Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s joyful moments

A DIFFERENT KIND OF COGNITIVE TEST: REAL LIFE

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After writing about Ralph and my experience with organized cognitive tests, I watched Ralph in action in a different kind of cognitive challenge last Friday.

Living in the country without door-to-door garbage service, I travel weekly to the recycling center. I drive Ralph’s truck and take along Lola the dog for company. I drink a diet soda on the way and occasionally (read every time) treat myself to a candy bar afterwards. There is something oddly satisfying about coming home with empty cans and baskets.

But recently I pulled a back muscle grandmothering a bit too exuberantly and have avoided bending/lifting ever since. Meanwhile our garbage began piling up.

On Friday I couldn’t stand it any longer and announced to Ralph that after lunch we were heading to the dump. Now Ralph usually helps me load the garbage into his truck. Once or twice he has driven with me to the recycling center, which happens to be across from the location of his art classes. On those two occasions he enjoyed sitting in the truck with his dog and cigarette watching me unload, a choice I made because I figured I would be faster. He has never participated in throwing stuff away.

Recycling is does not require much detailed thought. After throwing unrecyclable garbage that’s been put in county bags, into a dumpster, I mindlessly divide everything else to toss in the marked bins. You probably know the drill: aluminum, plastic, newspaper, junk mail, cardboard, and glass by the color.

For Ralph our recycling trip was a challenge.

The dogs didn’t help. We decided not to bring them because old Zeus has trouble climbing into the truck these days so Lola needed to stay behind to keep him company. But then Zeus hid under the house so there was a bit of a kerfuffle until he showed up as we were backing out of the drive way  and we got him into the house. Ralph, already nervous—he’d called me three times while I was running to the bank beforehand to ask what he’d have to do—and now he was worrying about Zeus’s health as well as the garbage.

Usually I drive us everywhere these days, but driving Ralph’s truck with a bad back was not an option. It has been awhile since I sat in his passenger seat with him behind the wheel. He drives very carefully, going 35 in the 45-mile-an hour zone until I suggested, with mild (I hope) impatience, that he might consider the speed limit. (He does drive very carefully so if you are asking, as I do frequently, Is it safe for him to drive?, the answer is I think so as long as he doesn’t have to worry about finding his way alone. I hope I’m right)

In any case, we arrived safe and sound. But our time at the recycling center was not fun. Despite large clear labeling on the bins, Ralph could not keep track of where anything went. His difficulty was that I was asking him to combine several unfamiliar activities at once. I could feel his frustration mounting. I took a deep breath, had him bring the recyclables to me at the biggest bin, did as much emptying as I could manage and directed him hither and yon.

No stops for candy bars on the way home. But I thanked him profusely for his help. And Ralph was like a small boy desperately wanting to do well at a chore that was slightly beyond him and thrilled when he made it through.

Seeing him react, I realized that I have been letting him slide. If a situation might be difficult, I’ve avoided it. But Ralph can live with a little anxiety, and a gentle challenge enlivens him. So the next day, Saturday, I announced to Ralph that we were going into Atlanta to see the Andy Warhol exhibit at the High Museum. Painting is one of Ralph’s only activities after all.

He wasn’t thrilled but again he reluctantly agreed.

I drove.

On the way, when Ralph announced he was hungry, I got him to eschew his standby fast food choice. Instead we had lunch at the museum café. Suddenly Ralph got into the spirit. He talked about the courtyard artwork with enthusiasm, he ate with a gusto rare for him these days, he wandered through Warhold exhibit reading all the placards and studying the pieces. He tried to get me to buy stuff in the gift shop. Afterwards we paid a short visit to friends who live near the museum, and he was sharp as a tack.

Of course he doesn’t remember the trips to the dump or the museum or the friends. But I remember for us.

(PS Coming soon: The Tractor Drama unfolding as I type)

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From Memoryland to Grandbabyland: Part One

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If I have been absent lately, I have a good excuse: My daughter gave birth to her first child, a baby boy she named after Ralph. BabyRalph is as adorable as every newborn—in other words his parents and grandparents find him an absolutely perfect specimen of infancy and expect everyone we send pictures to agree with us, whatever they really think.

The plan has always been that

1), Ralph and I would drive down to New Orleans once my daughter went into labor and stay for a few days after the birth before I drove Ralph home

2), I would then return to help out on and off as long as needed, having arranged plenty of back up help for him.

Needless to say I was nervous about both parts of the plan.

For one thing, Ralph was less than enthusiastic about going to New Orleans at all. He said babies scared him, and I believed him. He was always more a dog person that a small child person. While he was present as the births of our two kids, he is a proud member of the late sixties generation of macho activist guys that spouted feminism but didn’t actually live it. I’m sure he must have changed some diapers; I just don’t remember when.

As my daughter’s due date approached (and then passed), we all became more and more anxious. Ralph too. His concerns shifted from himself to the upcoming birth and all that could go wrong. He stopped worrying about his own travel. He started calling to check in on my daughter and son-in-law (Flyfisherman) nightly. When are we going down again? Do you know when she’s go into labor? became his new mantra, which he repeated throughout the day several times an hour. When the call finally came that labor had begun, he willingly got in the car, and he barely complained on the six-hour drive.

Once in New Orleans, things got a little trickier. Ralph does not like changing his routine and likes excitement even less. Fortunately the small AirBnB we rented had a little patio where he could smoke. Since labor was going slow and we were asked to stay away until BabyRalph’s actual arrival, Ralph stayed on that patio a lot while I picked up the other grandmother at the airport and BabyRalph’s twelve-year-old half-sister K from school. Fortunately Ralph also napped since we were not summoned to the hospital to meet BabyRalph until late that night.

On that first visit and again the next day, while Baby Ralph’s two grandmothers and an ecstatic K vied for turns to hold him in the little rocking chair the hospital provided, Ralph held back. He would not hold the baby and would only look at him from the small sofa across the room, not up close. The next day was the same until I sat on the sofa with the baby so someone could take a picture of the three of us together. Ralph looked at the baby. Ralph squinched closer. Ralph decided maybe, just maybe he’d try holding the baby.

Ralph took his namesake in his arms. Ralph began talking to BabyRalph. Ralph began singing Dylan songs to BabyRalph.  My daughter,  DaddysGirl, may have teared up a little. I might have too. We all snapped pictures of BabyRalph.Ralph held BabyRalph and held him some more, until it was time for a diaper change. It was a magical moment.

But it was only a moment. Ralph did not show interest in holding the baby again over the next two days before I drove him back to the farm where he greeted the dogs with great joy and relief.

Part One of the Plan was a success.

Part Two…. I’ll let you know soon enough.

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 Benefit–Exposing A Goodness Quotient

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I am prone to cynicism in general. And like a lot of people, I have been more demoralized by the state of the world than usual lately. So I am a bit surprised to find myself celebrating what, for lack of better phrase, I’ll call the goodness quotient in human beings.

Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Anne Frank, Nelson Mandela, Saint Francis—their lives are awe-inspiring and intimidating in equal measure. They have had their human imperfections here and there, but few of us aspire to their level of goodness. At least I never have. (In fact, I admit to spending MLK Day sitting around the house when I should have been out volunteering.)

But after reading the recent spate of articles surrounding Reverend King and John Lewis as well as a post entitled Gratitude in the Land of Dementia on the blog One of Life’s Little Surprises, I am struck by a reality that I seldom consider, the capacity of so many “normal” people to help others.

In particular, how do so many people find themselves able to accept challenges and responsibilities they never imagined they would face when their loved ones became increasing cognitively impaired. Why don’t they walk away (as I am often tempted to do from a so far less difficult situation)?

Individuals may answer, “I love my husband/ wife/ mother/ father/ sibling/ friend/ partner;” but that’s not it, not in any conventional sense. Of course I can’t speak for anyone else when I acknowledge that whatever emotional chemistry existed between Ralph and me before his diagnosis—whether the early passion or deep marital affinity—has definitely altered since his mind and identity have altered along the Alzheimer’s spectrum. I suspect the same kind of alteration has occurred between other caregivers and caregivees.

So, what specifically is the mix of loyalty, generosity, duty and sympathy/empathy that makes so many of the caregivers I’ve run across (who know who you are, Mary, Nancy, and all you others) tick?

I certainly don’t have an answer, but it is heartening to realize that when faced with the challenge, a large number of flawed, normal people are capable of being kinder and more caring than we expected of ourselves

MOWING A PATH INTO NEW TERRITORY

 

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Last week, at my request, my younger brother flew down from Pennsylvania and spent two full days on our John Deere tractor bush-hogging our fields.

That I had to ask my brother, or anyone, to come represents a turning point. Two years ago, already diagnosed, Ralph spent every day for months mowing the same fields to have them pristine for our daughter’s wedding. A year ago, he was still mowing regularly. But he has not driven the tractor since last spring. And over the summer the wheat/weed mixture grew higher than an elephant’s eye.

I asked during our last Emory Brain Center check up if Ralph should quit mowing, and was told mowing was fine. Although he has stopped driving most places out of fear of getting lost, his motor skills are fully operational.

Ralph’s problem was not ability, but motivation. About every two days we discussed the fields. I’d ask him if he was sure he was up to mowing. He’d say yes…yes but he was too tired or had a stomachache or it was too hot out or too chilly so he was planning on starting tomorrow. Then tomorrow would come and we’d have a similar discussion.

This is the pattern that the spouse part of me has had the most difficulty accepting. I was supposed to be the procrastinator in our relationship, at least in non-emotional areas. I was the one who put off unpleasant chores; Ralph was the one whose mantra was BE A CLOSER, who taught his kids by example to follow through and get the job done because he always did. Not anymore; each time a situation comes up, from helping to clear the dinner dishes to mowing the fields, I want to believe him when he agrees so pleasantly to do whatever I’ve asked. And then of course he never does and I become increasingly frustrated, mostly at myself for falling into the habit of depending on him.

As usual, over the last few weeks the reality slowly seeped into my brain that for whatever reason—because he simply forgets or lacks the energy or has unspoken anxiety about his ability to remember how—Ralph was never going to mow those fields.

And the only person I know with tractor skills is my youngest brother who has always shared with Ralph a love of machines—they spent a joyous summer over thirty years ago taking apart three elderly Triumphs to build two refurbished ones. But over the last thirty years the relationship between the two, once extremely close, became increasing problematic. In fact several years back tensions intensified to the point that the two of them got into a physical altercation during a family wedding.

Of course Ralph doesn’t remember the altercation and has only a vague recollection of there ever being any tension. And my brother has been more than happy to patch things up. He has visited several times recently while passing through. I called and asked if I could pay his way down to help. He agreed immediately.

I told Ralph my brother was stopping by on his way to a business meeting in Florida and suggested maybe we could Tom Sawyer him into helping out around the farm. Ralph thought that might be a good idea and was remarkably unsuspicious on the first morning when my brother voiced an interest in mowing. For the next day and a half my brother mowed and Ralph sat on the porch.

For the first few hours, my brother thought Ralph seemed pretty much as he remembered but that has time went on there were increasing signs of Ralph’s memory lapses and his less definable personality change from Get Things Done Man to Ho Hum Whatever Guy—when a tractor hose broke, Ralph’s response was ‘We’ll deal with it tomorrow’ until my brother reminded him that he was leaving tomorrow and needed to mow today. But the two of them hung out together and generally had a lovely time.

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Boy those fields look great. Maybe we could get him to come back and mow a couple of times a year.” That’s Ralph talking not me. Over the last couple of days, he has made this suggestion a lot.

 

Does Ralph realize the mowing visit was a set up? I don’t know and am not sure I want to ask. We may have found our way into new don’t-ask-don’t-tell territory where we don’t acknowledge but accommodate ourselves to Ralph’s limitations while maintaining his dignity. Or perhaps I am kidding myself about his awareness.

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.

RALPH MY HERO– THANKS TO ALZHEIMER’S

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I have been carping a bit lately about the tensions, anxiety and frustrations of being an Alzheimer’s spouse/caregiver.

But today I want to crow about the upside.

Today Ralph is my HERO.

A specific moment of heroism: At the crack of dawn this morning, my walking buddy and her husband came by to go blackberry picking out at our big stand of blackberries in a field that’s a good long walk from the house. Ralph was still asleep. Although he had reluctantly come out to pick a few days earlier, I let him sleep in this time. My friends and I picked a couple of baskets worth of berries before the prickles got to us, not to mention the heat (85 degrees by 8:30).

As we were about to head in, I realized I didn’t have my new prescription sunglasses and couldn’t remember if I had worn them out to the field. We looked around the bush but didn’t find them. I prayed they were at home.

They weren’t. I looked all over the house, in my car, all the usual places. No glasses. By now Ralph was up and dressed. He willingly drove me to the field. And then he actually got out of the car and looked with me.

We walked carefully around the bush, but I saw nothing and was about to give up when Ralph asked, “Are these your glasses?”

YES.

I hugged him. And then I hugged him again when we got home. I cannot tell you how elated I was that he found them. Elated out of all proportion (although new glasses would have been expensive). And of course he basked in my elation and appreciation.

The reasons Ralph’s finding my glasses was so pleasing:

  1. He actually offered to drive me and he willingly got into the heat and looked with me. And he was so good-natured about it.
  2. This is the pattern of his behavior now:  If I ask him to bring me a cup of coffee or clear the dishes or bring in the groceries, he does it with a smile.          If I ask him to wait, he is patient in a way he never used to be…sit in the car while I run an errand, no problem; wait for a late dinner while I finish up in my office, no problem.    If I want to watch a TV program he let me turn the station; if I turn on the radio before he’s ready to wake up, he doesn’t mind; if I watch TV after he’s gone to sleep he doesn’t mind.
  3. He never loses his temper. Our grandkids/nieces tell me he is the nicest grandfather/uncle they have: affectionate and funny.
  4. In other words, he is kind of a sweetheart.

Note to myself: Remember this moment and these feelings later….