Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s Association

What Is Normal Anyway?

people_in_the_park_204264 Is this the couple  Ralph and I are becoming? Jaunty hats and sensible shoes? Would it be so bad if we were them? Don’t they  look  happy and normal? But what is normal?

As I look at the life Ralph and I share now, I can’t help wondering.

When he was first diagnosed with relatively advanced Mild Cognitive Impairment, Ralph was in his mid-sixties and considered young to be jumping on the Alzheimer’s escalator. Now he is approaching 70 and those  symptoms—fogginess, lack of energy, loss of short-term memory, disengagement—that seemed so out of keeping with our peers a few years ago fall more comfortably into the gray area called “the aging process.”

And after all aging  is normal and even desirable  (the alternative being death) although it hits us each differently. For example, I called Ralph’s oldest friend the other day; the two have drifted out of touch over the years but Ralph still talks affectionately about Jim and I thought reconnecting  and reminiscing would be nice for them both to do while Ralph still can. Jim was excited at the prospect of re-connecting with Ralph but we couldn’t actually talk until  he put in his special hearing aid for phone use.

In that moment it occurred to me as it has before that while Ralph remains on his plateau of not-quite-Alzheimer’s-yet, his issues are not radically different from other men his age, at least according to what I hear from the women my age who live with them. So many of my friends complain that their husbands are slowing down faster than they are, that they no longer want to travel, that they’re becoming stay-at-homes, that they are more passive than they used to be, that they need to be cared for, that they require a lot of patience.

And we women have our own issues, or at least I do. The sleep issue—never more than six hours and often less, with the resulting sense of dull tiredness and desire for an afternoon nap. A nap for God’s sake! Ugh. The driving issue—is my driving getting worse or am I just more nervous? The concentration issue—much harder to turn off the wifi and buckle down (although maybe this problem will go away after election day). And of course the fashion issue—not that I ever dressed fashionably or learned to use make up but nowI either look as if I’m trying too hard or not hard enough.

The thing is, I still do feel younger, still want to fight aging, while Ralph has embraced it. Our day-to-day life has fallen into a frankly pretty comfortable pattern set largely by Ralph’s needs and wants. The pattern scares me because I find it enticingly easy to fill so much time dealing with minutia concerning managing Ralph’s care, our finances and our household, especially since my social life has actually expanded as Ralph’s has contracted. If this is this my new normal, it is not all bad? But I worry, where is my zest for the intellectual and creative ambitions that have always defined me before?

In a weird way I am almost heartened personally by the current election season in which two of my peers slug it out with vigorous, and in one case even brutal, energy (although I’m not saying their “normal” is the one I want). I want to believe I can still find that kind of passion and energy in myself. But maybe not, and maybe that’s okay.

Sorting out what is normal under my circumstances, or what is normal under any individual’s individual circumstances, is not easy, but it is where I find myself.

(PS. Last nightI asked Ralph, as I always do, if he’d talked to anyone during the day. He said no. I checked his phone. There was Jim’s number at the top of received calls; evidently they’d talked for over half an hour.)

“Younger Adults With Alzheimer’s Are Key To Drug Search”–My Greatest Hope and Fear

lifestyle dementia technology multitasking

I realize there is much controversy about how money should be spent on Alzheimer’s research—whether more funds should go to a cure or go to prevention. Self-interest has kept me hoping that research finds a way to prevent Ralph from the currently inevitable slide into more serious dementia, yet I also have told myself that preventing Alzheimer’s from affecting masses of others is the more altruistic approach.

Then I read the article,“Younger Adults With Alzheimer’s Are Key To Drug Search,”  . Focusing on a 37-year-old woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it claims that testing for certain Alzheimer’s genes could be a crucial part of the research to prevent Alzheimer’s:

“Until recently, people who inherited this gene had no hope of avoiding dementia and an early death. Now there is a glimmer of hope, thanks to a project called DIAN TU  that is allowing them to take part in a study of experimental Alzheimer’s drugs.

The project also could have a huge payoff for society, says Dr. Randall Bateman, a professor of neurology at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s highly likely,” he says, that the first drug able to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s will emerge from studies of people genetically destined to get the disease.”

I hope Dr. Bateman is correct. But I can’t help thinking about Alzheimer’s in purely personal terms. And really, the pros and cons of the research were not what came to the forefront as I read the story.

All I could think about were my kids. Basically the Alzheimer’s gene is the monster in the room that has scared me too much to acknowledge out loud.

I doubt I am alone in this avoidance. I’ve noticed that children, most of them already grown, receive only passing mention on many spouse caregiver sites devoted to Alzheimer’s. And the heroic children caring for their parents with Alzheimer’s are so busy writing about their concern for those parents that they never mention fears about their own future.

But the genetic connection of Alzheimer’s within families does exist as this article, and many others make clear [“Alzheimer’s Disease Genetics Fact Sheet for the NIA”,   Alzheimer’s genes: Are you at Risk?”,    and a variety of scholarly studies.

The thought that Ralph’s and my kids may be at high risk for developing Alzheimer’s is horrifying.

But the thought of them getting tested horrifies me too. There are all kinds of genetic risks my descendents already face. Cancer, heart disease, and diabetes to name a few. Do they need to be burdened with the certainty, or even the likelihood of Alzheimer’s? I am someone who would rather not know my future (or the future of those I love, especially if that future is going to happen once I’m not around frankly). But my kids are not me. Eventually each will decide what course he or she wants to take.

While I certainly wish Ralph had not developed Alzheimer’s, we are adjusting day by day. In fact, I am fast reaching the point of not quite remembering what life was like before. Alzheimer’s has become central to our life as husband and wife, or as the ever wise Alzheimer’s Wife  recently posted, “part of the bargain.”

The kids didn’t buy into that bargain. But they eventually they may have to own it. It’s not fair, but it’s life.

“In The Zone”

Ralph took his first art class in twenty years this afternoon.

He agreed to go only because our physician’s assistant Stephanie gave him a “written prescription” to take art lessons during our last visit to the Memory Center at Emory.

Ralph has always been a natural draftsman, and in his thirties he took courses from a couple of relatively renowned artist/teachers who gave him real encouragement. Then life got in the way and he didn’t stick to the art. He always said he’d take up the painting again once he retired. But that was before he was diagnosed with (not so) Mild Cognitive Impairment and he has not touched a paintbrush since.

So when he told Stephanie that he had his paints all set up in his office in the barn and was going to paint soon once he had things organized, I probably rolled my eyes. He does go to his office to “straighten and organize” most days, but really he sits and smokes and talks to the dog. I am glad he has somewhere to go and be comfortable. I certainly don’t care that the office will never be organized, but I do fear and sense the mental atrophy setting in.

Like everyone involved with dementia and cognitive issues, I am aware of the benefits of art therapy. [For those interested there is a documentary, “I Remember Better When I Paint” worth checking out as well as numerous articles and essays to be read on-line.] But Stephanie and I knew better than to push that angle with Ralph, who shies away from that word “therapy”.

Instead Stephanie blamed human nature, explaining in the nicest way possible that if Ralph didn’t take an actual class he would never start to paint on his own. She told him that he needed the class to jumpstart and structure his time. (She also prescribed a weekly night out for dinner or a movie, but following that direction has proven harder for reasons I’ll explore another time.) What he would hear as nagging from my mouth became sound advice  when it came to Ralph from an authority figure who also happens to be attractive and charming.

Fortunately, as Stephanie agreed, Ralph doesn’t need to be in a special class for the cognitively impaired. He just needs a class period: A time and place on his schedule; plus an environment with other students good enough that he takes the class seriously but not so good that they intimidate him. Not an easy situation to find in a small town, but two friends separately recommended the same art teacher who has been working with a group of adult students for several years. We talked. I assured her that Ralph was not a beginner, but I also felt obligated to acknowledge Ralph’s M.C.I. just in case something came up. I assured her that no one in the class would be able to tell he had a memory problem. I could hear her hesitation, but she agreed to let him in.

Since I told him that I’d signed him up he has asked with anxious frequency what day the class was, where it was, how long it was, what he had to take to the class, who would be at the class and how good were they at painting.

He has not been asking with enthusiasm. His has been a litany of fears. On the drive to the class this afternoon—“Where is it again,” a moment of silence, “Where is it again?”—Ralph was such a bundle of nerves that I almost gave in and said he didn’t have to go. The gray, drizzly cold didn’t help; bad weather is always an excuse for Ralph these days.

But we made it to the parking lot and he did get out of the car with his supplies.

I sat with my motor running as he walked in, pretending to take a call on the cell phone. By then I was a bundle of nerves myself, the same nerves I remember suffering when each of my kids faced the first day of school. I watched through the window as he trooped into the classroom and walked up to the teacher to introduce himself.

“So how was it?” I asked when he came out two hours later.

I could tell he was in a good mood, but I was not expecting what a good mood.

“Once I got started I was in the zone,” he said and showed me the painting he’s begun. He can’t wait to go back…

How happy-making to offer a success story for a change.

OOPS

So I was about to write about a little snafu caused by Ralph’s memory lapse the other day but then I had my own cognitive issue.

We received a less than friendly email from a neighbor who has been complaining about various issues. In the past when he has made requests we have always complied. This time he was mad because a dumpster on our rental property was not emptied on New Years Day. The email was sent to our business email address and to Michael, the guy who manages the property since we “retired”. In the past we have always bent over backwards to make him happy—hiring people to police the grounds, adding an extra dumpster pick-up day, acquiescing to his zoning requests to put in a swimming pool and build a wall. This time I was admittedly annoyed at the snotty tone of his letter and emailed Michael that I now wished we hadn’t offered so much in the past. Unfortunately I was emailing from my phone, was slightly distracted, and hit “reply all” by mistake.

The neighbor was not amused.

And I can’t blame my screw up on cognitive impairment. Wait, maybe I can.

As followers may have noticed I haven’t written here for a few weeks. Since Ralph was  functioning more or less as usual, I took a short hiatus, taking care of the essentials but not thinking quite so much about our situation–a small case of burnout.  And I am not alone.  Supposedly caregivers of Alzheimer’s spouses have a higher rate of anxiety that could impair cognition. http://www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-caregiver-stress-burnout.asp

The hiatus is over and I am feeling calmer about my life, but don’t tell anyone. MCI and Early Alzheimer’s have given Ralph his built-in excuse for life’s big and little screw ups . I need my own.

I Meet Another MCI Spouse

We are a little early for Ralph’s third of five sessions in an Emory University study on visual aids on whether certain visual clues will improve memory retention for those with MCI/Early Alzheimer’s. (There are so many studies out there right now and they all need volunteer subjects. But not every patient qualifies to be in a study. MRIs are usually required and there are often other restrictions as well but it is worth going to the Alzheimer’s Association website to check out what studies are going on in your neighborhood.)

Ralph’s study is concentrated over a two-week period. Ralph says the “homework” aides the researcher has recommended don’t help but he has returned willingly enough. I don’t sit in during the sessions but I come alone for moral support and read old magazines in the drab but not uncomfortable waiting room.

This afternoon another couple sits down in the waiting room with us before Ralph gets called in. I size them up: both husband and wife are a little older than us, probably early seventies, casually but tastefully dressed, whispering and smiling at each other with just an edge of nervousness that says they are first timers. She is lively and chatty, he more passive. Like Ralph.

But a few minutes before Ralph goes off with his researcher, another researcher comes for the wife. The husband and I are left together with the dated magazines. As we begin to chat about the weather and the time it took to get to the building, I am dying to bring up the obvious—if both of our spouses are in this study, they must both have the same diagnosis—but I don’t want to intrude on his privacy.

Before I can stop myself the letters M, C, and I are out of my mouth.

Yep, his wife is about a month behind “Ralph” in the process, not necessarily in terms of her degree of cognitive impairment but in terms of when she was diagnosed. She is seeing Doc L’s partner. She has just started the same drug (donezepril) Ralph is on. Her husband’s not sure what comes next.

I am almost giddy as we start comparing notes. There is so much to talk about that I haven’t been able to share with anyone else. Our hour or two together in that dinghy room flies by. I doubt I’ll ever see him again. I don’t know his name.

But for the first time, I realize I am not alone