If the idea of showing anger against someone cognitively impaired makes you uncomfortable, you might want to stop here.
I am not about to talk about the resentment and frustration all caregivers feel at times. I am about to describe the kind of red-hot “Drop Dead!” fury that used to wash over me in my pre-Alzheimer’s marriage, usually over seemingly small issues that represented bigger, unspoken rifts. Over our first 35 years of marriage that fury rose up a lot in both Ralph and me, whether expressed in his ugly shouting or my snide passive aggressiveness. He was unapologetic about his “my way or the highway” attitude. I fought for equal power in our relationship, usually without success (although he might disagree), and spent a lot of waking hours seething against him.
After Ralph’s diagnosis, his personality, perhaps even his character, changed. His enviable physical and mental energy dissipated. So did his unpleasant authoritarian belligerence. While I often bemoaned his post-diagnosis lack of interest in the world around us and my need to think for both us, not having an often-more-than-equal partner but also has its advantages. Yes, I miss his companionship, but I enjoy his current appreciation of my caregiving and my willingness to make choices for him. His passive disinterest has meant that after years of fighting his decisions and usually losing or resentfully accepting them, I have been learning to trust, even relish decision-making on my own.
That is, until THE COUCH.
Specifically our new living room couch.
In the past our furniture always had a somewhat masculine quality. Rustic. Practical. Brown, lots of brown (excepting the blue green chaise lounge I bought myself as a sixtieth b-day present but ended up sharing with the dogs). His choices made sense in our farmhouse, but the city house we’re in now, with its 19th century New Orleans architecture, calls for a different, dare I say feminine approach.
Or this was my rationale behind THE COUCH. Sick of brown and dark and masculine, I told myself that after all, Ralph and the dogs live in the kitchen/sunroom and our bedroom with occasional forays to Ralph’s “office” created just for him in the garage. Bedroom and office contain the very masculine, very brown furniture we brought with us, while the sunroom is currently a hodgepodge with one comfortable chair in which Ralph sits.
The kitchen/sunroom in one side of French door we keep closed. On the other side is the living room, a basically empty space although Ralph and I agreed to put in inexpensive bookcases and rug from Overstock. I also ordered the kind of probably impractical couch I’ve always wanted: slip-covered, off-white, soft cushioned (Ralph always ruled strongly against loose pillows on furniture). I actually think I talked to Ralph about the couch, but maybe not. I assumed he would not care. After all, he and the dogs never come through those French doors.
I ordered in April and after some minor drama—a dark gray couch with weird arms arrived initially by mistake and had to be returned—THE COUCH arrived at last two days ago.
Ralph let me know his opinion immediately. He began shouting in a voice I had not heard in years as he stomped between the kitchen and the living room and I responded, not shouting but with cold-blooded rage:
That couch looks like a white elephant in there.
I like it.
What did you pay for that thing? It looks cheap. Like it’s slip-covered.
It is slip-covered. I wanted slipcovers.
I can’t believe you spent that much.
You have no idea what anything costs.
What were you thinking choosing this?
This was what I wanted. You’ve chosen things lots of times against my wishes.
What did I ever choose?
(silence as I start counting up the much bigger decisions that he no longer remembers bullying me into but I suddenly do in stark relief)
Well, I hate it.
Well, I’m not sending it back.
Well it’s a piece of sh…
Ralph disappeared into his bedroom. I fumed my way through preparing dinner. He reappeared and started in again with pretty much the same refrain. By the third repetition, I knew what to expect but was still mad. I didn’t care that he was cognitively impaired. I just hated him and his way of letting me know I was an idiot, of making me doubt my judgment. The way he made me feel small.
I went to bed feeling more like a wife than I normally do these days. And guess what? I didn’t like it a bit.
Of course since then, Ralph has not mentioned The Couch. And my own anger is gone. I’m aware that his lingering low-grade crankiness comes from a combination of an earache and taking him off his anti-anxiety medicine. Ralph is still lethargic but more on edge. I’ve already contacted the doctor.
This little blow up was a reminder, though, not to sugarcoat what our marriage was before Ralph’s diagnosis. I am committed to caring for Ralph; but with or without Alzheimer’s, ours was always a difficult, imperfect relationship. Maybe all marriages are; just the specific problems differ.