Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s pets

Ralph loses his best friend—Alzheimer’s and grief

Ralph’s beloved 17 year-old lab died last Monday. It was time. But getting Ralph to realize it was time proved a challenge.

For the last eight weeks Zeus had been on a steady decline. When we returned from the family beach vacation in early August, our regular dog sitter admitted she had worried the whole week that Zeus might die on her watch. He had been so much frailer than in the past and was having what she thought were mini-seizures. 

Our vet explained they were not seizures but neurological problems that affected controlling his back legs. Acupuncture would help but not solve the problem. About the same time a gaping wound appeared on Zeus’s hip. It turned out to be a bed sore. The vet, whose own lab had succumbed not that long ago to a similar combination of ailments, warned us that the bed sore was going to be very hard if not impossible to treat, not only because it was an internal infection but because how do you stop a dog from lying down, especially one who can barely stand up. Zeus began weeks of intensive treatment—lasers, oral and topical antibiotics, acupuncture, and a huge bubble bandage that could only be changed by a professional. I was administering his various doses at home and taking Zeus to the vet office several days a week, no small task since he had to be carried into the car. Ralph helped with the lifting but he couldn’t really keep up with the dog-nursing.

At first Zeus seemed to hold his own, more or less. But the hurricane evacuation took its toll. The bandage fell off. The wound festered. The legs gave out. And by the time we returned, Zeus was basically unable to stand without being righted by human hands. 

We did another round of laser/acupuncture/antibiotics/band aids. I could tell Zeus was not getting better, and when the vet warned that if Zeus did not improve this go round we would have to discuss “quality of life” I was ready. In truth, I am not a dog person by nature and my patience was strained. Not to mention that poor Zeus was increasingly incontinent, shedding profusely and smelly.

I reported back the vet’s remarks to Ralph.

“I am not killing my dog.”

“No one is talking about killing.”

“Would you kill me?” 

When I next took Zeus back to the vet, I brought Ralph with me. Covid era vet visits take place in the parking lot. Ralph was chatty with the vet until she said there was no improvement and used the dreaded phrase “quality of life.” Ralph went dead silent. 

“I am not killing my dog,” he repeated once we were back in the car and throughout the evening.

I scheduled another appointment. This time inside the vet’s office for THE TALK. Ralph listened as the vet described how hard it was for him to put his own dog down. Ralph nodded and seemed to hear the vet’s explanation that Zeus was not getting better. 

But as soon as we were alone, Ralph asked, “So is Zeus getting better?”

“No, he is not going to get better.”

“Well, I am not killing my dog.” 

We reached a compromise: We’d revisit the situation in two weeks. That was a Thursday afternoon. 

The process so far had been grueling. I was constantly on edge, expecting Ralph to explode in fury and fear. I also resented that I was caring not only for Ralph but his dog. And I was aware that Ralph saw the parallels between his own infirmities and his dog’s every time he asked “Are you going to kill me?” 

On Friday, Zeus was definitely weaker and even Ralph noticed the way he whimpered at times. By Saturday, Zeus was unable to untwist his back legs. 

Ralph struggled with Zeus, let him lie down and turned to me.  

“Ok, as long as I don’t have to be there.” 

With his blessing, I called the vet and made an appointment for Monday morning. 

For the 36 hours Ralph was as weepy as a man who doesn’t know how to cry can be, frequently wiping the edge of his eye with one finger.

But on Monday he was surprisingly calm when he carried the dog like a child  to the car for his final trip to the vet. Then he went back inside the house as I backed out the driveway. When I got home, alone, he asked for the details. I described Zeus’s calm comfort at the end. 

Since then Ralph occasionally says he can’t get used to Zeus being gone. He asks me if I think we did the right thing. He asks me to remind him “What was wrong with Zeus again?” and “How old was Zeus when he died?” I tell him.

“Oh, you know 17 is very old for a big dog,” he always explains to me then, as if I’m the one who needed convincing. 

And I nod, thankful I gave Ralph the time to come to the choice on his own.  

Care Giver of Care Partner?

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Gerontologist Elaine Eshbaugh’s recent post The Complicated Dynamics of the Care Partnership on her blog Welcome to Dementialand, offers a nuanced consideration of what she calls “the care partner relationship.”  I have been trying all week to get my head around the concept. I can’t say I’ve succeed, but Elaine’s piece sure has got me thinking about Ralph and my interactions.

To be honest, the first paragraphs, in which she described public advocacy by those with dementia as “the most exciting development in the field of dementia,” did not grab me. I’ve never been comfortable with the narrow focus of advocacy for specific diseases, including ones that have directly touched my life like heart disease and breast cancer, given the big existential issues like climate change no one is facing. And Ralph definitely has no interest in advocating or joining any kind of Alzheimer’s community, and the word dementia is not a term he embraces at all

But then Elaine wrote this:

 

In some circles, we are replacing the term “caregiver” with “care partner” to identify the partnership that develops between the person living with dementia and those who care for them.

Yes, it is a partnership. It is certainly a shared experience.

But being a person with dementia and a care partner are different roles.

 

I have to think about what I think about this change in nomenclature. Do I think of myself as a care partner? I am not sure. Marriage is supposed to be a partnership. Ralph and I are married. So yes I am his partner. But that is not what Elaine is talking about. Do I honestly feel like a partner? Frankly a lot of the time I feel most like a caring care manager.

But then again, last weekend we did have a moment of genuine care partnership, in the most literal sense.  Ralph recently had minor surgery ago to remove a squamous cell carcinoma on his arm and I have been in charge of changing the bandage daily. Because Ralph’s skin reacted badly to regular bandage and tape, I’ve had to apply the cotton bandaging with paper tape. Paper tape is a pain. I struggled getting it unspooled smoothly the first day while Ralph stood by patiently with his bare arm lifted until I finally got the tape on his skin. The next morning the damn tape was all stuck back together again. I dug at it with a scissor with little success. Then Ralph, whose natural ability for all things mechanical has been mostly dormant for four years, sprang into action and unspooled the tape in a neat single layer. After I applied the tape to his arm, I and was planning to use a q-tip stick to keep it unstuck.

“No,” Ralph said, “Just fold over the tip and it won’t stick.”

“Wow, why didn’t I think of that?”

He shrugged, matter of fact and clear-headed.

A nice small moment, but it would be dishonest to end here because it was the exception not the rule. Well, not exactly the exception. He will also bring me a cup of coffee in the morning if I ask him to. He will punch in my cell number on his phone so I can find mine. He will take the dishes to the counter by the sink. He will come with me to the dump. They are all small rituals that he will perform if I ask. What was different with the bandage is that he took the initiative to come up with a solution. That is the rare event for us.

But again, Elaine writes about partnership not in terms of equal but in terms of shared experience. And yes, living with a husband who is cognitively impaired is a shared experience. But it is mostly me sharing his experience. Ralph’s interest in my experience of the world is limited. Still, lately I have been trying to create more shared experience. I dragged him out for pizza last weekend and then for Mexican a few days later. Both times we had the same conversation.

“Do I have to go?”

“Yes. I don’t feel like cooking and I really think you’ll like it.”

Each time he did enjoy himself immensely.

I have also given him a new “job” to share. On several occasions in the last few months our dog Lola was caught crossing the busy road in front of our farm; so we (meaning me along with Ralph’s niece who was visiting at the time) decided to put in a newfangled GPS electric fence. Training the dog to know her limits is part of the process and requires once of those weird collars. I have added to Ralph’s daily life list changing the collar batter every morning when he wakes up, putting the collar on Lola before she goes outside, and taking it off every night before she goes to bed in her crate. I watch over the proceedings and make sure the jobs get done—it helps that Lola seems to love her collar and stands close to the counter waiting for it.

In terms of serious decision-making and even companionship, I still can’t say I feel in a partnership with Ralph. But even before his diagnosis, our marital partnership was a struggle because he liked being in charge and I had to fight to be heard; now it is a struggle because I am in charge and he is increasingly disengaged.

But these small acts of asking Ralph to share tasks and experiences have worked, up to a point. At least they give us a sense, however fleeting, of participating together in our life.