Tag Archives: before MCI diagnosis

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.

Pure Ralphness Now and Then

Sometimes I think Ralph is more like himself now than he was before the cognitive impairment, that some essential Ralphness that was covered up by ambition and testosterone has emerged—a more thoughtful, family centered, openly vulnerable Ralph. The Ralph I always wanted to believe was hidden under his tough exterior but almost never saw.

But sometimes I think some essential Ralphness has gone missing and that I am living with a stranger. A trivial example: A few days ago I was working out the seating arrangements for our Christmas dinner. How to organize folding tables of various sizes in order to fit 25 people around one table in a 12×14 foot dining room requires a lot of geometry. Geometry is not my strong suit, while Ralph has always been a genius at spatial thinking. So after struggling with small rectangles of graph paper for two hours, I begged him to help. He had absolutely no interest. Even when I warned him that I would be moving around tables, including his beloved handmade pine table, he stayed calm and passive. When I told him there might be a hole in the center of the “table” I was creating, he surprised me by sweetly offering to cut me a piece of plywood to cover with foil to use as a hot plate.

On one hand I was relieved. For most of our marriage I could not make a decision about where to hang a picture or place a chair without being second-guessed. And “second guess” was sometimes a euphemism for harsh criticism and/or barked orders. Now I have free reign; whatever I choose he embraces.

On the other hand, I used to argue back at Ralph’s second-guessing until we came to some kind of creative if anger-fueled consensus. His logical, practical mind balanced my intuitive, impulsive one. Now I have to pick up the practical, logical slack, and I don’t like it.

Well that’s not completely true (nothing in dementia, or life, ever being that black and white or clear-cut). I am proud of myself for mastering my new skills. But increasingly I also feel weighed down from carrying the weight for two of us—always having to consider what Ralph needs as well as what I want.

And then there is the emotional shift in our relationship. The shift actually began in the years before his diagnosis—our marriage went through a wonderful honeymoon period about five years ago, as he became a gently more loving husband. Now he is so overtly dependent and openly grateful that I find myself a little condescending. But again, no black and white here, because I always thought that Ralph was more dependent on me than he could admit just as I was more dependent on him than I could admit, so we balanced each other.

And here’s the rub. It’s not that our balance is off now—although it often is lopsided—but that it’s different. I find myself secretly missing what I used to hate and hating what I used to miss about Ralph. But what I love about the new Ralph is that the man who used to scrutinize every decision in even more minute detail than me now doesn’t bother over-analyzing the future or the past. Instead he is learning to embrace the good moments and let go of the bad, whether mountains or mole hills.

Post script: I began this post almost a week ago. A few days ago our numbers changed and the tables needed rearranging. Ralph was suddenly the enthusiast, helping open and folding tables, figuring and re-configuring. And when we all gathered at the table last night for Christmas Eve, Ralph commanded from his usual seat, first chair on left. And a few hours ago Ralph made his usual December 25th comment: “Best Christmas ever.”

Appreciating the Common Cold

This will be short because I don’t have much time to write today. Ralph is sick in bed with a very bad cold and I am playing nurse—note, I said playing and nurse, not being or caregiver.

In the old days when Ralph was sick, I always complained, at least to myself, about what a baby he was. Now I find myself offering to make him toast and tea. I make pots of homemade chicken soup. I have skipped scheduled meetings and almost cancelled a trip Ralph and I both agree I should take with my son.

Yet I feel none of the resentment I usually feel around my never-ending sense of responsibility toward Ralph.

Why? I keep asking myself until I realize that it is much easier to deal with the fact of Ralph with a concrete, physical, medical ailment. Not that the brain changes connected to Alzheimer’s are not medical or the plaque build up in his brain is not physical. But for me there is a psychological or maybe I should say magical thinking difference:

What Ralph calls his fogginess is frustrating to manage or even face because it is hard to quantify. Maybe his namenda and donepezil make a difference, maybe they don’t. Maybe I sense him losing more memory lately and being slower on the uptake or maybe I’m looking at his every sentence too closely and reading too much into his slips. I don’t know and don’t always trust my guesses.

On the other hand, a stuffed nose is a stuffed nose and a fever of 102, while serious, can be measured going up or down. The efficacy of cold medicine is uncertain but plop plop fizz fizz what a relief a cold can be. After all, we both know he will recover from it—tomorrow or the next day his nose will stop running, his fever will drop, and physically at least he’ll be “better”. His memory? Not so much.

Alzheimer’s Radar?

I attend a reunion of my 20-something daughter’s childhood friends and their mothers. Although we never quite developed enduring independent friendships, I always liked the other mothers a lot and enjoy catching up on our lives over glasses of Chardonnay.

One of my favorite moms, Jane, begins to joke about how bad her memory is getting, how her kids tease her that she has Alzheimer’s because she’s always misplacing her keys and her coffee cup. When everyone laughs, I laugh along, or at least smile gamely.

But self-pitying resentment bubbles up–how can she make light of a situation that feels so heavy to me. Of course, my resentment is patently unfair. Who doesn’t hit 50 and start joking about Alzheimer’s?

I used to kid Ralph all the time about his growing forgetfulness. That is until the day my daughter took me aside to say I should stop the teasing because he was probably terrified. But for Ralph and me, as long as we joked it wasn’t real.  I look at Jane with new concern and sense genuine fear under her lightheartedness.

I don’t know Jane or the other women well enough to share that Ralph and I are coping with Alzheimer’s ourselves, but I am tempted.

Weeks later, I am still wondering if I should I have taken Jane aside and reached out to her.

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?