Depression and Alzheimer’s

“Depression is never normal.”  

Not even for someone with dementia.

In the most recent series of posts, we’ve been spotlighting some “what-ifs”: the sudden questions that can blindside caregivers as they contemplate what challenges the future might hold. Today, however, we’re taking a side trip to look at the issue of depression and the impact it can have on a loved one with Alzheimer’s.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it’s not uncommon for people with Alzheimer’s to be depressed, especially in the early and middle stages of the disease. In fact, the Association says, “Experts estimate that up to 40 percent of people with Alzheimer’s disease suffer from significant depression.”

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And yet, “depression is never normal.” Shortly after I became Mom’s caregiver, I heard those words from well-known Dallas-area geriatric psychiatrist Dr. David Crumpacker. He was addressing a group gathered in a comfortable public room at an assisted living facility. The subject was Alzheimer’s.

Speaking for myself, the fact that 40 percent of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s become depressed doesn’t surprise me. But Dr. Crumpacker’s words did surprise me. “Depression is never normal.” Not even for someone with Alzheimer’s? No, not even for someone with Alzheimer’s.

What does that mean? Why did the doctor make such a point of saying that, even when someone is diagnosed with such a cruel disease as Alzheimer’s, depression shouldn’t be considered a “normal” consequence?

Because, unlike Alzheimer’s, depression can be treated. And available treatments, the Alzheimer’s Association says, can lead to “significant difference in quality of life.”

And that’s information caregivers should act on. If you even suspect the person you’re caring for is depressed, pursue a diagnosis. As with virtually everything related to the changed behaviors that accompany Alzheimer’s, the first critical step for a caregiver is letting the doctor know.

You’re probably aware that Alzheimer’s can complicate the diagnosis and treatment of other illnesses. That includes depression. For one thing, the two illnesses share some symptoms, such as isolation, loss of interest in activities and hobbies, confusion and impaired thinking. And the cognitive impairment our loved ones experience may make it more difficult for them to describe their feelings and symptoms. Because of this, the Alzheimer’s Association says, “It may be helpful to consult a geriatric psychiatrist who specializes in recognizing and treating depression in older adults.” But caregivers can begin by talking to the primary care physician.

sad bird

Don’t assume that, because he or she knows your loved one has Alzheimer’s, the doctor will automatically know the issues that most dramatically affect your loved one’s health and quality of life. Moods or behavior you observe that concern you should be brought to the doctor’s attention. I emphasize this because, as a new caregiver, I wrongly assumed the doctor would take the lead. I made the mistake of thinking, “The doctor knows this disease. He knows all the important topics to be discussed, all the important problems we’re encountering in caring for Mom.  If he doesn’t bring it up while we’re here in his office, it’s not really important.”

I was wrong. But I was fortunate. The results of my mistake could have been far more serious than they were.

In the next post, I’ll describe how I learned about the effects of depression on someone with Alzheimer’s. But for now, the facts are clear:

  • Depression is never normal.
  • Depression is not uncommon in Alzheimer’s patients.
  • Depression can be treated.
  • Treatment for depression may lead to significant improvement in quality of life for the one you care for.

I’ve experienced that shift from dark to brighter; I pray you can, too.

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Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him….   (Ps. 42:5  NKJV)

Father, be with us as we care for our loved ones. Help us to see what we need to see, and then do what is necessary to protect them. Thank You that we are never alone.

What If…the one you’re caring for is injured or becomes seriously ill?

The What-Ifs of Alzheimer’s, those panicky thoughts and questions that pop into your head as you go through your days as a caregiver, can steal every tool in your caregiving arsenal: your energy, your strength, your confidence, your creativity. The key to getting rid of the anxiety is to replace it with a plan. Today we consider, “What if the loved one you’re caring for suffers a major injury or becomes seriously ill?”

I confess: this is a question that didn’t keep me awake at night. Why? Mom had always been healthy. She was a physically strong and active woman until depression and Alzheimer’s began stealing her life away.*

Perhaps because the disease attacked her mind so ferociously, I tended to minimize the effects it had on Mom’s body. Alzheimer’s affected her appetite, her willingness to get exercise, her hygiene. Yes, I saw. Yes, I was concerned. But my concern translated to fixing those problems. I couldn’t fight the tangles of protein in her brain, but maybe I could entice her with healthier food options, persuade her to walk with me a bit more, even bathe with her if that would get her into the tub. I knew that, minus any other fatal disease, Alzheimer’s would inhibit her brain function to a degree that would eventually cause her death. But I didn’t consider that, in the meantime, the effects of the disease on her body could shorten her life.

Even when I arrived at my parents’ home early one morning and found Dad trying to help Mom up off the floor in their bedroom, I wasn’t overly concerned.

bird open mouth

“Does something hurt, Mama? Where do you hurt?” I asked. I touched her knees, her hips, her ankles. “Here? Here? Here?”

She smiled. “No.” And then, “I can’t do it.”

Dad and I had grown accustomed to Mom’s occasional inability to do what we asked her to do. Sometimes she just shook her head to signal she couldn’t open her mouth—unless we offered her a potato chip. Or she couldn’t get out of her chair to go to the bathroom—“I can’t stand up”—but her legs worked just fine to make an excursion to the coffee shop.

On this day, since Mom hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since the night before, I started there. I brought a straight-backed chair into the room, helped her onto the chair and into fresh underwear and clothes, and got her some orange juice. Then she wanted to go back to bed. So we helped her lie down, grateful she was dressed and had some nourishment.

snowy bluebird

Later that evening, she was still lying down, still in the same position on the bed. We could see no injury; she said again that nothing hurt. We called the doctor, then called an ambulance. Two days later her broken left hip was replaced with a new one made of titanium. But after the surgery, every rehab session was like the first one all over again. Mom remembered nothing from one session to the next. Eventually she refused even to try. One month and one day after she broke her hip, Mom died.

soaring

In our situation, there was little we could have done to change the outcome of the injury. Because Mom couldn’t do the rehab, with or without the surgery to replace her hip she would have been bedridden. She died—with Alzheimer’s, because of Alzheimer’s—of complications from being bedridden.

Still, while we weren’t able to prevent her death, there were issues we could have tackled in advance that would have made the time after her injury easier for everyone—especially for her. The information listed below will, I hope, help you to consider in advance some critical decisions you may one day have to make in a hurry.

  • Because Alzheimer’s impairs your loved one’s ability to find the correct words, determining how he feels, what symptoms he’s experiencing, can be challenging. Accurate diagnosis of any illness, and therefore treatment, becomes much more difficult.     A primary care physician who is experienced in treating people who have Alzheimer’s is a treasure.
  • As Alzheimer’s takes away their good judgment, it can be harder to convince our loved ones to eat nutritious foods and get sufficient exercise. Weakness and lack of balance can cause accidents and injuries.      Getting a professional aide in to help your loved one with exercise and hygiene is a good investment in terms of health and safety. As the disease progresses, you’ll need to be more and more alert to your loved one’s safety.
  • As Alzheimer’s steals the willingness—and, eventually, the ability—to cooperate, recuperation from an illness or injury is more difficult. Rehabilitation of muscles and limbs may be much harder to achieve, or even impossible.   My experience tells me that any treatment requiring repetition of movement or speech will be difficult and perhaps impossible for someone with advanced Alzheimer’s to accomplish.
  • Issues such as diet, sleep patterns, and patient cooperation make even the prescribing and administration of medications for an Alzheimer’s patient more complicated. Caregivers may have difficulty achieving the proper manner and scheduling for giving medication, and possible side effects will be more difficult to monitor.     Again, having a doctor who is familiar with the impact of Alzheimer’s on a patient is an immense help to caregivers.
  • A sudden illness or injury may necessitate not only hospitalization, but also moving your loved one to a professional care facility for a time. My father and I were shocked when we were told Mom would be released at noon the following day but she could not go home. She would have to be placed in a nursing facility. I had done no research on professional facilities—what was available, where she would get the best care, what we could afford, what would be closest and most convenient for us to visit, etc. We were able to gain another 24 hours before Mom was released, but the surprise and stress and rush to make arrangements that would so deeply impact both my parents’ lives took a huge toll on our whole family.     There is no substitute for doing your research into care facilities before the need is anywhere in view. You may never need to make that choice, or you may end up with weeks to decide, or you may have only hours. Having a couple of options to choose from will free you from worry in the present and panic in the future.
  • The time to transition from nursing care to hospice care can arrive suddenly, with little or no warning.     While being “prepared” for that eventuality may seem impossible, knowledge of what hospice is and what it isn’t, understanding how it can benefit a patient and family, and consideration of whether the concept of hospice care fits into your family’s caregiving philosophy—those things will help you if hospice care is suggested for your loved one.

A comforting answer to “What if my loved one with Alzheimer’s experiences a serious illness or injury?”  is this: We’ve thought about that. We’ve looked at many of the issues we need to consider. We’re aware of the options available to deal with those issues. We can always ask for help. We’re never alone. In short, we know we can do this.  

Yes, you can.

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*NOTE: Depression is a subject that’s treated in various other postings on my blog. Because it is such a huge complicating factor to Alzheimer’s, I encourage you to get more information about it. I’ll discuss in greater depth my own experience with how depression teamed up with Alzheimer’s to affect my mother in a new post to appear early in 2018.

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 And the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the Mighty God…by the God of your father who will help you, and by the Almighty who will bless you with blessings of heaven above….   (Gen. 49:24-25    NKJV)

Father, help us do our best for those we care for. We rely on Your strength, Your wisdom, and Your love for us and for our loved ones. Knowing You are always near makes us stronger, wiser, more loving. Thank You, Father.

 

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.

Using the Past to Improve the Present

In the last post, I described how I was able to use Mom’s love for keeping secrets to smooth the process of getting her to bed. That’s just one example of a miraculous phenomenon:

The past, even the less attractive parts of it, can be a powerful tool to gain our loved ones’ cooperation in the present.

Let me start by explaining how I think the keeping-secrets strategy worked. For most of my adult life, whenever Mom and I were together in a family gathering, she wanted me to come with her when she went to the bathroom. Back then she didn’t need my help. She just wanted to talk, to discuss things—usually inconsequential things—outside my father’s hearing. She did the same thing with my sister; we used to smile about it. I think talking “in secret” gave Mom a feeling of power. She knew things Dad didn’t know.

Unusual? Maybe. But it was a routine Mom and I practiced for years, without even thinking about it. And while I don’t know the science of where and why and how that routine was stored in Mom’s brain, I know from experience that if I told Dad in a firm voice he couldn’t come with us and then spoke in a whisper to Mom and took her arm, I could lead her to the bathroom or the bedroom or almost anywhere in the house we needed to go. Did it work every time? No. But it worked often enough that I began using other old habits and idiosyncrasies of Mom’s to smooth the rough path of Alzheimer’s.

Her green sweater, for instance. She wore it for probably twenty years, partly, I fear, because Dad begged her to get a new one. The fuzzy “pills” that covered it were the size of English peas. One shoulder seam had been mended so many times, the left side of the sweater was shorter than the right. Thank goodness for the distraction of mismatched buttons and raveling buttonholes. But—on difficult mornings, I could sometimes entice Mom to get dressed by adding the green sweater to the stack of clean clothes.

Another example: When I was a child, I could always count on Mom to have a tissue when I needed one. She was almost obsessive about having a pack of them close at hand. For a long time, even Alzheimer’s didn’t keep Mom from collecting tissues. She raided boxes at the doctor’s office and napkin dispensers at fast food restaurants. She folded her treasures with care and squirreled them away in the pocket of her slacks, in her otherwise empty purse, or in the already bulging pockets of the green sweater. Though this practice could be embarrassing, especially when Mom snatched a napkin from the table of some unsuspecting diner, it too proved helpful. If Mom grew angry for some reason when we were in public, I could grab a tissue from my purse and hold it out to her, saying, “Mom, do you want this tissue? I found it over there. Maybe we can find more.” The tissue claimed, or at least divided, her attention long enough to cool her anger.

Though Mom couldn’t seem to come up with the old habits on her own, they appeared to strike a comforting chord in her mind when we replayed them for her. Using even the irritating idiosyncrasies of the past, we were better able to handle the more severe problems of the present.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me….You are familiar with all my ways.       (Ps. 139 1,3 NIV)

Where would we be without Your wisdom, Lord? Alzheimer’s is a mystery to us, but not to You. Open our minds to Your inspiration. Thank You for continuing to guide us in the care of those we love.