What If…?

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

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

What if something bad happens?

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

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

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

In short, we plan.what's your plan

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

Actually, the starting point is simple to determine:

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

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

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

choices

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Friends in Need

Caregivers get lonely. The job itself isolates us: our duties leave little time for lunch with a friend or participation in group activities or even a satisfying phone conversation.

Yet companionship, conversation, and the opportunity to share feelings and concerns are some of the most effective weapons against a malady that over 80% of caregivers experience: depression. We owe it to ourselves and our families and the loved ones we are caring for to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself to think and talk about anything other than Alzheimer’s. We may be surprised at where we find some of those opportunities.

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My parents never socialized much. They were best friends, and apparently saw little need for other relationships. But then Dad’s best friend forgot him. She could no longer talk to him about the issues, critical or trivial, that filled their lives. And that was OK with her; she wasn’t interested any more. Dad, on the other hand, was slowing starving for “normal.”

Who would dream that almost-daily trips to the grocery store could be so beneficial for an Alzheimer’s caregiver?

Thanks to them, Dad became a social butterfly.

When we arrived at the store, Dad always headed straight for the door. I stayed back with Mom, helping her out of the car, taking her arm—or her waist or shoulder or whatever she allowed me to hold on to that day—to keep her steady during our trip across the parking lot.  Dad knew we’d catch up, so he moved ahead with speed and purpose. And a smile on his face.

Even from the parking lot, I could see him through the glass doors, talking with the greeter of the day. All the store greeters knew Mr. B, and he knew them. By the time Mom and I entered, he was asking about how that grandson was doing at UT or sharing his prediction that of course the Cowboys would win that weekend.

Employees in various departments waved as Dad led our slow caravan through the aisles of the superstore. Sometimes they hailed him from a distance. “Mr. B! How you doing?”

“Doin’ great!” Dad boomed back. “Thanks a lot, ole partner!” His bright blue eyes probably couldn’t quite make out whether it was Jim or Charley working in produce that day, but “ole partner” worked in any case.

The women would tell him how nice he looked and he returned their compliments. Sometimes other “regular” shoppers said hello or made a joke like, “It looks like you own this place!” Dad blushed, and his smile grew wider.

But occasionally, with the utter unpredictability that characterizes Alzheimer’s, the sporadic conversations irritated Mom. She would frown and tell Dad to “Come on!” Sometimes she grew angry enough to steer the cart on a collision course with someone or something, didn’t matter what, just to let us know she wasn’t happy. On those occasions, I used my body to herd the cart, and her, away from the area. Though it was seldom necessary, I was ready to walk back outside and sit with Mom in the car so Dad could keep up with those casual but meaningful relationships.

As Alzheimer’s took away more and more of Mom’s mind and memories and emotions, she noticed less and less, I think, how isolated she had become. But the same wasn’t true for Dad. The further Mom traveled away from him, the more aware he was that, even with her beside him, he was alone. So his friends at the store—and at the post office and the drugstore and in his neighborhood—were worth all his effort and whatever I could do to protect his time with them.

Dad would have said he was “doing fine; you worry too much, Kathleen. I don’t need friends. I’m fine with just you and your mother. I’m fine!”  But the truth is…I think even Dad saw them as the miracles they were.

Thank You, Lord, for your generous and sweet provision. The friendship offered to Dad by these kind people is not the result of his effort. Instead it is your gift to him, the outpouring of your love. I pray he hears Your concern in their words, sees Your comfort in their eyes, feels Your abiding and powerful and calming presence in their company. All glory to You, who alone can bring such peace out of pain.

“Blessed is he who has regard for the weak; the Lord delivers him in times of trouble.”   Psalm 41:1  (NIV)