Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s friendships

Ralph’s Night to Shine (And Forget Alzheimer’s)

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It never fails. Whenever I start complaining about my life as a caretaker spouse, events remind me to shut up, stop griping and recognize the good stuff.

Case in point, we had house full of guests last week:

My 20-something nephew living with us for the summer while doing an internship; my 13-year-old (step)granddaughter was having one of summer weeks at the farm; and a photographer from out-of-state here to defend (with my support) her local portrait project, which was being attacked as too controversial by some members of the project’s sponsoring art organization board on which I serve.

So the five of us were sitting around the dinner table, one of those big group meals at which Ralph and I used to excel and which I tend to avoid now because I hate sitting beside Ralph as he withdraws into silence unable to follow the thread of conversation. What I usually feel is a mixture of guilt that I am not finding a way to include him and impatience that he is ruining my enjoyment. (And the truth is it is my responsibility to make him comfortable in a variety of situations and I sometimes chafe under that responsibility.)

What I felt the other night was, well it was envy. Ralph was so damn charming that the three others at the table—for whom I’d been working all day to entertain in different ways—were enraptured. Even the 13-year-old, jaded as only a 13-year-old girl can be—sat up straight an listened with fascination as Ralph told his stories about meeting MLK Jr. The photographer leaned over to whisper how handsome he was. My nephew acknowledged that Ralph scared him when he was a little boy. “You weren’t mean, but you were stern,” my nephew said. The 13-year-old smiled slyly because the Ralph she knows is a pushover softie. Ralph agreed with her.

My envy reminded me how I used to feel in my introverted twenties when I was in a group setting with Ralph and he was the energy force around which everyone orbited. In those days I was obviously drawn to his charisma, if a little jealous of sharing it with others.

This envy was oddly refreshing. I admit I kind of like my new role as the social butterfly in our marriage but it can be tiring. I have become so used to being the one responsible that it took a moment for me to relax and let Ralph hold the limelight for a change. Once I did relax, what I really felt was wifely pride in Ralph’s charm. And even a little wifely love.

(But I can’t get too Pollyannish because the next day, exhausted by his social efforts, Ralph was more foggy than ever.)

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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 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.

Celebration When You Don’t Feel Like It

 

This has been a strange, difficult week. The world is topsy-turvy, fear and loathing rising in so many hearts, tempers short—even among people who agree—and tears flowing. Since Tuesday’s election, most of my friends and family are either numb or angry or both.

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Nevertheless, last night I hosted a dinner part for Ralph’s 70th birthday. A month ago when I asked him how he wanted to celebrate his birthday, he said he didn’t want to celebrate it at all.

But that felt wrong. So I decided to make his favorite dinner, roast chicken with mashed potatoes, and invite only people he is genuinely comfortable with these days.

I invited everyone over a week ago. But on Wednesday I thought of cancelling the dinner. Five of the seven invited were/are in major distress and the other couple I was afraid to ask because I politics is a touchy subject. I was afraid the “celebration” might turn into a verbal brawl or be lugubrious at best. But my depressed friends said no, push on.

Ralph was oblivious. He is well aware of the election but he was mostly just not happy we were having a bunch of people over. “Why celebrate that I’m getting old.” As I slaved over a lemon meringue pie filling that wasn’t thickening, I wondered why I was bother myself.

First to arrive was our friend N, who called ahead to ask if she could wear her Hillary t-shirt, since she doesn’t plan to wear anything else for days or weeks to come. I said sure. Then the rest of the election mourners came. They are friends with us but didn’t know each other. Usually that would make for awkward moments, but last night they had plenty to share and discuss. The wine flowed as fast as the conversation. Once our more conservative friends arrived, the politics dropped but the funny cards were opened. And the perfect Ralph gifts: cigars, a pouch labeled BEER MONEY and filled with quarters, and an antique lighter. He was in his element.

We ate our chicken and mashed potatoes (delicious) and our lemon pie (runny). We told stories about and toasted Ralph. We laughed a lot. At the end of the evening we all hugged.

It was cathartic and a lovely reminder that life goes on.

Then just before everyone was out the door, someone glanced at his cell phone:           Leonard Cohen had died.

“It doesn’t matter which you heard/The holy or the broken hallelujah”

As I said, life has to go on.

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.)