Category Archives: Alzheimer’s and Relatives

Ralph’s Annual Alzheimer’s Test, 2018

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No surprise, Ralph’s subscription to Alzheimer’s has been renewed. I know the analogy is illogical but that’s how I sometimes think of his annual mental check up.

Does that seem blasé?

It’s just that every July the routine is so similar. We get to the building after a long anxious car ride, Ralph takes the standard hour long test while I meet with our Nurse Practitioner Stephanie privately, I tell her (every time) that I sense Ralph growing less engaged, Ralph joins us after his test and Stephanie checks the results before telling us that he has pretty much held steady. Some element of the test usually shows what she calls “a little slippage” from the previous year but never as much slippage as I expected or think I’ve noticed.

For instance, this year his tests results showed that compared to last year, he forgot three more words on the word retention section or two connection on the connect-number-and letters section (a test I found difficult myself when I took it as a part of Emory’s healthy aging study). Stephanie seemed less concerned about those scores than she was that he had answered two more answers denoting possible depression than he had last year. So we have upped his lexapro back to what it was a few years ago when in retrospect he seemed almost jolly.

I think Stephanie is wonderful, perceptive and caring. I think so particularly after she specifically asked if I still travelled to see my grandson; I said yes with a bit of embarrassed hesitancy, remembering a call from a friend who with best of intentions told me Ralph seemed lonely.

“Well you definitely should,” Stephanie began and in that half second before the next word I groaned to myself that she’d found me out as a caregiver will to abandon her caregivee), “continue those trips.”

So I love and believe totally in Stephanie.

But after four or is it five years, I’ve finally acknowledged to myself that the annual test is limited in its efficacy. My personal test results for Ralph were a little different this year. What I noted were two concrete-ish differences from a year ago and maybe a third.

  1. On our to Emory Ralph told me he was beginning to feel foggy more often. “Foggy” is a term he used a lot before he went on his medications way back when he was first diagnosed but has not used much since. I was a little, if not exactly alarmed, concerned. (Of course, when I brought up what he’d said in front of Stephanie, he didn’t remember saying any such thing and denied any new fogginess.)
  2. Two or three years ago, Ralph happily agreed when I suggested we pick up Cuban sandwich at a funky joint nearby that we used to frequent when we lived in the city. The next year he became less enthusiastic about the inconvenience of going out of our way to a restaurant. Instead we fell into the habit of dropping by the on-site café every time we came to Emory, which was quite frequent while Ralph was in his now defunct Merck study. But after this visit when I suggested the café, he demurred, not exactly adamant but firm. He wanted to swing through a drive-through, lately pretty much the only place he’ll reluctantly eat away from home. The Emory café is nothing special but the food is relatively healthy and I have always looked forward to that little break in our routine, a little moment of civilized social normalcy. That his unwillingness to eat in a café was upset me may say more about me than Ralph. Food has always been kind of passion. I feel the loss of eating out sharply. It was one of the few activity we always shared as a couple, both of us adventurous and willing to try pretty much anything, both of us fascinated by the culture of food, both of us drawn to both high and low cuisine. I briefly thought of insisting we go to the café, and maybe I should have. Instead I acquiesced and swung us into a Burger King. But I was resentful. After ordering Ralph his sandwich and soda, I passive-aggressively ordered only a diet soda for myself, while reminding Ralph, “I’m on a diet and there is nothing on the menu I could eat.” (Oh, please, I was starving by then dying for a greasy burger.)
  3. Bonus difference point, He didn’t notice I was upset. Me being passive-aggressive and resentful is nothing new in our relationship. It may have been the bedrock of our relationship: whenever I got passive-aggressively resentful, Ralph more than noticed and would turn surly and aggressive back. So I honestly don’t know if change number three is for the better or worse….

The Business of Remembering…A Sense of Time and Identity

The business of remembering what you did that day, or what you might want to do the next, I think, is essential for creating an overview of your life – that overview is what fuels plan-making and that ties in deeply with identity.”

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In case you missed it, this comment was made about my last post by  Jabberwalk, who writes with great insight and honesty at her own site Caregiving in the Forest.I can’t stop mulling over the implications.

Time is the trickiest part of life for Ralph. Almost the first thing he asks each morning is what day of the week it is. Sometimes he remembers what he did or parts of what he did yesterday, sometimes he doesn’t. Often he misremembers. He doesn’t like the confusion his lousy short-term memory breeds, but he lives with it by asking for a rehash over and over hoping for clarity that seldom comes.

We all fear the loss of short-term memory, but the problem of future memory is in some ways more troubling. When Ralph looks forward to what comes next, what he seems to see is an anxiety-producing obstacle course. Since he can’t hold on to the facts of place and time, he becomes increasingly anxious each time he asks again Where? but mostly When? The issue for me becomes how much information does he need, how much is a burden.

Not only do I make the scheduling decisions, but I also end up structuring what he thinks about that schedule, and therefore what he thinks about period. In other words, I am taking away or at least shrinking his overview.

His sense of identity has certainly shrunk. Yes, he is an increasingly passionate dog lover because dogs demand so little and remember on their own. And he remains a husband, not an equal partner perhaps but genuinely grateful to his wife for filling in the blanks. He is still a father too, although his memory of the kids’ childhoods is sketchy and he keeps up less and less with their adult lives because he finds tracking the details so difficult. He was glad to let go of his professional identity and hand me that responsibility early on. While he can be charming in social encounters, his interest in friendship and being a friend is limited by his difficulty remembering who people are, their names of course but more importantly, their connection to him. While still capable of moments of remarkable perception, he is no longer interested in being an intellectual or armchair philosopher because it requires remembering a train of thought.

I remember lots of trains of thought. I carry around layers of overview based on the different roles I play—wife, writer, friend, woman, businessperson, spiritual seeker, reader, political thinker, mother (Note that caregiver is not on this quickly written list—a Freudian slip I just noticed myself).

These roles operate within and are influenced by the various ways I frame my time. There is the constant background hum of long-term, generalized plans still under construction (i.e. How much longer until we need to downsize? What are my options if/when needs professional care?). More immediately, there is the weekly erasable-board calendar that Ralph and I live by day-to-day; there is the monthly wall calendar as well as the one on my phone. And there is the semi-conscious minute-by-minute and hourly tracking most of us fold into our routine (unless we are on the Alzheimer’s continuum and struggle to remember whether we ate lunch already) without much conscious thought.

But what has always been almost second nature, like making coffee as soon as I get up in the morning, is getting more difficult. Lately I have trouble both keeping my plans organized and keeping a hold on my sense of self within those plans, largely because of the important role-identity I just caught myself forgetting to include above. Caregiver, leads to another identity: AliceasRalph.

Keeping Ralph’s life organized and reminding him what he is doing on a given day means I also remind him why and how he feels, which means I make an effort to get into his head to understand his mindset. Thus is born AliceasRalph, who often ends up as confused as he is by his confusion about whatever I am trying to explain. Our weirdly opaque discussions can sound like the old WHO’S ON FIRST comedy routine.

Ralph’s overview of his life, if not lost entirely, is definitely tangled. And because I am both Alice and AliceasRalph, my overview is pretty tangled too. Not hopelessly, but moving forward requires vigilance as I ceaselessly work to untangle the delicate filaments without breaking them.

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