Tag Archives: alzheimer’s studies

Money Talks….

According to a recent article in the New York Times: “As Cognition Slips, Financial Skills Are Often the First to Go.”  financial cognition is one of the first skills to go. According to Ralph: Money talks, bullshit walks.

When we first met, Ralph was something of a hippie entrepreneur. By the time he was thirty, he’d dropped the hippie part and considered himself a real estate entrepreneur—buying, renovating, managing and leveraging small apartment buildings–while I pursued my less than financially lucrative writing ambitions. Then his longtime bookkeeper quit suddenly and I had to take over the day-to-day bookkeeping. At the time I didn’t want to take on that responsibility, but in retrospect I am really glad I did. When I needed to liquidate the business two years ago, I knew the basics, like where the checking accounts were, but also the larger framework of how to run the business the way Ralph did. He remained the one who made the serious financial decisions, but I watched and learned.

And what I learned was to be obsessively careful. I used to tease him about the way he analyzed and re-analyzed every business decision, going over and over the worst case and best case scenarios, ‘running the numbers’ as he called it. So what struck me in reading the Times article was this line: “It may become more difficult for people to identify the risks in a particular investment, and they may focus too much on the benefits.” Ralph’s last three investments were frankly terrible.

Luckily those were his last investments. Unfortunately, they were his last investments because Ralph’s follow-through was also going. Ralph always took great pride in being “a closer.” So what I saw as his flagging interest in following through caught my eye as a problem sooner than his forgetfulness. I realize now that he probably no longer trusted his own judgment. He went through the motions, but he had checked out at least a year before his diagnosis. He sat in his office reading catalogs and magazines while letting his assistant and me run things. Fortunately, he’d done such a good job training us that we did fine for awhile.

We may have lost some money due to Ralph’s MCI, but I am kind of glad Ralph had that time to loosen his hold on the business. A grace period.

Because once we had the official diagnosis of Mild Cognitive Impairment, there was no pretending. And by the time I decided to sell the business, Ralph’s impairment was greater while his interest in anything financial had dropped to zero. The man who loved to spend days doing profit loss projections can no longer figure the tip on a restaurant tab.

“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.

Mood Lasts Beyond Memory for Alzheimer’s Patients

The fact that forgotten events can continue to exert a profound influence on a patient’s emotional life highlights the need for caregivers to avoid causing negative feelings and to try to induce positive feelings.

This quote comes from a University of Iowa study on mood retention among Alzheimer’s patients, results I heard discussed a few days ago on NPR. The interviewer was thrilled with the information. And I know I should be too. After all, Ralph is still in a great mood ten days after we hosted the wedding because he knows he had a wonderful time even if  he can’t remember almost any of the details.

But what I actually thought as I listened to the earnestly enthusiastic young researcher was, “Oh great, now I have another reason to feel guilty.”

What I heard her telling me was that If feelings linger after the memory fades, I am “causing negative feelings” in Ralph more often than I want to admit. I see the way his face collapses when I am short with him after he asks me where I am going for the fifth time in half an hour. Or when I get annoyed that he has forgotten to take his pills or has not given me an important message from the electrician or has gone to bed before eight after spending the entire afternoon asleep on the couch. Less than a minute ago, he interrupted me as I was typing here at my desk with another question I had just answered, and I shouted down the stairs Not Now I’m Busy in a less than kind voice. Since Ralph’s diagnosis of MCI over a year ago, I have told myself not to feel bad about outbursts of impatience because he won’t remember. Evidently I was wrong: an essential non-cognitive part of him will remember.

Coincidentally, the blogger of “Not My Original Plan” –whom  I much admire for her realistic and committed optimism–writes in her most recent post about enjoying her mother’s lingering joy after the actual memory of an experience they have shared together fades.  I know I should follow her example and be glad that in some essential way his loss of memory has not robbed Ralph of his emotional life. And most of me is glad.

But to be honest, another considerable part of me liked thinking I had an escape hatch from responsibility:  I could let down my guard and be selfish or mean or emotionally lazy without it counting as long as Ralph wouldn’t remember.  That escape hatch is closed from now on, and I can’t help letting out a short sigh of “caregiver” fatigue.

What’s Up with Namenda?

Medicine is not my forte. Ralph was the one who always followed a strict regimen of vitamins and minerals. I can’t tell you how many bottles of women’s vitamins ended up half-used before I threw them out. I can’t even remember to take my calcium chews, even though they are chocolate flavored (well, a wan shadow of chocolate flavor). So I am not the best person to be in charge of someone else taking medicine. But I am now the filler of Ralph’s seven-day prescription reminder box.

Sixteen months ago, when Ralph was first diagnosed, our doctor prescribed donepezil, the generic name for the drug many newly diagnosed MCI or early Alzheimer’s patients take—the most common brand name is Aricep. No one claims donepezil cures Alzheimer’s, and the many studies on its efficacy seem inconclusive about whether it actually slows down the symptoms. But as soon as Ralph started on the drug, his symptoms stopped getting worse. And although this is not always the case for donepezil, he had no side effects.

About eight months ago, we added Namenda to Ralph’s routine. Namenda, which is the brand name for the generic memantine, complicated our schedule because it had to be taken twice a day. That second pill was hard to remember, for Ralph and me both. But again there were no side effects, and as much as he says he hates taking pills, Ralph felt the combination of Namenda, donepezil and escitalopram, brand name Lexipro—which his psychiatrist prescribed to help Ralph’s mood—was beneficial

About six months ago, a new once-a-day version of Namenda suddenly became available. Although our doctor said the drug company was manipulating the market because Namenda’s patent was running out, we were thrilled. One set of pills a day made life so much easier. I still was the one who filled the pill boxes, but Ralph became a champ at remembering to take his pills, and I got out of the habit of reminding him.

Until last week.

When I contacted our on-line pharmacy for refills, I was told there was a manufacturer’s supply problem. No renewal of once-a-day Namenda for at least a month or two, maybe longer. I called the local chain drug store; Ralph will not let me order his drugs from our independent pharmacy where the pharmacist knows him. No once-a-day Namenda was available there either but they had plenty of twice-a-day. I called the doctor’s office; the nurse said other patients had been calling with the same problem and she would check into the situation. Two days later she called back and said to go back to twice-a-day.

Bummer.

I ordered the pills, filled the boxes and told Ralph we were back to twice a day. That was Wednesday. Thursday he took all three A.M. pills but forgot the P.M.. Namenda and was asleep by the time I noticed. Yesterday, I had to leave the house early and he forgot his A.M. doses, but did take his P.M. Namenda. Today I handed him his A.M. pills with his morning coffee. And as soon as I post here, I am going downstairs to remind him, it’s time for the P.M. Namenda.

We’ll get the new/old routine down eventually but I would love to know what’s behind the sudden shortage and why we’re being held hostage by the pharmaceuticals.

Is MCI Dementia?

Several weeks ago Ralph and I sat down with a bowl of popcorn and watched the program “Alzheimer’s – Hope for Tomorrow – Help for Today” on our local public television station. Ralph’s doctor was featured as well as a member of Ralph’s support group.

Despite the optimistic title and some upbeat patient interviews, the program didn’t sugarcoat or patronize those of us in the trenches. After all, for all the studies and research and media attention, the known facts are pretty clear-cut: There’s no sure way to predict when/if MCI and early Alzheimer’s will develop into full-on Alzheimer’s; and there’s no cure despite the drugs and lifestyle changes that slow down the progression for some but not all patients.

It was like watching a car wreck; only the wreck involved my car. I couldn’t tear myself away.

Ralph watched all the way through too, but when I asked him what he thought he said he hated the program. His exact words were “It’s all crap.”

He didn’t want to identify with the people he saw on the screen, even those who seemed to me even less impaired than he is.

What probably put him off most—what frankly made me squirm sitting beside him—was the constant referral to both Alzheimer’s and MCI as dementia.

I have been squirming ever since. DEMENTIA. That’s how to describe Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre, the crazy woman in the attic, or my 96-year-old mother in her worst moments. Not Ralph, my careful, rational husband, a fact man who loves historic detail and likes nothing better than to analyze current events. It has never occurred to me to use that scary word dementia for Ralph’s condition…or only in anger and before his MCI diagnosis (when I so easily tossed around damning words that choke in my throat now).

It has taken weeks to steel myself to look into the definition of dementia in terms of MCI. The U.S. National Library of Medicine site lays out the parameters very clearly:

“Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the stage between normal forgetfulness due to aging and the development of dementia. People with MCI have mild problems with thinking and memory that do not interfere with daily activities. They are often aware of the forgetfulness. Not everyone with MCI develops dementia.

Symptoms of MCI include:

  • Difficulty doing more than one task at a time
  • Difficulty solving problems or making decisions
  • Forgetting recent events or conversations
  • Taking longer to do more difficult mental activities

Early symptoms of dementia can include:

  • Difficulty with tasks that take some thought, but that used to come easily, such as balancing a checkbook, playing games (such as bridge), and learning new information or routines
  • Getting lost on familiar routes
  • Language problems, such as trouble with the names of familiar objects
  • Losing interest in things previously enjoyed, flat mood
  • Misplacing items
  • Personality changes and loss of social skills, which can lead to inappropriate behaviors”

No surprise that Ralph hits the mark for all four symptoms of MCI.

As for symptoms of dementia, he’s a mixed bag. Fortunately, he does not exhibit any symptoms of moderate dementia so I didn’t reprint them. Comparing him to the early symptoms list I can say confidently that he has no language problems, at least less than I do, and that he doesn’t misplace items any more than he always has, although finding his razor in his sock drawer this morning was perplexing.

He can still drive his tractor and do carpentry repairs. But there’s no getting around that he can no longer do mental tasks that used to come easily–forget balancing a checkbook, he struggles following a movie. He is beginning to forget how to get to once familiar destinations, so I am going with him to get his teeth cleaned next week. And his personality has definitely changed. My “to the moon Alice” Ralph has transformed in an easygoing, appreciative, sentimental, even docile Ralph who is also withdrawn and fearful of anything outside his daily routine.

Although there’s no way to avoid checking Ralph’s behavior against the definition of dementia from now on, I am not ready to add dementia to the vocabulary of my marriage (a resistance I’ll explore in a future blog). And I don’t believe I have to.

Not yet.

If I Could Stick that MCI Diagnosis Back in Pandora’s Box…

 

I just read a couple of study summaries showing that people often have “accelerated cognitive loss” for up to four years, even six years before diagnosis.

Ralph and I were aware of problems a year or so before the diagnosis, but four years or longer? I have to ask myself, why didn’t I notice sooner?

Well, if I am brutally honest, I did notice some changes, but they seemed to be improving our marriage so I didn’t want to look too closely or rock the boat.

God knows, I had already spent plenty of years obsessively analyzing what I perceived as his shortcomings and my weaknesses in our long up-and-down relationship—a marriage between strong personalities who loved each other but were frequently at odds. But about five years ago, with both kids out of the house, we seemed to have entered a second honeymoon stage.

If he forgot what I told him more often than usual, I was used to him not paying attention. After thirty years together, I was used to hearing his stories repeated and repeated; so what if he repeated them twice in a day instead of twice a week. And I was used to our screaming arguments—we both had tempers—but here where the improvement had come: he no longer held onto his anger. If we argued in the evening, he woke up the next morning with no memory that there’d been a scene let alone any lingering hostility. He was more affectionate and more relaxed. (Actually he still is.)

So if he was forgetful or unfocused that was a small price to pay. I did silently question some of the business decisions he was making, but I chose to ignore the small voice in my head warning me that he was being sloppy or inattentive, making faulty investments and letting our family business slide. It was easier to leave business decisions to him. I didn’t want the responsibility. Pure selfishness. Of course ultimately, I ended up stepping in and picking up the slack in a hurry.

What secret fears and anxieties pushed him during those months and years? How much was he aware he was missing or losing? How much was he covering up for what he couldn’t quite grasp any more?

And if we knew it was MCI earlier, would our lives have been better or worse? I thought I was actually relieved to know when we first got the diagnosis, but Ralph was only more frightened.

Perhaps conventional wisdom is right that knowledge and acceptance are the more mature route, not necessarily to bliss but to a quiet appreciation of each day. But sometimes I remember that oddly happy time and wish I’d put off learning the truth; why enter the gray uncertainty we now inhabit any sooner than absolutely necessary?