Just the Facts, Please

The only way to look at Alzheimer’s Disease is straight on. Unblinking.

Face reality.

Not easy. Especially in the beginning, the disease lures us into false visions. The good days look just fine. “Normal.”  Difficult times? It’s easy to tell ourselves they’re caused by a misunderstanding of some kind, or the aches and pains of getting older.

realityBut the illusions last only so long—would that we could predict exactly how long!—before we can no longer ignore the reality of decline. At that point, we begin to feel as though we’re flying by the seat of our pants. Barely managing to keep the lifeboat afloat. Walking a tightrope in the dark…without a net. We navigate by instinct, bail as fast as we can, and slide ourselves across the chasm with a bravado born of blindness—the darkness hiding not only what lies below but also what looms ahead.

We hunger for information. Information is power; power gives us some level of control; and we long to gain control. But Alzheimer’s doesn’t come with a navigation system or weather forecasting or safety nets. There is no uniform set of symptoms, no universal timeline, no advance notice of sudden changes. Pinning down the facts, just the facts—the who, what, when, where, and why—of Alzheimer’s is a seemingly impossible task.

any questions First we look to science: What signs should we look for? Any treatments on the horizon? Any cures?

But eventually—and always too quickly—we’re just searching for ways to get through each day. We want to know more about how to help our loved ones feel safe, stay connected, and live at their best—today. Here, definitive answers are even harder to come by, because the challenges of living with Alzheimer’s are unique to each personas unique as his or her personality and experiences.

factIs there no answer then to the question of when to take away the car keys? No answer to what does sundowning look like or how to handle wandering? Well, if we look at Alzheimer’s and caregiving factually, no, there is no one answer to those questions.

Realistically speaking, though,  we know there ARE answers. There are helps. Some we’ve seen. Some we’ve read about. THE answer for everyone? No. But options, YES! Looking realistically means letting go of the idea that there’s only one right answer to each question. Looking realistically means we can look at the WHOs instead of the WHO; the WHATs instead of the WHAT; the WHENs and WHEREs and WHYs instead of expecting a single, uniquely correct, factual response to our questions.

And looking realistically means that even though none of us has all the facts, we can share the information we do have.Hands raisedOur next five posts on this blog will do just that. We’ll explore each of those five issues: the WHOs, WHATs, WHENs, WHEREs, and WHYs of Alzheimer’s. We’ll be looking at each of the topics subjectively, dealing not with statistics but with common experiences. So we can learn and share.

optionsMany questions and many answers make for many options.

Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s is a generous and loving but demanding and strenuous challenge. That’s a fact. But it’s also a fact that we need not face that challenge alone.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7 (NKJV)

Lord, You are the source of our hope and our help. Please remind us that we belong to an army of caregivers, each of us fighting the same battle, all of us searching for the same answers. Help us help others as You help us all.

Are We Fighting FOR or AGAINST?

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

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

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

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

TX winecupsbluebonnets prairie paintbrush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bluebird of Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Different Kind of Gratitude

Thankfulness that  what-might-have-been  wasn’t  is a different kind of gratitude.

Most of us express it from time to time. Something bad happens and we say, “Oh thank goodness! It could have been so much worse!”  Nothing good has occurred, but we’re thankful anyway.

Relief in the face of difficulty is still relief. Ask any Alzheimer’s caregiver.

But first give us time to regain our balance. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is like a punch in the stomach. It knocks the breath out of patient and caregiver alike. The shadowy present turns dark and the future fades to black.

Yet, life goes on. We adjust our vision to what is. We alter our expectations for the future. We adapt to a new normal, because we must.

a wayLife goes on, and with the help of our faith and our friends, we begin again to be grateful for it. Nothing changes for the better…except our perspective.

Our loved ones need us in ways neither we nor they ever imagined, but we’re able to help them.
Conversation becomes more one-sided, but we learn how to reassure and comfort both our loved ones and ourselves with our words.
We sometimes feel overwhelmed with the weight of caregiving, but we learn to ask for help and to accept the help we’re offered.
Smiles from our loved ones are fewer, but those smiles—the ones on their lips and the ones we see in their eyes—bring us more joy.
We mourn that we can’t restore our loved ones to the lives they once lived, but when they can no longer anticipate the new life they are moving toward, we anticipate for them for them, we prepare, and we grow. We, in ourselves…we grow.

joy&gratitudeRelief in the face of difficulty is still relief.

For the help we can give loved ones and the care we can take;
For the words still between us, spoken and unspoken;
For the smiles we can give and the ones we can see and the ones we only feel but believe in nonetheless;
For the growth we experience through helping our loved ones;
For softer hearts and stronger hands, deeper faith and truer hope and love received through giving love;
Lord, make us truly thankful.

“We give You thanks, O Lord God Almighty,
The One who is and who was and who is to come,
Because You have taken Your great power and reigned.”  (Rev. 11:17  NIV)

Father, there may be different kinds of gratitude, but You are the one Source of all blessings. Give us the faith and wisdom to recognize Your good gifts in all their forms and disguises, and remind us always to thank You.

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.

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.

Christmas Every Day

Why can’t every day be like Christmas?

It can be. In fact, for caregivers, it already is.

duskIt’s hard to be a caregiver on any day. But I found it especially difficult during the Christmas season. It had to do with the things that change during the holidays. And the things that don’t.

One huge change: the gaiety is relentless. Wherever you go, everyone seems friendlier. Smiles seem more sincere. And greetings abound, from people you see in line at the grocery store, trudging through a crowded mall, hiking across a parking lot, sitting behind you on the bus.

And music—it’s constant: on the radio, on TV, in every store, even singing out from speakers nestled under the neighbor’s eaves. The newest tunes demand that we forget our pain and rejoice in all the merriest of ways, while the old songs open our hearts to the timeless themes of love and forgiveness.

starsThe scenery is another drastic change. Ribbons, red and green and gold and silver, hang from street signs and light poles. Real or artificial, evergreen is everywhere. Tiny lights shine up from the trunks of trees out to the smallest, highest branches. Lights march in straight lines around rooftops, drip into bright icicles, and fall in dazzling clusters. The lawns that in summer craved water and shade now turn into snowy scenes of Santa’s workshop or lush forests filled with glittering rabbits and deer.

even brighterOr, sweetest of all, maybe Bethlehem rises from the grass, with a stable where Mary and Joseph, shepherds and kings, angels and animals stand or kneel as if frozen, gazing in awe at the Baby sleeping in the manger.

Yet…in many houses, it appears nothing has changed. Just as it did in spring and summer and fall, illness works to darken the rooms. It tries to still the music. It threatens to silence the greetings and dim the smiles.

one starCaregiving becomes even harder, it seems. We do our best to savor the holy holiday, while our loved ones with Alzheimer’s remain largely unaware.

But think about it. Isn’t this the battle we caregivers face daily? We fight to brighten every day. We struggle to hold on to beauty whenever and wherever we can find it—in music, nature, laughter, smiles, companionship. We offer those gifts every day to our loved ones. We try to help them see and hear and feel the joy of being alive. We do our best to keep life from slipping out of their hands.

And we do it with the help of the Babe in the manger. He himself told us his very reason for coming was to bring us life, “abundant life,” and He promised to be with us always.

Which brings us to an amazing conclusion. A sweet and undeniable truth:

For caregivers and their loved ones, every day is indeed Christmas.

With the help of a King who gave Himself so that we might truly live, we give the best of ourselves to bring more life to those we love. Every day. That’s what caregivers do. And that’s Christmas.

christmasI pray your holidays bring you a rebirth of love and strength and joy.

  I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10  NIV)

Sweet Jesus, thank You for coming to us. Thank you for helping us celebrate Your birth. Please make us humble like You, and strong like You, and loving like You. Be with us as we do our best to serve You by serving each other, every day.

‘Tis the Season

Holidays—Christmas, in particular—are the source of many of our sweetest memories. But in a house where Alzheimer’s lives, can Christmas bring any more happy memories?

Absolutely.Yes, our celebrations will change, in small ways or large, because of Alzheimer’s. But the love of family and friends will not change. And love is the most important ingredient in our sweetest memories.

goodiesAs we look forward to holiday gatherings, it’s important for caregivers to know where our focus should be: Our goal is to make those we care for comfortable.

Of course, it would be nice to see our loved ones looking and acting happy. Nice, but not necessary. Comfort is necessary. Comfort is what will keep our loved ones with us, participating as best they can in the pleasures unique to Christmas-time.

Here are a few suggestions for making an Alzheimer’s patient comfortable at holiday gatherings:

Plan small gatherings. A crowded room with lots of people talking at once can make someone with Alzheimer’s very anxious. So consider entertaining just a few family members and close friends. There’s a chance your loved one will surprise you by remembering some of your guests—by face or voice, if not by name. But it’s virtually certain he will be unsettled, maybe extremely so, if he’s in a crowd.

b&w gatheringIf possible, hold the party at the place where your loved one lives. Those are the surroundings most familiar to him, so he should be more comfortable there than anywhere else. In addition, if he would rather not participate or if he gets tired, he’ll be able to retreat to another room, close by, where you can watch and care for him without leaving the party. If it’s not possible to have the party where your loved one lives, be sure you have a plan in place in case he insists on leaving.

Be prepared to stay close by your loved one and bring an extra store of patience. There will probably be lots of questions—about the decorations, the food, the music, the people, everything.

b&w decoratingTry not to talk around your loved one with Alzheimer’s. Include him in conversations in any way possible. Even if he can’t or won’t speak, you can acknowledge him with direct eye contact, perhaps a smile or a nod. And if he does decide to get in on the discussion, let him. If his words might make no sense, it doesn’t matter. He’s participating! What if you think he’s talking too long? Just handle it the same way you handle his conversations with the pharmacist or the cashier or the neighbor who comes for a visit.

Make sure there’s something at the party your loved one likes to eat. REALLY likes. Obviously, having him eat something nutritious before the party would be best; still, he may want to eat again if he sees others snacking. Of course you should also be prepared for him to reject whatever you offer. Remember: the focus is on comfort.b&w dinnerConsider bringing out old photos. Even if your loved one looks at some of them every day, chances are they will provide an opportunity for him to interact with your guests.

Music sometimes helps those with Alzheimer’s to relax, especially their musical favorites from the past. Christmas carols may bring a smile to your loved one’s face; he might even hum or sing along. Just remember to keep it soft. Loud music won’t help. Even Christmas music isn’t good if it’s too loud.

christmas carolsWhat about gifts? If there’s something you know your loved one enjoys (family pictures, coins to count, puzzles, towels to fold, etc.) go for it! The gift needn’t be new; the idea is simply to have something for him to unwrap. But—another reminder of how few things are predictable in a life lived with Alzheimer’s—don’t be offended if he doesn’t like or even unwrap anything you give, no matter how “perfect” you think it is.

Relax. You have invited family and close friends. These are people you know well, people who understand the challenges you face every day. Trust your guests to understand.b&w friendsLook for miracles. They happen every day in the life of an Alzheimer’s patient, so watch for them—expect them—here also. Small things, like a smile, or bigger ones, like wanting to dance or sing, wanting to talk to people, enjoying a gift. And even if your loved one’s reactions are not all that you hope for, you will have kept him present in an important family gathering, present in his life.

Finally, remember to do all you can to enjoy your Christmas season, also. You need some free time. Get help—day care or home care from a volunteer or professional. Perhaps you’ll go out for coffee with a friend. Or bake. Or walk through the mall to enjoy the decorations. Or maybe you’ll take the opportunity to sit quietly and ponder the blessings that flowed from the manger of that cold stable, a manger filled with scratchy straw on which lay a King.Babe in mangerDear caregivers, you will pour out your lives with love on Christmas Day, as you do every day, for those you care for. Love makes memories, so do not doubt: you will make more good memories this Christmas. Lovely and sweet and lasting, they will comfort you in Christmases to come.

Sweet Lord, You came to be with us so that one day we might be with You. Help us, please, to see Your grace and truth. Help us to show Your love to those we care for in this season that celebrates Your birth.

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)

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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