BRAGGING, NOT RAGGING, ON RALPH

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Lately, I’ve been complaining a lot here about the difficulties of living with Ralph as his cognitive skills wobble and wane. While I hope that my honesty in voicing frustrations as I explore ways to manage as caregiver-spouse has been useful to others, I know I sometimes lose perspective (thank you to friends here you rein me in).

So it’s good to be reminded that life is not a straight line, especially when Ralph is doing the reminding:

1.The day after the contractor incident earlier this week (see ), Ralph asked me whether he’d had an argument with a contractor and what was it about. I told him, trying to soft peddle as best I could.

“Oh well, we can replace the system if he thinks it’s necessary,” he shrugged.

Despite my expectations, he hasn’t brought the subject up again, except to        acknowledge that he is embarrassed by his own behavior. Pre-diagnosis Ralph was almost Trump-like in his inability to apologize for mistakes so I consider his contrition a sign of emotional growth.

2.Then yesterday, while listening to the news, he made a comment so astute I must share it with you all. Someone on the radio complained about political correctness and Ralph stopped sipping his coffee to say, “Why would anyone want to be incorrect about politics or anything else?”

Why indeed? I borrowed his observation and posted it on my facebook pages where “likes” flowed in. Although he may not remember the details, Ralph can still cut through to the chase.

3.The kicker is a conversation we had an hour ago. Periodically I must drive to St. Petersburg, Florida, to manage the affairs of a disabled cousin. Since it’s a seven-hour drive each way, I have to spend the night. I long ago gave up on getting Ralph to come with me. Last year I drove down with a friend who also has (difficult) family to visit in the area. Another friend may drive down with me next week; she needs a break and I’ve bribed her with the promise of a gourmet meal, a nice hotel and the Dali Museum. But she has warned me she might have to cancel at the last minute.

Ralph must have heard me talking on the phone about the trip as he was napping on the couch because out of nowhere, he sat up and OFFERED TO COME WITH ME. Note the capital letters in red ink. I was/am flummoxed.

Whether he comes or not is not the point—and frankly, I’d hate to have him miss his art class, which is so important in his mental life (one week wouldn’t matter but he has to miss class the next week too, ah the complexities of Ralph’s usually empty schedule!).

The point is that he is still capable of breaking through the Alzheimer’s shell of inward-gazing to think about someone else’s well being, and that someone else is me, not as his caregiver but as his wife whom he wants to take care of.

So at the moment I am feeling an emotion that our relationship doesn’t often raise in me  lately—I ‘m not talking about affection, although I am feeling that too, but gratitude that this particular man is in my life.

RALPH RUNS OFF THE CONTRACTOR

 

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Ralph ran off a contractor I was in the process of hiring this afternoon. It was almost funny, or will seem so in a week or two once I calm down.

Picture the scene: The sun beating down in 90 degree heat outside the house; my pen poised to sign the paperwork for repairs, Ralph appearing, fresh from his nap and barefoot; the contractor clutching his clipboard. Ralph asks Why can we just clean the system? The contractor explains. Ralph asks the same question again. And again. Why can’t we just clean the system? Each time a bit more belligerently.

The contractor tries to explain what he has already explained—that the system is past cleaning—and then tries again. He draws Ralph a diagram to show what he means. I can tell that the contractor doesn’t understand why Ralph is sticking so doggedly to an idea he has just explained won’t work and I can see and hear Ralph’s growing frustration. Both men become increasingly defensive. Meanwhile I stand there feeling helpless to diffuse the situation.

The irony is that the contractor was recommending exactly what Ralph had told me he thought needed to be done just yesterday.

Ultimately the contractor said he didn’t think he could do the job and Ralph said something less than gracious back (I have blocked what). As Ralph headed back into the house, I apologized under my breath to the contractor, explaining briefly that Ralph has Early Alzheimer’s.

Was that a betrayal to ease my embarrassment or an explanation that needed to be given? Should I even use the A word since Ralph actually officially still as MCI but no one knows what that is? I’m not sure.

The thing is that in his glory days, Ralph was not an easy man to work for—a demanding perfectionist who was also careful about every penny—and I sometimes had to run interference, a role I hated then. Evidently I still do, but Ralph was coming from a different place this afternoon. Locked into a narrow loop of one question he wanted answered over and over, Ralph was not processing the information he was receiving.

Although he is rarely aggressive in dealing with me or anyone else now, different versions of this problem have come up several times recently, usually related to business matters. I generally try to avoid involving him, but sometimes that isn’t possible. Sometimes the people Ralph is dealing with know he has a cognitive problem and give him leeway; sometimes they don’t and become puzzled if not belligerent.

A few minutes ago I received a call from the contractor’s wife apologizing profusely, saying that the contractor had no idea and would be glad to help us in any way. Meanwhile, I have already called someone else to by tomorrow. My guess is that a lot of conversation with Ralph for the next week or so will focus on this afternoon. What did the guy say? What did you say to him? Have you found someone to fix the filter? Who was the guy who came to fix the filter? Is the filter fixed? I will listen and nod, straining to be patient and silently kicking myself for not handling things better in the first place.

NO MORE MOPING

 

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I woke up this morning saying those words to myself. Which is a good thing.

The truth is lately Ralph has been getting on my last nerve. When he starts on one of his loops—lately his favorite has been the history of our dogs and the order in which they died—I tense up and cut him off saying I don’t want to talk about it. When he gets confused following simples directions or an explanation, I am dismissive. When he lights yet another smelly cigarette, I want to pull my hair out.

I could go on with a litany of complaints about Ralph and admissions about my behavior/attitude. But there’s no need, is there? Probably, hopefully, I am making myself sound worse here on the page than Ralph would say I am in real life. And if I am in a state of constant annoyance toward Ralph, I am in an even greater state of annoyance toward myself.

The thing is that sometimes I forget that living with MCI is a slog not a sprint. What I unfortunately don’t forget is that there is no end in sight, at least no good end.

The other thing I forget is that while we are in this together, we are also each in this alone. While I can try harder to empathize, I cannot know what Ralph is going through, and I can’t expect him to know what I am handling. I have to take responsibility for managing my frustrations and creating my joys. When I don’t, when I slip into blaming everything on the MCI, life goes downhill.

I am sure I will slip again, but for now, the sun is rising above the trees, the dog is chewing her fake bone, the coffee is brewing and all’s right, or at least okay, in this corner of the world.

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Travel With Ralph (or Not)

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For the last two weeks, Ralph and I have been discussing a trip scheduled for this Labor Day weekend to New Orleans to babysit our twelve-year-old granddaughter while my daughter and son-in-law take their “babymoon”.

I brought up the possibility to Ralph a month ago when they first asked me to help out. Since I was driving down there–Ralph has made it clear he never plans to step onto a plane again in his life–I suggested he might come along.

I suggested but assumed he would say no. Since the family moved to Louisiana a year ago, I have visited probably six times. Ralph has been once, for a family Thanksgiving, and he didn’t exactly enjoy himself. Staying in a hotel discombobulated him, and he missed his dogs.

But he must have been in a good mood when I asked, for to my surprise, he said sure he’d come. I started fantasizing (and I use that word purposely) about a pleasant weekend of good meals and maybe a visit to the WWII museum, which I told him he would love.

A week later I mentioned the trip in relation to something else going on and he didn’t remember our first discussion.

“Why are we going?” he asked.

I explained. He looked perplexed. “And I said I’d come?”

I nodded. He said, “Ok,” then promptly forgot all about the trip until the next time I brought it up. We’ve had the same conversation daily for weeks.

Each time Ralph sounded a little less enthusiastic. Meanwhile I was growing a little less enthusiastic too as the reality of what it might take to keep both him and my granddaughter happily occupied began to sink in. I’d been sort of bragging to friends that Ralph was actually coming with me this time, but I started hedging, saying that if he resisted I wasn’t going to force him.

The truth is that traveling with Ralph is no more fun for me these days than it is for him. He was never the most adventurous companion, but he was generally game. Now his anxiety and low energy makes every trip a complicated obstacle course of arrangements: limited activities, limited walking, no wandering, no spontaneous choices, a lot of naps. I hear how trivial these complaints are. All that’s required is patience and a willingness to slow down, but that’s the rub. A husband in his sixties with cognitive impairment is in many ways equivalent to a typical eighties something husband; I know I’m not being fair, but while I hang on to late middle age by my fingernails, I resent him dragging me into older age.

Yesterday we looked at the weather report for the weekend: thunderstorms. Now my granddaughter and I are perfectly able to occupy ourselves playing cards, watching movies and eating junk food. Ralph does none of the above. What he does when faced with free time, of which he has much, is smoke cigarettes outside on the porch. But my daughter’s apartment has no porch. He’d be sitting outside in the rain.

“You’re off the hook,” I told Ralph and breathed a guilty sigh of relief, thinking how much more fun I would have.

This morning I was starting to pack my single bag when the phone rang. My granddaughter has been invited by a friend’s family to spend Labor Day weekend at a beach resort. Evidently I’m “off the hook” too.

“Florence Foster Jenkins”–An Example of The Elasticity of Marriage and the Caregiving Spouse

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I have learned most of what I know about history and society and morality from reading good novels and watching good movies (I admit I go to TV more for the escape). But fictional portrayals of family care giving in books and movies usually leave me cold. There’s too much sentimentality and nobility, or conversely cold conniving and self-interest.

When I saw Away from Her several years ago, I loved it for Julie Christie’s performance and because it moved me emotionally, but I wasn’t dealing with an impaired spouse myself at the time and accepted the soft focus presentation of  memory loss without question. I suspect that if I were to re-watch that movie  or Iris, based on the loving memoir by philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch’s never-complaining husband, I might react with a little defensive impatience since everyone in both films  exhibits a niceness I obviously can’t always muster.

I certainly didn’t go see the new Meryl Streep/Hugh Grant movie Florence Foster Jenkins expecting to feel my soul exposed. But, I was shaken by how honestly it captures the complexity of a lopsided marriage in which one of the spouses has become the caregiver for the other.

The movie is about an actual Manhattan socialite known  both for her great philanthropy and for giving hilariously bad public concerts, including one at Carnegie Hall, despite having absolutely no singing ability, let alone talent.

I appreciated that there were none of the dreamy flashbacks or usual movie platitudes about cognitive loss that drive me crazy, maybe because Mrs. Jenkins does not have  Alzheimer’s. However  her ailment, with its own traumatic results, could be seen as an equivalent for the early twentieth century and required her husband to play a role many of us dealing with dementia issues will recognize.

And as good as Streep’s performance is in the title roll—and she is wonderful at making Mrs. Jenkins a real woman rather than an over-the-top caricature—even non-caregiver viewers will probably agree that Grant carries the movie.

Struggling to find my own balance as wife and caregiver, I found myself mesmerized by Grant’s performance as a husband forced to go beyond and at the same time fall short of normal spousehood. Others in the film might approve or condemn the decisions he makes concerning both his wife’s happiness and his own, but as Grant portrays him, the complex layering of his feelings for his wife at any given moment defies simple labeling like selfish or supportive.

And watching this husband try to keep his wife’s world intact as long as possible was painful and true—historically accurate evidently but also  emotionally real and close to home at least to me.

In other words, if you have a chance, go see it. And let me know what you think.

“I LOVE YOU”–Easier Said Than Done For Caregivers of the Cognitively Impaired

I happened to read a post at the Alzheimer’s Reading Room call Three Little Words. I am sure the article’s author Bob DeMarco is right. I realize that saying “I love you” is a wonderful thing to say. I am sure DeMarco is also right that changing patterns of behavior as a caregiver is a good idea.

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But frankly I am not feeling it at the moment. I can hear you responding, that’s the point. If you say it, you will change how you are feeling and behaving. I get it intellectually and I don’t not love Ralph. But saying those words, and I do, sounds hollow. The truth, which is not always pretty, is that being together with him day in and day out is an emotional drain. Solitary even when we are in the same room and de-energizing because I tend to let myself drift into a slough of inaction with Ralph that I find both debilitating and anxiety-producing. (And yes, I know I should do things to make him more active, and I try, I really do.)

So, politically incorrect as this may be, I admit that I often put my own needs before Ralph’s these days. As I have said here before, we never had exactly an easy, or even happy marriage. I blame myself as much as him because I passively allowed him to be what he called “the captain” of the family, what the rest of us sometimes called the bully. My reasons were the usual complex mix of love, laziness, fear, and indecision.

Now, of course, Ralph is someone else altogether. As am I.

He has become the passive, gentle man who sat in the car today without complaining while I did grocery shopping on our way home from his aborted shrink appointment—for which he blamed not his therapist or me but himself for screwing up the dates and which despite the two hours spent driving in the car was not a complete waste of time because it gave his day a focus. The new jovial Ralph didn’t care that my run into Publix for milk turned into a full-fledged six-bag expedition.

Ten years ago, even if all I needed was a quick pint of milk, I would have driven him home and then driven back to the store we were passing on the way rather than argue over the practicality of adding an extra hour of driving to my life. For better or worse that weak-kneed version of Alice has disappeared. I have become a woman who tries to be diligent in her care but is seldom anything approaching affectionate.

Which brings me to this further shocking-to-me admission: Lately I have found myself transferring my affections from Ralph to another love object.

lola                I snuggle with Lola. I baby-talk to her the way I always made fun of other dog owners for doing. I encourage her to lie on the bed with me while I drink my morning coffee (especially since Ralph prefers to sit outside with his first cigarette). For the last month we have been taking classes together to make her more obedient. She now comes as soon as I call and stays sitting in “place” until I tell her otherwise. Along with obedience, she has become much more attached to me. All I do is look her way and she is by my side licking my ankle.

Ralph’s attachment comes with complications. Lola’s is much simpler (except that she eats my shoes). For me having Lola to love on has been a real help. And Ralph is not the least bit jealous.

How Politics Is Hitting Home, Or In Ralph’s Case How It Isn’t

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Living through this political season has been a more emotional experience than in past election years for three reasons.

 

One

Obviously the candidates have raised strong reactions. Like so many others, I have VERY STRONG opinion. I don’t want to be coy here—I dislike Trump to put it mildly while my enthusiasm for Hilary has been growing as the campaign evolves. But living where I do, in a smallish, very conservative southern town, voicing opinions can be risky. I have plenty of friends who I am sure have different political opinions. Usually our differences have been the basis for lively discussions. But this year we are all careful around each other, too careful. Friendships may be at risk in this climate.

 

 

Two

Hearing the rhetoric from all sides has set me thinking about my experience of family as a microcosm of the larger community experience, and specifically about how my family represents of today’s America.

My grandchildren through Ralph’s son by his first marriage visited this summer. It was a big deal because they live with their mother in Namibia (in southwestern Africa) so don’t get here often. And when they come they split their time among a lot of people—us, Ralph’s first wife and family, plus relatives of our ex-daughter-in-law. There are grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins in a never-ending stream. Often the question of who gets to visit for how long causes tensions. But this year we worked the schedule out, and our extended families came together for various cookouts and bbqs.

Today I glanced at the photograph from one of those gatherings—I have blacked out the faces to protect the innocent and guilty—and saw a world: Caucasian, African-American, American Indian, Goan Indian, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Atheist, Straight, Gay, Old, Young, Middle Aged, Careers in Business, Education, the Arts and Health Care, Long Married, Single, and formerly married (Ralph and his first wife). My proud, rather self-righteous thought was what a poster family we are for the United States but then I realized we are probably a fairly run-of-the-mill mash up in today’s America.

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Three

For the first time since he was a fourteen year old and his best friend’s mother involved him in her political activism, Ralph is watching the election from the sidelines. Even as recently as four years ago, when he’d already started to show symptoms of cognitive impairment, he actively and somewhat vociferously followed politics. I have previously written that Ralph’s political views have softened—from a hard-line socialist to a hard-line libertarian back to somewhere in the moderate middle—but this election has thrown his changing concern for the world at large into stark relief.

As he says with a chuckle whenever politics comes up, “I’m not really following.” And he’s not. He has decided he likes Hillary and doesn’t like Donald, but also has trouble remembering they are running against each other. As for the issues, he nods when I pontificate or voice outrage but then, like a kid caught stealing a cookie, he admits he’s not really been paying attention. The problem is that there are too many details to hold on to. Analysis requires remembering layers of thought. So does nuance. Ralph is great at remembering certain stories of his own and even lots of facts, but when he listens to sentences that should add up to someone else’s story, or argument, he gets lost. Therefore he steers away from stories and arguments.

But this may be my limited explanation of his disinterest. He would disagree. “Been there, done that,” he’d laugh before explaining that he’s simply over politics, the same way he’s over fishing and boating and business, because he’s been deeply involved in each and now he’s moved on. I am careful not to ask moved on to what?