the Lord.

sand fortressAs the hours passed, some of the activities we hoped would take place that day came to fruition. Others didn’t. Maybe Mom let me give her a bath. Maybe we went to the store. Maybe we got Mom outside for a while. Maybe it was a good day for conversation. Or maybe not. It was usually fine either way.

As far as we possibly could, we left the days open. There were almost no must’s, no time constraints, no deadlines. No firm plans. We put the day together as we went along.

Unless Mom had a doctor’s appointment.

Early on, doctor days were panic days. What if Mom refused to bathe? What if she insisted on wearing the same clothes she wore the day before? What if we were late? Worst of all, what if she simply wouldn’t go?

“I’m staying right here,” she said sometimes. And she’d stomp one foot on the floor for emphasis.

wrecked castleEven on those days, we managed to get Mom to the doctor’s office. But it seemed to get more difficult and nerve-racking every time.

Until I wised up. After months of trying to plan everything perfectly—hygiene, clothes, timing—I realized my plans seldom worked perfectly. Yet…Mom always made it to the doctor. Wasn’t that success?

We accomplished the most important thing: the doctor saw Mom.

That realization led to changes on doctor-days. First, I learned to make the appointments later in the day; that gave us more time to work through—or wait through—the issues du jour. And I let go of my pride. Yes, I helped Mom stay as clean as possible, but if she wouldn’t bathe before her appointment, so be it. If her clothes were less than perfect, okay. When her appearance was less than presentable, I told myself, the doctor was actually getting a more accurate picture of her daily condition.

The only “necessity” was to get Mom there, where the doctor could see and take care of her.

mound castleDialing down my anxiety on doctor-days seemed to reduce Mom’s also. I wasn’t rushing her. Instead of insisting she bathe, I just encouraged it, and was glad when I was successful.; I laid her clothes out on the bed and helped her choose what to wear. If yesterday’s outfit was presentable, it was included among the choices.

The point is that once I relaxed—understanding that, at worst, we might have to reschedule an appointment—things grew more peaceful. Not just on doctor-days but every day. I could turn a blind eye to Mom pouring orange juice on her potato chips. I could clean upholstery with the strong stuff, the disinfecting stuff. We could buy more green knit pants to replace her old favorites that suddenly disappeared. (We never found them, but after about five washings, Mom accepted the new ones.)

In other words, all any of us had to handle was the present, today. And as far as we possibly could, we avoided turning anything into a crisis.

I’m happy to say that, every now and then, we ended up with a perfect castle of a day. We usually couldn’t determine quite how it turned out so lovely, but we were smart enough to enjoy it, to live in it while we could before the sea erased it.

washing away
Besides, even without a plan, we’d have a chance to start another castle tomorrow. A chance to be surprised by how the sandy building would look at the end of the day. A castle? A fortress? A lopsided hut? Only the Lord knew. We learned the outcome was never in our control to begin with; it had always been in His hands. He worked each day out with a love for Mom that far surpassed our own.

Now may the God of peace…equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ…. (Hebrews 13:20,21 NIV)

Sweet Jesus, help us to rely on You, to relax in You. Make us always aware of Your hands working with ours to care for those we love. Remind us to turn to You for the guidance and assistance You long to give us.

The Hardest Things — Hygiene, Incontinence

Keeping a loved one clean and comfortable is one of the hardest but most important tasks an Alzheimer’s caregiver performs. The disease not only takes from our loved ones the ability to control bodily functions, but also renders them incapable of bathing, brushing their teeth, even washing their hands.

one lilyHYGIENE

With the decline of mental and physical capabilities, just getting dressed and undressed comes to be a challenge. The movements which for most of us are instinctive—not just buttoning and zipping, but moving an arm in the proper direction to get it out of a sleeve or lifting a leg to put on underwear, slacks, socks, shoes—those movements become a greater and greater ordeal for the Alzheimer’s patient, both physically and mentally. Taking a bath or shower adds the necessity of getting wet, and being surrounded by the plethora of  items needed for washing—soap, shampoo, washcloth, bath chair, towel, brush, toothbrush, toothpaste. It’s easy to see how the ones we care for can be overwhelmed and resist all forms of hygiene.

To reduce their fear and help them cooperate with hygiene tasks, we can rely on some of the same tools that help us with mood swings and hostility. We can agree instead of argue, keep talking, and use distractions.

Agree
It cannot be said too often: arguing with an Alzheimer’s patient is not good. It almost never helps the situation, and often makes things even more difficult. So if a loved one complains about changing clothes or washing hands or some other aspect of hygiene, we do well to agree. “Yes, Mom. It’s a hassle. It will take a few minutes. We have to move around a little.” Once we’ve listened to and acknowledged their feelings, we can just keep talking, hoping our own words will make tasks easier.

Talk
Now we can speak about whatever we want. Teamwork, for example. We’ll be doing this task together. We’ll be a team. And together we can be very fast. We keep up the chatter, on any subject at all, as we move to the bathroom. All our attention—words and looks and even touch—should be focused on the one we’re caring for. Our non-stop talk can continue as we wash hands, change clothes, whatever. Even if our loved ones don’t understand the words or the subject, if they are listening to us, the urge to resist may be diminished.

yellow lilies

Use Distractions
The idea is to use a distraction that appears completely unrelated to the task at hand. For example, if Mom didn’t want to get up and wash her hands, I’d wait a few minutes and then bring a pail of water to the table and set it down in front of her. What was this? This was never here before! I’d leave the water there while I went after soap and a towel, which I carried to the table like a surprise behind my back and set down on a chair behind me. What did she put down? What’s happening? I’d put my hands in the water, then hers, as if it was just what we’d planned. By this time, Mom was either sufficiently confused or sufficiently delighted to let me to wash and dry her hands. Another example: If she needed a bath, I’d walk with her down the hall, carrying a plastic cup of lemonade. Once we turned into the bathroom, I’d ask Mom to hold the cup while I took off her clothes, then I’d take it back and set it on the counter. When she was sitting safely on the bath chair, I’d start bathing her, telling her we had to do this quickly so she could get her lemonade.

Please note: Bathing an adult is not easy. If you consider getting professional help, even on a very limited basis, bathing, or hygiene in general, is the first need I would address. In some cases, an aide is accepted more easily than a family member. Mom and I didn’t have issues of shyness; she didn’t mind me seeing her undressed. But by far the greater issue is safety. Helping Mom move around and keeping her stable when she was wet required strength and expertise. A professional caretaker would have made bath time much safer for Mom and easier for both of us.

orange liliesINCONTINENCE

Incontinence is a particularly difficult aspect of Alzheimer’s. Let’s be honest: Changing an infant’s diaper is much easier than changing an adult’s wet or soiled underwear. But many products originally designed to be used with infants are now available to make things easier for adult caregivers.

Disposable Underwear
These products are miracles in themselves. They are super-absorbent, and made in varieties that open on the sides (easier for bedridden patients), or pull up and down, or both. Not having worn them, I can’t vouch for the comfort, but Mom never complained about them. Believe me, that says a lot. What Mom did complain about was our making her wear them in the first place. Though she insisted she didn’t need them, strong evidence indicated otherwise. Only after we removed all her regular underwear and put disposables in their place did she agree to wear them.

Wipes
Wipes designed for adult use are larger than baby wipes, and stronger. They make cleanups much easier for caregivers and are convenient to carry when you’re going out. When neither talking nor distractions could coax Mom into the bathroom, she sometimes sat in wet or soiled underwear for hours. When she finally allowed me to tend to it, I cleaned everything as best I could without getting her into a tub or shower. Wipes were a tremendous help. I did what was possible and, by the daily miracles that always saved us, it was enough.

Waterproof Pads
Dad and I were fortunate in that Mom usually slept soundly all night. But as absorbent as disposable underwear are, they were often no match for eight or ten hours of sound sleep. We used disposable waterproof pads on top of the sheet to eliminate the need to wash bedclothes every day. The pads come in at least two sizes and can also be used to protect car seats and furniture. In addition, we used washable waterproof mattress pads. They go under the bed sheet and cover the entire mattress.

 

Once again, we must remind ourselves that we don’t have to handle everything ourselves. If the time comes when, in spite of our best efforts, lack of hygiene causes or threatens to cause health problems for those we care for, the time has come when outside help is not just advisable, but necessary.

lilies of the fieldAs we face the particularly difficult tasks associated with hygiene, it really will help if we can act out of love in addition to simple necessity. Working in that attitude, we elevate the task and we honor our loved ones. And the miracle is that in the midst of our work, our love grows.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

(Matthew 6: 28-29 NKJV)

Father, we ask for patience, that both our actions and the thoughts of our heart may be pleasing to You. We ask for humility, that we may serve as You served. We ask for love, that we may honor You and our loved ones with our service.

 

The Hardest Things — Anxiety

The unknown is frightening. To all of us.
Just imagine how much of what is known becomes unknown for someone with Alzheimer’s.
And as caregivers, we have already seen how much of Alzheimer’s is unknown to us.
So there’s plenty of anxiety to go around. And seeing it, either in these words or in person, can be disheartening.

unknown

But we don’t have to surrender to it. Weapons are available to fight anxiety.

In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, symptoms come and go. One day Mom knows exactly where her sweater is: where it always is when she’s not wearing it, lying across the back of the living room couch. A couple of days later, she looks for it “everywhere,” not even seeming to recognize it when she sees it on the couch. The next day, she’s able to grab it as we go out the door to breakfast. Mom doesn’t say anything to me or Dad about the confusion, but she’s tense now. Every day.

Later, when the symptoms are more serious and almost constant, Mom is upset about many more things. Anything she sees or hears may become cause for worry. A news story about a bank being robbed: “Is our money in the bank? I want to see it. Did someone get it?” Hail on the roof during a storm: “What is that? Who’s beating on our house? Someone’s trying to break in!” If she can’t find her sweater, she is certain someone has stolen it, telling us to call the police, louder and louder, until I put the sweater in her hands.

Still later, she understands much less of what she sees and hears. She doesn’t talk much anymore. But she still gets anxious occasionally. I can see it in her eyes, the expression on her face, the shuffling of her feet. I try to determine what’s bothering her: Is she hungry? Thirsty? Does she hurt somewhere? Too hot? Too cool? What does she need? Sometimes, with miraculous assistance from the Almighty, I’m able to find something, a change of some kind, that makes her face relax. Sometimes I can even see the tiniest of smiles, not on her lips, but in her eyes.

As for me and Dad, in the early stages, we’re continually trying to stay one step ahead of the symptoms. Continually surprised by new ones. Questioning whether this or that odd behavior really happened yesterday, because Mom’s totally normal today. We know something’s wrong, but we don’t want to upset Mom, so we pretend all is well. But the strain reveals itself in a tone of Dad’s voice, or a puzzled look on my face. As hard as we try to protect Mom from our anxiety, we’re not always successful.

Later, we are worn by the constancy of the symptoms. Mom gets upset so often, we’re on guard all the time. But even when she herself is relatively calm, Dad is exasperated by her repeated questions, her reluctance to eat, her lack of exercise. I’m worried about Mom’s incontinence, conscious of her dirty hands and hair, concerned about her hygiene in general.

As Alzheimer’s steals more and more of Mom’s awareness, Dad and I are more determined to keep her comfortable and well. And less able to do so. The difficulty in determining her needs causes us both anxiety and pain. Again we see evidence for our belief that Alzheimer’s is harder on patients in its early stages, but gets easier for them as they lose awareness of their situation. For caregivers, Alzheimer’s doesn’t ever get easier to bear.

Maybe you’re wondering about the statement we made in the beginning of this post:
We don’t have to surrender to anxiety. Weapons are available to fight it.
It’s true. Please keep reading.

known landscapeIn presenting ways to handle the anxiety and stress Alzheimer’s brings, we’re going to change the order of the presentation: we’ll address helps for caregiver stress first, before we look to helping our loved ones.

There’s a reason for that:

The caregiver is the most important and effective weapon against the anxiety of the one cared for. Helping the caregiver is absolutely essential to helping the person with Alzheimer’s.

The most effective way to deal with the stress of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is talking. Talk to a spouse, a friend, someone you trust. Talk to someone in a support group who’s been in your shoes. Talk to a pastor or counselor. Just talk. Speaking about what you’re going through doesn’t change what you’re going through, but it can change your attitude and approach to caregiving. You have someone to share the experience with you. Even sharing only in words relieves the feelings of isolation and loneliness a caregiver may feel. You may find that friends, a counselor, a support group member may have suggestions you haven’t investigated yet. And just speaking your concerns, frustrations, and pain to a sympathetic listener somehow makes the burden seem lighter.

The next most effective weapon against caregiver stress is help. Bring someone in to stay with your loved one and give yourself a break. Bring someone in to help with bathing or cooking or housework and enjoy the support and the company they can provide. Seeing, understanding, and experiencing the truth that you do not have to do everything yourself will lighten the burden you carry, refresh your body and spirit, and make you a better helper for your loved one.

• And finally, do what is necessary to take care of your mental and emotional health, as well as your physical well-being. Caregiver stress and burn-out can cause serious and lasting medical problems. By all means, let your physician know you’re a caregiver. He/she can help you deal with the added stress on your body and mind.

What can we do when anxiety attacks the one we’re caring for?

• First, believe that you will find a solution. You will always find a way to defuse a tense moment. Reminding yourself of that truth will motivate you to keep trying, think creatively.

Listen as calmly as possible. Just let your loved one talk. Sometimes she will forget what she’s concerned about—or just get tired of talking.

Answer questions patiently. Again, creativity helps. Arguing with someone with Alzheimer’s never helps.

Use actions as well as words to show that all is well. Show your loved one a bank statement to reinforce your assurance that her money is safe. Explain what the statement shows; she may no longer understand it, but the confidence in your voice and the official-looking papers may give her a sense of security. Walk your loved one to the window so she can see the hail, or bring some inside for her to see and feel. After you find the missing item and show it to her, go to each exit door and click the locks, demonstrating that no burglars will be able to break in.
Employ distractions. Playing music or offering a snack or looking at photos or taking a drive—any distraction that doesn’t frighten your loved one may direct her eyes to something different, giving her time to forget her anxious feelings.

Try touch. Even when you cannot determine the source of your loved one’s anxiety, your touch may bring her calm or comfort or peace. Holding her hand or putting your arm around her shoulders or lying beside her in the bed may help. Perhaps rub lotion on her hands or feet. The sense of touch and the distraction of your actions may do what words and objects cannot.

Pray. Don’t wait until “nothing else works” to pray. Pray right away. Any time. Pray out loud or silently, but pray, knowing that you will receive help, and many times, you will see a miracle.

My soul finds rest in God alone…He is my fortress, I will never be shaken (Ps. 62:1 NIV).

Lord, make us aware of Your presence with us. Help us realize You are beside us, doing what we’re doing: working to help our loved ones. Sometimes, we find a way to bring relief to the ones we care for. Sometimes the only explanation for the relief that comes is Your power working for us in miraculous ways. But always, we can do nothing without You. Thank You, Lord, for being here.