From Memoryland to Grandbabyland: Part One

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If I have been absent lately, I have a good excuse: My daughter gave birth to her first child, a baby boy she named after Ralph. BabyRalph is as adorable as every newborn—in other words his parents and grandparents find him an absolutely perfect specimen of infancy and expect everyone we send pictures to agree with us, whatever they really think.

The plan has always been that

1), Ralph and I would drive down to New Orleans once my daughter went into labor and stay for a few days after the birth before I drove Ralph home

2), I would then return to help out on and off as long as needed, having arranged plenty of back up help for him.

Needless to say I was nervous about both parts of the plan.

For one thing, Ralph was less than enthusiastic about going to New Orleans at all. He said babies scared him, and I believed him. He was always more a dog person that a small child person. While he was present as the births of our two kids, he is a proud member of the late sixties generation of macho activist guys that spouted feminism but didn’t actually live it. I’m sure he must have changed some diapers; I just don’t remember when.

As my daughter’s due date approached (and then passed), we all became more and more anxious. Ralph too. His concerns shifted from himself to the upcoming birth and all that could go wrong. He stopped worrying about his own travel. He started calling to check in on my daughter and son-in-law (Flyfisherman) nightly. When are we going down again? Do you know when she’s go into labor? became his new mantra, which he repeated throughout the day several times an hour. When the call finally came that labor had begun, he willingly got in the car, and he barely complained on the six-hour drive.

Once in New Orleans, things got a little trickier. Ralph does not like changing his routine and likes excitement even less. Fortunately the small AirBnB we rented had a little patio where he could smoke. Since labor was going slow and we were asked to stay away until BabyRalph’s actual arrival, Ralph stayed on that patio a lot while I picked up the other grandmother at the airport and BabyRalph’s twelve-year-old half-sister K from school. Fortunately Ralph also napped since we were not summoned to the hospital to meet BabyRalph until late that night.

On that first visit and again the next day, while Baby Ralph’s two grandmothers and an ecstatic K vied for turns to hold him in the little rocking chair the hospital provided, Ralph held back. He would not hold the baby and would only look at him from the small sofa across the room, not up close. The next day was the same until I sat on the sofa with the baby so someone could take a picture of the three of us together. Ralph looked at the baby. Ralph squinched closer. Ralph decided maybe, just maybe he’d try holding the baby.

Ralph took his namesake in his arms. Ralph began talking to BabyRalph. Ralph began singing Dylan songs to BabyRalph.  My daughter,  DaddysGirl, may have teared up a little. I might have too. We all snapped pictures of BabyRalph.Ralph held BabyRalph and held him some more, until it was time for a diaper change. It was a magical moment.

But it was only a moment. Ralph did not show interest in holding the baby again over the next two days before I drove him back to the farm where he greeted the dogs with great joy and relief.

Part One of the Plan was a success.

Part Two…. I’ll let you know soon enough.

Ralph, Captain Emiritus–An Alzheimer’s Transition Moment

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For as long as I’ve known him, Ralph’s love of  boats and boating pretty much summed up his identity:

A lover of the outdoors.    A sportsman who preferred active participation in physical activity to watching from his couch.     A competitor who found competing against himself (or a fish) as rewarding as competing against others.    A problem-solver whose knack for fixing  machinery matched his love of tinker.    A perfectionist who kept his gear shipshape.    A leader who reveled in being captain of his crew.

Early in our marriage, as soon as he had a little extra spending money, Ralph bought his first boat, a small daysailer. I was never a boater and I remember at least one miserable ride in the early days of my first pregnancy. Then he traded up for a racing sailboat he named HARD RAIN after the Dylan song—apropos since every time I was dragged onboard, not often,  a storm showed up too.  For years Ralph sailed almost every weekend, frequently both Saturday and Sunday, with my close friends as his crew, while I stayed home with our toddler(s); if you think you catch a whiff of  lingering resentment on my part, you might be right. But boy, Ralph enjoyed himself. He always came home whistling with a story to a tell

Nevertheless, around the time we moved to the farm, he sold the sailboat–a matter of distance and weekend farm chores. But in the early nineties we started spending time on the Forgotten Coast, that still unspoiled stretch of Northwest Florida . Ralph being Ralph, we soon owned a lot with a house trailer near a boat ramp. Ralph bought a used skiff with a motor that seemed to die a lot, at least when I was around. I hated that boat. Then he found his beloved Paper Moon, a boat he could maneuver in both shallow streams and the sometimes rough waves of Apalachicola Bay. We moved to a piece of land with a dock on the bay and a garage apartment, but no actual house. By then Ralph and some pals had formed a Fishing Club that met for frequent “tournaments” although active participation dwindled over time to mainly Ralph and his even more obsessive first mate The–Other-Ralph.

Then our daughter introduced us to the new man in her life. Ralph, ever distrustful of her various would-be suitors, accepted this one immediately for a simple reason: he was a serious fisherman, a fly fisherman no less. Fly Fisherman also hit it off with The-Other-Ralph.  The three started fishing together and Fly Fisherman willingly took on more and more responsibility for the less fun tasks like prepping the boat, organizing the lunch, and cleaning afterwards.

Over the last few years Ralph, who used to stay out on the water for ten hours straight whatever the weather, began coming home for lunch after a couple of hours, then finding reasons not to go back out in the afternoon with the others. By last spring when The-Other-Ralph’s family and ours gathered for a week of beach and boat, my Ralph found reasons not to fish at all—the heat was bothering him, he had a stomachache. Fly Fisherman ended up taking The-Other-Ralph and his family members out on the boat without Ralph. Afterwards Fly Fisherman cleaned and made repairs as well.

Since then Ralph has not stepped foot on the boat. When I suggested trips to Apalachicola he was less than enthusiastic. We’d get down there and he might cast his line from the dock but he would avoid even visiting the garage where the boat is stored. On a visit last fall, my daughter was dismayed to find the garage in disrepair with mouse droppings and nibbles on the seats.

Ralph’s boating days were clearly over. Still, if he could not quite admit that the boat had become a responsibility he didn’t need and could not longer handle, I wasn’t going to force the issue. And the idea of selling such an essential part of Ralph’s identity was an anathema. (Also daunting since I’d be the one in charge.) So what to do?

With Ralph, The-Other-Ralph and Fly Fisherman about to have milestone birthdays, although thirty years apart, my daughter had a suggestion.

Ralph looked at me askance when I mentioned the possible birthday present. “What if I want to use it?”

“You’ll get Fly Fisherman to take you out.”

The more we talked it over—and believe me we talked it over many times a day, often repeating the same exact sentences—the more Ralph liked the idea. No, loved the idea. Once our two sons, who have no interest in boats, and The-Other-Ralph gave their enthusiastic blessing, Ralph became gleefully obsessed with giving the boat to Fly Fisherman.

Here was his out–a  way to acknowledge his loss of interest, not to mention stamina and capability,  without losing dignity. He embraced as his own choice the possibility of keeping Paper Moon in the family while handing over the actual responsibility. He told everyone that he’d decided to give the boat to Fly Fisherman. The problem became making sure Ralph didn’t spill the beans about what we wanted to be a birthday surprise, but somehow the word did not get back to Fly Fisherman.

Last week, Ralph sent a birthday card to Fly Fisherman with a photograph of  Paper Moon on the cover and a short, funny note inside  i explaining n his own words that he was turning over the enclosed boat title.

He signed it, then had a thought and added a PS.

I still expect to be addressed as Captain when aboard.”

I breathed a sigh of relief both for the smooth transition and the proof that Ralph was still Ralph.

Alzheimer’s As Public Health Issue

ALZE_NPD_24p_04.01_08_06_12.Still012.jpgfrom Every Minute Counts

PBS is airing a program entitled EVERY MINUTE COUNTS about the importance (is that the right word…danger? risk? cost?) of Alzheimer’s as a public health issue. It will be telecast this coming Wednesday, January 25, 2017, at 10 pm.

I have not seen the show, only the promotional material, but being someone who tends to view Alzheimer’s and degenerative cognitive disease through the narrow lens of my personal experience as the spouse of someone on the Alzheimer’s spectrum, I look forward having the chance (is that the right phrasing… will force myselffeel a responsibility?)  to examine the larger social and economic effects.

For those of you with access to American television:

EVERY MINUTE COUNTS   10 pm  Wednesday, January 25, 2017   your local PBS station.

Alzheimer’s Benefit–Exposing A Goodness Quotient

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I am prone to cynicism in general. And like a lot of people, I have been more demoralized by the state of the world than usual lately. So I am a bit surprised to find myself celebrating what, for lack of better phrase, I’ll call the goodness quotient in human beings.

Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Anne Frank, Nelson Mandela, Saint Francis—their lives are awe-inspiring and intimidating in equal measure. They have had their human imperfections here and there, but few of us aspire to their level of goodness. At least I never have. (In fact, I admit to spending MLK Day sitting around the house when I should have been out volunteering.)

But after reading the recent spate of articles surrounding Reverend King and John Lewis as well as a post entitled Gratitude in the Land of Dementia on the blog One of Life’s Little Surprises, I am struck by a reality that I seldom consider, the capacity of so many “normal” people to help others.

In particular, how do so many people find themselves able to accept challenges and responsibilities they never imagined they would face when their loved ones became increasing cognitively impaired. Why don’t they walk away (as I am often tempted to do from a so far less difficult situation)?

Individuals may answer, “I love my husband/ wife/ mother/ father/ sibling/ friend/ partner;” but that’s not it, not in any conventional sense. Of course I can’t speak for anyone else when I acknowledge that whatever emotional chemistry existed between Ralph and me before his diagnosis—whether the early passion or deep marital affinity—has definitely altered since his mind and identity have altered along the Alzheimer’s spectrum. I suspect the same kind of alteration has occurred between other caregivers and caregivees.

So, what specifically is the mix of loyalty, generosity, duty and sympathy/empathy that makes so many of the caregivers I’ve run across (who know who you are, Mary, Nancy, and all you others) tick?

I certainly don’t have an answer, but it is heartening to realize that when faced with the challenge, a large number of flawed, normal people are capable of being kinder and more caring than we expected of ourselves

Alzheimer’s Friendship

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Last week I had lunch with a new friend.

A month or so earlier I received an email from E responding to a post. She mentioned that we once met at a support group meeting run by the Emory Brain Center. I didn’t recognize E’s name so wasn’t sure who she was; because of the distance involved, I attend the support group infrequently at best and haven’t been back for ages.

But as soon as I saw E in person, I remembered her. I remembered sitting across the conference table from an attractive woman whose name I didn’t catch and thinking  she is really angry—angry and exhausted—and what’s more, she’s willing to admit it! She had recently convinced her husband to downsize their home, only to realize in the selling, packing and moving that her husband was more incapacitated than she’d realized. Scrunched down in my seat, listening to E talk so honestly, I recognized that I was not facing my own complicated mix of anger, stress and protectiveness toward Ralph. E’s directness and her honesty were a truly liberating epiphany.

Now here we were over a year later, sitting in a café catching up, and as E said, it was “like looking in a mirror.” Our husbands had different careers but in many ways we shared similar lives before they were diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment within months of each other and began seeing the same neurologist at the Emory Brain Center. Now both men are enrolled in the same Merck study I have written about . They both are devoted to their dog. And E and I are both…. Well, we are that same complicated mix of stress and protectiveness.

As E and I sat and talked over our salads last week One of us would begin a sentence and the other would be able it finish it. We didn’t have to sugarcoat, we didn’t have to explain. The words poured out. Being with E was so relaxing.

We lingered and lingered and then we went back to E’s house and talked some more. I drove away almost giddy with excitement, the way I felt at ten or eighteen when I met a new friend.

When Ralph was first diagnosed, one of the vows I made to myself was that I was going to maintain my life, that I would keep my friendships. And I have. In fact I have a larger circle of friends and more active social life than I used to. I have worked at building a network, professional writer friends, volunteer organization friends, political friends, literary friends, movie going friends, fun and conversation friends, family friends.

And online friends through the Memoryland community—and it feels to me like a community—along with other caregiver/caregivee blog communities.

Now I have an actual Alzheimer’s friend.

A New Year’s Resolution: Self-Caregiving

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We all hear from and tell others how important it is to take of one self as a caregiver. Lately a Caregiver’s Bill Have Rights Has Been Circulating. The suggestions make a lot of sense, in particular to take care of myself; to recognize the limits of my endurance and strength; to maintain facets of my life that do not include Ralph; to allow myself to get angry or be depressed occasionally (that’s an easy one); to stop being manipulated into feeling guilty (that’s a hard one, no manipulation required); to accept affection, and appreciation; to protect my individuality.

But in talking to others in the trenches, I find I am not alone in feeling that, even with a Bill of Rights posted one my wall, it is not always clear what taking care of oneself means.

One example: Back when Ralph and I were first dealing with his diagnosis, I loved reading about Alzheimer’s Wife’s quick trip to Paris at https://alzheimerswife.wordpress.com/?s=paris, especially since I took a similar two day trip myself. Now my daughter is about to have her first baby and I will be traveling alone quite a bit to help out (I am dragging Ralph with me when the baby arrives but he’s made clear that he does not want to leave home more than absolutely necessary). I want to go and look forward to Nana-ing, but I find myself as worried about the arrangements for him as excited about the actual travel.

The ying and yang here is the question–Do I let myself relax into the slow down, or do I try to squeeze in some activity that ends up putting more pressure on me. My resolution for the new year is to work on finding the answer, for my sake, but also for Ralph’s because he is definitely happier when I am.

But you know how resolutions usually turn out.img_0154

(PS—Happy New Year…I’ll let you know if disinterest in grandfatherhood lasts when there is a real baby for Ralph to hold in his arms)

Ms. Grinch, The Caregiver (i.e. Me)

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This Christmas season I am definitely feeling like Ms. Grinch. Maybe it’s the increased sugar intake, maybe it’s the extra running around and social organizing, maybe it’s the gray weather, or maybe it’s not Christmas at all, just the wearing down of my patience over the last twelve months, but Ralph has been “getting on my last nerve.” And that nerve is shredding fast.

As I have said here so many times, this caregiving business has its ups and downs. Well I have definitely been in a definite crevice lately and having more trouble than usual crawling out. Or admitting I was stuck at all until this morning when I found myself texting my sister that I was feeling overwhelmed, the kind of admission I generally avoid. She responded sympathetically asking what was wrong; I wrote back “Nothing wrong exactly. Just day-to-day stuff. Everything slower and more complicated. Trying to adjust to reality of how Ralph’s limitations impact.”

As soon as I hit send I realized what I had typed was an acknowledgement of certain obvious but previously unstated realities:

1) I trip myself up with unreasonable expectations. Intellectually I know that Ralph is limited, but in the face of reality, I keep expecting him to step up to the plate. While occasionally, he does step up, like getting Zeus to the vet last week, usually he can’t. I know that’s not his fault, yet I still get annoyed.

2) Annoyance and its sister resentment are  only part of what I am feeling. Before that text Ralph and I had spent hours writing an email responding to someone asking Ralph for real estate advice. Actually I could have/would have given the same advice, but she trusts Ralph’s advice more because he’s always been the expert. And his instincts and perspective remain sharp. But he cannot hold onto a thought long enough to give advice. So I constructed the email letter by asking him the same questions over and over, fine tuning as I posed the same question in different ways. We actually worked well together because we both acknowledged without rancor Ralph’s memory issue. That our final product was a clear, concise and useful analysis should have left us both with feeling a great sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and even pleasure. Ralph was pleased, BUT I WAS EXHAUSTED. And recognizing that the effort exhausted him at least as much didn’t lesson mine—he napped much of the afternoon—as I rushed around carrying out the various commitments and responsibilities everyone juggles in a day.

Obviously lots of people have more responsibilities, especially professionally, than I do at the moment. But I am finding that the effort that goes into making up for his limitations so he can live as full a life as possible…well it’s frankly a drag. Literally, because

3) Ralph’s limitations have been dragging me down and wearing me out. I wake up most morning tired. Worse, I let myself fall into Ralph’s low octane rhythm. My energy has dropped with his but unlike him I have stuff to do, the vestiges of a business to run, his life to run, my life to run, along with various other obligations in our family and community.

4) And then there are my personal creative ambitions. I have to ask myself whether I can keep them alive much longer under the circumstances. And my honest answer is, I’m not sure.

As I wrote that sentence I took a huge breath because there, I’d faced the real crux. Can I put in the increasing time needed to be Ralph’s caregiver—his chauffeur and calendar keeper, his rememberer and mental translator—and expect to have the kind of energy I need to focus and create another world in fiction.

I’ve always said yes, of course. But now I’m wondering.

Having admitted my doubts, I hope I am back in the swing of positive energy very soon. I think I will be. We all feel overwhelmed at times, caregivers and caregivees. We all want to escape. We all have to find the way forward that works for us. And the path is not always the one we expected.

Just writing that last sentence, I feel better already.