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HOUSE HUNTING WITH RALPH (WITH A LITTLE GUITAR STRUMMING ON THE SIDE)

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Ralph and I just spent an intense week in New Orleans: We spent working hours babysitting BabyRalph during the hiatus between summer day camp/day care ending and preschool beginning, and we were also house hunting. I use the word we,but obviously was doing the childcare and the house hunting.  Having Ralph along with me was a challenge on both counts.

1. Babysitting:

Usually, when I go off on babysitting or business travel, Ralph stays  home since he hates leaving his dogs and settled routine. I prepare an extended life list, call him constantly and arrange for “visitors” who  make sure he is eating and following his list.  But I took him along last week because: one, he’d had a precancerous growth surgically removed from his wrist the week before so I needed to clean and bandage his hand daily; and two, I wanted him to have a sense of involvement in the decision-making process of moving from the farm to  New Orleans. Not just a sense–his involvement mattered in practical terms as I realized the longer we were there. Needless to say, Ralph was challenged in New Orleans in ways he is not challenged by his daily routine at home.

We slept at an Airbnb a block from my daughter’s home, but Ralph spent most of his days either “reading” (i.e. napping) on my daughter’s couch and smoking on her back porch. Not unlike home, except he was “reading” on a couch in the living room, not tucked away in his bedroom, so BabyRalph and I were always aware of him and affected by both his presence or absence. BabyRalph would ask where “Bop” was going all the time and would try to follow him to the porch–where he could no longer play since it was given over to cigarette fumes–or try to rouse Bop from his couch stupor so they could play guitar together.

In fact, the two had some lovely moments making music together; a useful reminder to both Ralph and me that Ralph still can and should play his guitar on a regular basis, an activity to add to his daily list. But while Ralph is gentle and wants to be helpful, his cognitive limits and needs were more apparent than ever. I was caught between a curious, active 2 year old whom I need to keep an eye on at all times and an oblivious, inactive 72 year old whom I needed to keep an eye on at all times.  It is not that Ralph is irresponsible all the time, but I can’t rely on his judgment from moment to moment. I could not leave the two alone together for even a few minutes any more than I could leave BabyRalph alone with another two year old.

2. House Hunting:

When I was off BabyRalph duty, I took Big Ralph to open houses. It is important to note that he has completely accepted that we are moving.

I don’t do any of the things on the farm I used to like to do anyway,” he says with a certain calm acceptance that both gladdens and saddens me.

The house we move to in New Orleans will be the house where I die,” he says with less calm and even more poignancy.

But acceptance is not enthusiasm. If Ralph’s capacity for enthusiasm is extremely limited these days under the best of circumstances, leaving the home where he’s lived for over 20 years, really the only home he remembers well, is far from the best of circumstances. And looking at property for sale—once his favorite activity in the world and what he did for a living as a small time developer/renovator/manager—has become a tedious chore for him (no smoking for one thing).

I thought of not making him come along but besides wanting  him invested in the house-buying,  I wanted to get a sense of what, if anything, might spark some, well eagerness seems to strong a word but at least a smile.

I personally was looking for something that needed no renovation, was relatively close to BabyKnox, and offered walkability. I was thinking small, but, of course with a porch for Ralph and some kind of yard for the dogs. Oh, and an office space I could escape to. I was thinking cute bungalow. But not one house I picked based on my criteria brought anything like a smile to his face.

Then on a whim I dragged him along  to a house that was totally outside my comfort zone: both bigger, a two-story, and older than I wanted. We went to see it for fun because my agent had seen it already and said it was “Amazing,” and because my daughter wanted a peek inside.

It was pretty amazing but what was most amazing was that Ralph actually liked the house. He loved the yard and the garage and the workshop. I liked the loveliness of the architecture and the fact that though old, it seemed in better condition than any other house I had seen in the price range. Ralph said he could imagine living there. I wasn’t sure I could. It was so not what I’d been looking for.

The next day Ralph didn’t remember the house at all. So we drove by it again, twice, he liked it again both times. I did too, but I still wasn’t sure.

Ditto the next day.

And the next. Meanwhile I kept checking out other houses by myself,  but none compared. The yards were tiny. The layout, even in smaller houses, would have been too confusing for him. The prices as high or higher.

So we now have a signed contract on a house. If all goes according to plan, we will move next spring. I am more excited each day, planning small changes, plotting what furniture to take. This will be the nicest house Ralph and I have lived in.

As for Ralph, I still wouldn’t say he is enthusiastic but as he repeats daily, “It’s the one with the yard and the workshop, right? That should work fine.”

Yesterday…   As In The Movie And Ralph’s Life

 

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First of all, go see Danny Boyle’s movie YESTERDAY. I laughed and cried and had the best time I’ve had at a movie since, gosh, I was thirteen when my friend Dorothy and I got my mother to drive us four hours from Pennsylvania into NY City to see Albert Finney as TOM JONES ( the same weekend the Beetles were in NY City to begin a tour; after the movie, my mother took us for Chinese food at a restaurant where Dorothy and I may or may not have walked past George Harrison, but that’s another story).

I went to YESTERDAY with a friend who’d already been once but wanted to go again. When I came home I called and wrote everyone I could  to recommend the movie. Then I sat down to write about it here because, after all, the premise is all about memory.

In the movie, the Beatles and their music (like other random items we all take for granted) has never existed for most of the world’s population. Or put another way, most of the world’s population has forgotten the Beatles ever existed. So the link between memory and personal reality couldn’t be stronger:

In the film, all the people who don’t have the Beatles in their mental database don’t miss them. And yet. And yet, the loss of what they don’t know is palpable to those who do remember (including the audience). So when the songs are reintroduced to the unremembering world, even in a slightly adulterated, second hand form, the joy is glorious. Not unlike when I show Ralph pictures and videos of joyful moments he doesn’t remember otherwise. The difference is that in the movie, people get to keep hearing those songs in their heads once they’re reintroduced. For someone with Alzheimer’s, the memory doesn’t stick, has to be reintroduced every time.

But aside from all my possibly pretentious psycho-philosophizing, the movie is just plain fun. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. My idea was to take Ralph to see it and then finish writing this post by discussing his reaction. Whether or not he followed the plot, I assumed he’d love the music, of which there is a gracious amount, and I hoped hearing the songs would possibly trigger memories for him of what he was doing when he heard Help or Let It Be.

So I scheduled “See movie Yesterday With Alice” into his daily list for Thursday afternoon at 3pm. By mid morning Thursday, Ralph was complaining of a stomachache.

It must have been something I ate…I don’t think I can go to a movie today…Can we re-schedule the movie for another day.”

I wasn’t surprised when he was miraculously better and sitting on the porch with his cigarettes and beer by four that afternoon.

Let’s go Saturday then,” I said.

What’s the movie about again?”

“The Beatles, and what if no one remembered they existed but one person.”

Definitely,” he said.  “It sounds great.”

Well, here it is Saturday. As he does every morning, Ralph asked me over our first cups of coffee whether anything special was planned today.

The movie about the Beatles,” I said.

Oh, do I have to?” he said. “It’s just I don’t like sitting in a chair at the theater for so long.”

I looked at this man, who sits four or five hours at a time in his porch chair and realized I was hanging on to an idea of Ralph as moviegoer that I had to give up. It was not boredom or muscle pain he feared but being trapped in a world he couldn’t follow. He no longer has the capacity for concentration and comprehension that we both used to take as for granted as we did the Beatles.

“No, of course you don’t have to go.” Not today or tomorrow. Movies have become part of Ralph’s yesterday.

AM I TOO TOUGH ON RALPH, OR NOT TOUGH ENOUGH?–THE MCI/ALZHEIMER’S BALANCING ACT

dirty dishesRalph has been skipping the last item on his daily lifelist: putting Lola in her kennel bed before he goes to bed at night.Obviously this is a small issue and I am capable of putting her to bed instead. But I don’t want to. For one thing, I like not having to do it myself, like being off duty all together for an hour or two before I go to bed. More important, I like the idea that Ralph contributes, however small the gesture, to the practicalities of our life together.

The thing is, maybe I need to face that Ralph is no longer capable of remembering to put the dog to bed at night. Maybe his cognitive energy is used up by seven pm and I should not nag him the way I do now (and yes, sometimes if he’s still awake reading in bed, I make him get out and see to Lola).  And this realization makes me re-considering what I should be expecting from Ralph.

Never mind big tasks like running the tractor—our tractor crisis two years ago will never reoccur because Ralph avoids messing with the tractor at all now; thank goodness I have found someone who not only runs it but also can maintain it.  As for medium tasks, like changing light bulbs, I don’t expect Ralph to carry them out any more although once in a while he’ll surprise me like the other day when he was able to attach the propane tank thing to the grill (although he couldn’t remember how to turn on the grill itself).

It’s the small tasks that I’ve been counting on for normalcy. But can I really? It is not that Ralph is unwilling. If anything, he is more willing to than he was in his prime when he downright refused to pitch in any time he found it inconvenient. Now if I ask him to take a turn making coffee, he agrees. If I ask him to help bring in groceries, he agrees. If I ask him to help clear the dishes he agrees. He is happy to help.

But, and it is a big BUT, his ability to follow through can be haphazard. He’ll agree but immediately forget and I’ll be annoyed. While counting to ten I debate in my head whether to nag him or let it pass. Or he’ll agree but do the job halfway. Or look at me with a forlorn expression. The other day when I asked him to unpack his small suitcase after a weekend trip to visit friends (a trip he enjoyed immensely although I dragged him there against his wishes), he gave me that look Unpack a suitcase? Put my socks in the sock drawer? I quickly backed off but he caught my look back and asked outright, “What, you don’t think I can unpack?” “Of course you can.” So he unpacked. But none of the clothes ended up where they belong.

Again, not a big deal. And not that he doesn’t ever follow through, not that he doesn’t sometimes surprise me with his competence, the same way he sometimes surprises me by remembering a conversation I assume he’s forgotten. But there are so many other examples of disappointment. So many times I get annoyed because he doesn’t follow through. So many times I wonder Should I trust him even to try a task he seems reluctant to try? Is he unwilling or unable? So many times I wonder Am I being too tough? Am I being too coddling?

Of course, I am being both and neither. I never seem to calibrate the right balance because there isn’t one. Although Ralph appears more capable and competent some days than others, I have to face that his brain is going through its own climate change, a melting away sometimes indecipherable but undeniable. 

 

 

 

Leaving Memories Behind Is Hard When Memory Itself Is In Short Supply

 

IMG_0125Ralph and I had one of our increasingly infrequent genuine conversations last night. He was sitting in the porch rocker as usual and I had come out to tell him that I had finally found the courage to warn Manuel that we’ll be moving and have to let him go in the next months. He has worked for us for over 20 years, first as a maintenance man at our apartment management business in Atlanta, then for ten years on the farm. Although we are not moving for awhile, I don’t want to wait until the last minute and leave him in the lurch. But letting him know we are going seems like a defining moment.

You know I’ve never lived anywhere in my life as long as we have out here, Ralph mused as I sat with him. This is going to be a life changing move.

Yes it is, I agreed and meant it.

It will be hard to give up this view. He gestured at the trees, the pasture, the pond. A leafy green and blue postcard picture of rural life.

Yes it willI agreed and meant it.

The truth is that lately I have been feeling like an observer as I go through the motions of handling the various details of our life. Not only watching over Ralph, stepping in to do actual care-giving as necessary—lately for instance, I’ve noticed his worrisome new tendency to skip showering and changing clothes, an issue I’ll explore more at some other time—but also as I go about my own life roaming real estate sites on the internet for a house to buy, going through closets to start winnowing out belongings we don’t need to move with us , focusing hard on what’s left of our business to be as financially ready to move as possible. Is that the same woman who just accepted an invitation to a party of new friends. Should she/I be bothering under the circumstances? But I do attend the party and enjoy my friends with if anything new intensity. because the idea of moving feels slightly unreal. Unreal, it occurs to me,  the same way Ralph’s diagnosis felt to me in the beginning. (I remember we were together in car on some trip, him at the wheel of course as he always used to be, and we began joking about a future when I would have to drive him. Was I at all aware how soon that day would come?)

Sitting on the porch with Ralph at sunset it was hard to imagine leaving. Were we really going to upend our current stability, static yet shaky as it may be?

Of course, Ralph said interrupting my thoughts, when I think about the farm these days I’m mostly remembering stuff I don’t do anymore. Duck hunting, raising cattle.

True. I agreed.

So I went into the house and got my phone.

What’s this? Ralph asked as I hit play on the video of him singing Alouette with BabyRalph.

What you get in exchange for giving up the view, I said.

Of course he doesn’t remember the conversation or the video this morning, but that’s okay. I was reminding myself at least as much as him.

 

 

Ralph–A Change of Perspective

Ralph and I just spent almost a week in New Orleans together babysitting while my daughter and son-in-law were away. With the change of scenery came a change of perspective.

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Here on the farm, life plods along. We get up in the morning and drink our first cups of coffee together and then we go about our days.  I have various deadlines, meetings, and activities at home and around town that keep me active so I’m not necessarily paying attention to how Ralph is filling or not filling his time. Of course I check with him regularly to make sure he is following his life list and of course he calls me repeatedly—whether over the phone or in person from the bedroom to the kitchen or over the phone from the bedroom to the kitchen—to ask whatever question has lodged in his brain for the day. And yes I am increasingly involved in getting him to do small activities (Did you take a shower? is one of my favorite nags and is about to go on the life list) and driving him to doctor appointments. But I don’t yet have to think about him minute to minute.

In New Orleans, we were much more in each other’s faces. While BabyRalph was in pre-pre-school, Ralph and I were alone in a house with an open floor plan where neither of us had space to escape to. Ralph wasn’t tucked away in an office or the bedroom. Ralph actually found the stairs to the bedroom too steep to climb more than absolutely necessary, a fact I have to note as I look for a house for us. He was either on the living room couch “reading” (mostly with his eyes closed) or on the back porch smoking. I was sitting in the kitchen trying to concentrate at my computer as he asked me repeated questions when he wasn’t sleeping.

And then there was the smoking. At home, although it drives me crazy that I can’t sit on my front porch anymore, I can almost ignore his smoking. In New Orleans I was responsible for a two-year-old who cried to be with his Bop. If I said, “Bop is outside,” BabyRalph said, “I want to go outside with Bop.” Of course I couldn’t let him outside with Ralph, or to play in his own backyard where the smoke from Ralph’s cigarettes hung paralyzed in the damp heat.  And each time Ralph came back inside, he had to, or at least had to be nagged to de-cigaretize (i.e., wash his hands, etc.,) before he could be around BabyRalph.

And he did love to be around BabyRalph. In the late afternoon for a few hours, Ralph and BabyRalph were inseparable. While they played, and that is what they did-play—I was free to clean up the house and get dinner ready. Ralph was fully engaged with BabyRalph in a way his own children never experienced him.  Of course, we are all more playful and relaxed with our grandchildren than we were with our kids. But there is definitely added-value in Ralph and BabyRalph’s case. Ralph was energized by BabyRalph because they share sense of presentness. BabyRalph has very little past to remember, while Ralph has very little memory of a lot of past.  And neither thinks about the future.

But I do. And what I have realized is that the biggest reason to move to New Orleans is not that we need to downsize or get and give family support but that Ralph needs to interact regularly with BabyRalph, oops now ToddlerRalph, as much as possible because those interactions bring him to life in a way nothing else does.

A Mental Vacation from Memoryland

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You have probably noticed that haven’t posted for awhile. Several friends have emailed to make sure nothing is wrong.

All is well. Everything is fine and as normal as Memoryland gets. No crises. While the slow drip of slippage continues, a little more silence here, a little less appetite there, there have been no significant changes in Ralph’s cognition or his mood. At least none that I’ve noticed.

Really, the truth is I haven’t been paying as much attention to him as I usually do. I was about to add as maybe I should, but the truth is, he seems to be fine without my hovering. What I have been concentrating on instead is

  1. The practicalities of re-directing our lives as I look forward to a move: Dealing with realtors and financial advisors. Overseeing what’s left of our business. Considering needs like doctors and bank accounts that I need to re-order. Wondering how to pare down 40 years of a life to make it transportable to a smaller footprint.             At first I was too overwhelmed to think about, let alone write about, the plethora of business decisions I have to make (ie which of the properties Ralph bought at the end of his career–when his cognitive powers had already diminished–to sell, how to move quickly enough to find a new home if I sell the farm faster than I expect, how to move at all if the farm doesn’t sell in a reasonable time). But while I’m still anxious, I’ve begun to enjoy the challenge of fitting the pieces of our financial jigsaw puzzle into place.  I enjoy the number crunching and I definitely enjoy roaming through realtor.com to look at houses for sale…
  1. Myself. Yep, I admit it. I have been wrapped up my own life.  I’ve been working with a growing roster of clients in my new mini-career as an editor (work I can do as easily from Nola as from here), I’ve been traveling to see kids and grandkids. I have started a drawing class and can’t stop drawing whenever I have a free minute. I’ve been promoting my friend photographer MaryBeth Meehan outdoor outsized portrait project Seeing Newnan, which has the community buzzing. I’ve been writing on my own.

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Of course, I am getting Ralph to his doctor appointments. Keeping track of his meds and his food. Writing his daily life list that seems to be getting longer as I add more activities in danger of being forgotten if I’m not around to nag, like showering. I just have not been obsessing about him while I can afford not to. It’s almost as if I’ve set up a savings account with the energy I don’t need to expend now and may need to call on later. At least that’s what I tell myself when the guilt starts rising.

(losing) Memory and (losing interest in) Food

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My lunch today: a salted dark chocolate covered caramel. And it was just as delicious as it sounds. I am telling you this dirty secret (not that I eat that unhealthily every day, but the caramels were on sale at the store and called my name; plus it was my birthday) because I may not be the best judge of anyone else’s eating habits given that food looms so large in my life. I love taste and texture, salt and fat and sugar and acid. I eat for comfort and I eat for joy. I am as much gourmand as gourmet (and not a little obsessive about dieting as well). My favorite movie may be La Grande Bouffe, about a group of men who eat themselves to death. It’s one of Ralph’s favorites too.

In fact, I would say eating, along with arguing over politics, has been the activity we have most enjoyed sharing as a couple.

When we first met, Ralph was not terribly into food. He liked breakfast, mainly because it was cheap and fast. But he quickly converted. I was a restaurant reviewer for a while, and he loved going with me to restaurants. He loved the ambience of a fine dining establishment and of a funky, edgy dives. He loved experimenting with new flavors and spices. He also loved my cooking. And occasionally he loved to cook—there was a period when he got into soup making and took over making dinner for months on end.

I still love eating.

Ralph not so much.

We all know that in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, eating becomes difficult and eventually impossible. I dread that time and Ralph, thankfully, is nowhere near that incapacity. But day-by-day his eating routine has been evolving that mirror larger changes in Ralph.

He still claims to love my cooking. No matter what I put in front of him at the dinner table, he tells me it is delicious. Even sad leftovers mixed with canned soup. And he always eats his dinner. But he’s never what I’d call hungry. He never asks for a dollop more than what I put on his plate. He certainly never asks for seconds the way he used to every night. He always has a nuttybuddy ice-cream cone for dessert. Even if we have company and I’ve prepared a special dessert, he prefers his nuttybuddy.

This has been our dinner routine for a while. He also has cereal every morning for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch with a glass of milk. He has lost some weight over the last year or so because he doesn’t eat snacks anymore (unlike his spouse who may have put on the same number of pounds he’s lost), but if anything he looks fit and healthy.

The thing is I went away for one of my babysitting stints last week. Before I left I cooked chili and stew and bought a roast chicken. I divided meals into nightly portions I labeled. I filled out his life list in detail, telling which foods for which nights. He looked it over and we were all set.

Our friend R. came to stay with Ralph for the first few days I was gone. Then for the rest of the time I was away, I had arranged for another friend to “drop by” daily. One day she made him banana bread. The next she used up all the salad greens and pears etc. he wasn’t eating and made him a big salad. Every night when I asked him if he’d had dinner, he said yes he had eaten or he was about to look on the list and eat as instructed.

Nevertheless, when I got home all the chili and most of the stew I’d left was still there. So were the banana bread and the salad. And half the roast chicken. And some spaghetti R. had evidently cooked.

Ralph had found it easier to have a peanut butter sandwich for his supper than microwave a bowl or plate from the fridge.

This is not a big deal in the scheme of things. He remains healthy. He did eat. He can make a sandwich and he did heat and eat at least one bowl of stew. And I froze the leftovers to use another day. From now on, if I am gone I will be even more explicit on the life list and will verbally walk him through heating up his dinner every night.

But I feel sad. Ralph’s disinterest seems to be spreading slowly over our lives. I realize I can’t leave him as easily as I have in the past.  That he needs to be watched over, not because he can’t function but because he’s just not that interested.