Tag Archives: Caregiving MCI

My Car Is My Caregiver

 

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Dear Red Prius,

My first car was a bright blue sedan that I drove to Atlanta when I was 22. I don’t remember the brand, only that I hated how visible it made me, especially since I was not the best driver.

I traded the blue bomber in for a used telephone “van” that had been refurbished by Ralph—his first entrepreneurial venture was buying and fixing  up used phone trucks, then selling them to counterculture types like me; the streets of Midtown Atlanta were full of Ralph’s trucks in the early 1970s.

The brakes went out on my van a week after I bought it. I was rounding a curve and ended up down an embankment. Fortunately I wasn’t hurt. Naturally Ralph felt terrible. He helped me fix the van and sell it.

(Actually, Ralph disputes my car history, says I got the blue bomber after the truck disaster, and he may be right. In any case I don’t remember what I drove next.)

We got married five years later, and for the next multiple decades I drove a series of practical, second-hand sedans (with baby seats), SUVs (for carpools and horse-trailering), and (once the kids were gone) compacts. They were all non-descript, aside from the dents I added, and I could care less.

A year and half ago, though, I got you,  Red Prius. I bought you for practical reasons like gas mileage and comfort, etc., and I admit that I chose your red color because you were cheaper than the silvery blue model.

The irony is that these days what I love most about you is your color. It makes you  So Visible, so easy to spot among the sea of tans, blacks, grays and whites on every road and in every parking lot.

I often find myself writing here about the difficulties, the frustrations, the borderline depression care-giving causes me. I think one of my secret worst fears is that my memory is going too. I said this to a friend recently and she laughed, “But Ralph isn’t contagious.”

Maybe not, yet I often feel as if my brain is clogged with the details of thinking for two. An adage of care-giving is that if we are tense or irritable, our cognitively impaired spouses (or parents) sense and react in kind. The flip side is that I am vulnerable to catching Ralph’s anxiety, and when I’m anxious my brain does not function at its best.

Lately I have an urge to simplify: the less I have to worry about the better. Less stuff means less stuff to keep organized and clean without Ralph’s help. Fewer commitments mean fewer complications to arrange for Ralph. But I also want to stay active and involved. Simplification can be a slippery slope that I don’t want to begin sliding down too fast.

Red Prius, you have been a godsend. It takes one item off my overloaded mental table—no more walking out of the supermarket or doctor’s office or bank or lawyer’s meeting or movie theater or restaurant or political meeting worried where I parked. One glance each way or a click of my key button and there you are, Red Prius, brightly reminding me that I am in control, at least to the best of my ability…A small comfort maybe, but it’s the small comforts that count.

So thanks for making my life better Red Prius. I promise to take care of you as well as I take care of Ralph.

Gratefully,

Alice

 

Travel With Ralph (or Not)

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For the last two weeks, Ralph and I have been discussing a trip scheduled for this Labor Day weekend to New Orleans to babysit our twelve-year-old granddaughter while my daughter and son-in-law take their “babymoon”.

I brought up the possibility to Ralph a month ago when they first asked me to help out. Since I was driving down there–Ralph has made it clear he never plans to step onto a plane again in his life–I suggested he might come along.

I suggested but assumed he would say no. Since the family moved to Louisiana a year ago, I have visited probably six times. Ralph has been once, for a family Thanksgiving, and he didn’t exactly enjoy himself. Staying in a hotel discombobulated him, and he missed his dogs.

But he must have been in a good mood when I asked, for to my surprise, he said sure he’d come. I started fantasizing (and I use that word purposely) about a pleasant weekend of good meals and maybe a visit to the WWII museum, which I told him he would love.

A week later I mentioned the trip in relation to something else going on and he didn’t remember our first discussion.

“Why are we going?” he asked.

I explained. He looked perplexed. “And I said I’d come?”

I nodded. He said, “Ok,” then promptly forgot all about the trip until the next time I brought it up. We’ve had the same conversation daily for weeks.

Each time Ralph sounded a little less enthusiastic. Meanwhile I was growing a little less enthusiastic too as the reality of what it might take to keep both him and my granddaughter happily occupied began to sink in. I’d been sort of bragging to friends that Ralph was actually coming with me this time, but I started hedging, saying that if he resisted I wasn’t going to force him.

The truth is that traveling with Ralph is no more fun for me these days than it is for him. He was never the most adventurous companion, but he was generally game. Now his anxiety and low energy makes every trip a complicated obstacle course of arrangements: limited activities, limited walking, no wandering, no spontaneous choices, a lot of naps. I hear how trivial these complaints are. All that’s required is patience and a willingness to slow down, but that’s the rub. A husband in his sixties with cognitive impairment is in many ways equivalent to a typical eighties something husband; I know I’m not being fair, but while I hang on to late middle age by my fingernails, I resent him dragging me into older age.

Yesterday we looked at the weather report for the weekend: thunderstorms. Now my granddaughter and I are perfectly able to occupy ourselves playing cards, watching movies and eating junk food. Ralph does none of the above. What he does when faced with free time, of which he has much, is smoke cigarettes outside on the porch. But my daughter’s apartment has no porch. He’d be sitting outside in the rain.

“You’re off the hook,” I told Ralph and breathed a guilty sigh of relief, thinking how much more fun I would have.

This morning I was starting to pack my single bag when the phone rang. My granddaughter has been invited by a friend’s family to spend Labor Day weekend at a beach resort. Evidently I’m “off the hook” too.

“Florence Foster Jenkins”–An Example of The Elasticity of Marriage and the Caregiving Spouse

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I have learned most of what I know about history and society and morality from reading good novels and watching good movies (I admit I go to TV more for the escape). But fictional portrayals of family care giving in books and movies usually leave me cold. There’s too much sentimentality and nobility, or conversely cold conniving and self-interest.

When I saw Away from Her several years ago, I loved it for Julie Christie’s performance and because it moved me emotionally, but I wasn’t dealing with an impaired spouse myself at the time and accepted the soft focus presentation of  memory loss without question. I suspect that if I were to re-watch that movie  or Iris, based on the loving memoir by philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch’s never-complaining husband, I might react with a little defensive impatience since everyone in both films  exhibits a niceness I obviously can’t always muster.

I certainly didn’t go see the new Meryl Streep/Hugh Grant movie Florence Foster Jenkins expecting to feel my soul exposed. But, I was shaken by how honestly it captures the complexity of a lopsided marriage in which one of the spouses has become the caregiver for the other.

The movie is about an actual Manhattan socialite known  both for her great philanthropy and for giving hilariously bad public concerts, including one at Carnegie Hall, despite having absolutely no singing ability, let alone talent.

I appreciated that there were none of the dreamy flashbacks or usual movie platitudes about cognitive loss that drive me crazy, maybe because Mrs. Jenkins does not have  Alzheimer’s. However  her ailment, with its own traumatic results, could be seen as an equivalent for the early twentieth century and required her husband to play a role many of us dealing with dementia issues will recognize.

And as good as Streep’s performance is in the title roll—and she is wonderful at making Mrs. Jenkins a real woman rather than an over-the-top caricature—even non-caregiver viewers will probably agree that Grant carries the movie.

Struggling to find my own balance as wife and caregiver, I found myself mesmerized by Grant’s performance as a husband forced to go beyond and at the same time fall short of normal spousehood. Others in the film might approve or condemn the decisions he makes concerning both his wife’s happiness and his own, but as Grant portrays him, the complex layering of his feelings for his wife at any given moment defies simple labeling like selfish or supportive.

And watching this husband try to keep his wife’s world intact as long as possible was painful and true—historically accurate evidently but also  emotionally real and close to home at least to me.

In other words, if you have a chance, go see it. And let me know what you think.

“I LOVE YOU”–Easier Said Than Done For Caregivers of the Cognitively Impaired

I happened to read a post at the Alzheimer’s Reading Room call Three Little Words. I am sure the article’s author Bob DeMarco is right. I realize that saying “I love you” is a wonderful thing to say. I am sure DeMarco is also right that changing patterns of behavior as a caregiver is a good idea.

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But frankly I am not feeling it at the moment. I can hear you responding, that’s the point. If you say it, you will change how you are feeling and behaving. I get it intellectually and I don’t not love Ralph. But saying those words, and I do, sounds hollow. The truth, which is not always pretty, is that being together with him day in and day out is an emotional drain. Solitary even when we are in the same room and de-energizing because I tend to let myself drift into a slough of inaction with Ralph that I find both debilitating and anxiety-producing. (And yes, I know I should do things to make him more active, and I try, I really do.)

So, politically incorrect as this may be, I admit that I often put my own needs before Ralph’s these days. As I have said here before, we never had exactly an easy, or even happy marriage. I blame myself as much as him because I passively allowed him to be what he called “the captain” of the family, what the rest of us sometimes called the bully. My reasons were the usual complex mix of love, laziness, fear, and indecision.

Now, of course, Ralph is someone else altogether. As am I.

He has become the passive, gentle man who sat in the car today without complaining while I did grocery shopping on our way home from his aborted shrink appointment—for which he blamed not his therapist or me but himself for screwing up the dates and which despite the two hours spent driving in the car was not a complete waste of time because it gave his day a focus. The new jovial Ralph didn’t care that my run into Publix for milk turned into a full-fledged six-bag expedition.

Ten years ago, even if all I needed was a quick pint of milk, I would have driven him home and then driven back to the store we were passing on the way rather than argue over the practicality of adding an extra hour of driving to my life. For better or worse that weak-kneed version of Alice has disappeared. I have become a woman who tries to be diligent in her care but is seldom anything approaching affectionate.

Which brings me to this further shocking-to-me admission: Lately I have found myself transferring my affections from Ralph to another love object.

lola                I snuggle with Lola. I baby-talk to her the way I always made fun of other dog owners for doing. I encourage her to lie on the bed with me while I drink my morning coffee (especially since Ralph prefers to sit outside with his first cigarette). For the last month we have been taking classes together to make her more obedient. She now comes as soon as I call and stays sitting in “place” until I tell her otherwise. Along with obedience, she has become much more attached to me. All I do is look her way and she is by my side licking my ankle.

Ralph’s attachment comes with complications. Lola’s is much simpler (except that she eats my shoes). For me having Lola to love on has been a real help. And Ralph is not the least bit jealous.

Diaries and Dementia

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I want to pass on a link sent to me by my friend Caregivee, who has become my friend and conscience:

Caregivee sent me information about a new British study, “Carers’ diaries in dementia: Is there a role in clinical practice?”

I cannot verify the validity of this scientific study, which compared information recorded by 78 caregivers in daily diaries to what information caregivers gave in retrospect, but I was particularly struck by one conclusion:

“Our findings suggest that there may be a potential use of carers’ diaries in the assessment of dementia, in that they may identify more problems compared to relying solely on the retrospective account of patients and carers in clinic. More research using carers’ diaries in dementia covering longer period than a week may be required to ascertain other benefits.”

This study seems to suggest that by assembling the details from the diaries of many caregivers’ daily experiences–those small problems and/or solutions  that we forget about once they’ve passed, those fleeting reactions, those moments of clarity–health professionals may find ways to help caregivers improve caregiving and make the experience better for caregivees. We can use all the help we can get.

Although I may write here about my anecdotal experiences with some regularity, I have never been good about keep an actual diary. Perhaps I should start.

(But no promises that I can keep it up.)

Cognitive Impairment and Contentment, An Odd Couple

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Ralph and I have our best conversation while driving, the same way my kids and I did, and for the same reasons: we have each other’s undivided attention and we can’t escape.

So of course I was maneuvering my way through rush hour traffic the other day when he brought up his concern that his IQ has dropped seven points since what it was when he was a boy—this statistical tidbit from his first diagnostic testing lodged in his brain three years ago; he’s brought it up occasionally ever since but rarely so bluntly.

I responded that most people’s IQs probably drop as they get older, then added as an afterthought (how I tend to break bad news) that his memory loss has probably made his drop worse. He nodded. When I used the term Mild Cognitive Impairment, he flinched, but only slightly. (We don’t use the word Alzheimer’s aloud in our house.)

He brought up how well his medications Namenda and Donepezil have worked. He also said he was wasn’t worried that eventually they might stop working as well because his doctor had assured him that there will be new drugs in the process being discovered and he can take them when these stopped being effective—I don’t recall the doctor saying that exactly but I didn’t contradict him because, after all, who knows?

Then he took a puff of his e-cigarette and said, “Anyway, I’m content.”

“Did you say content?” I asked.

“Yes, I am very content these days.”

I could tell he meant what he was saying, not “fluffing the goods” as he likes to describe people whose stories he doesn’t believe. I felt glad for him, and definitely relieved.

But also, I have to admit, I was a bit jealous. Ok, a little resentful too.

Because I am not content with my life these days. It’s fine to be told what a good, caring wife I’ve become, but it’s kind of a backhanded compliment coming from friends with exciting careers going full steam ahead. Not that my career was ever that full of steam, but my ambitions have flagged. I find myself drifting along, adjusting my rhythm to Ralph’s, wondering if my own days of productivity are over along with his.

I’d rather blame the heat. Maybe once the temperature drops below ninety I’ll be full of focus and energy again, ready to care for Ralph and myself with equal vigor. I’m going to borrow from Ralph’s new playbook and assume the best….

Cognitive Testing-No News IS Good News

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Annual Cognitive Testing Update—No News Is Good News

We went for what has been a semi-annual appointment at the Emory Brain Center yesterday and the news is a sigh of relief:

No change in Ralph’s memory from a year ago (ie still “awful” according to N.P. Stephanie, who was smiling because awful is much better than “getting more awful”)

Executive function holding steady

Problem solving holding steady

Mood, if anything, improved

Apathy and low energy, which N.P. Stephanie addressed by lowering the dose of Lexapro. If he doesn’t not appear more anxious, we may cut it out all together (although I suggested that I might require his portion)

Ralph allowed to drive his tractor but not drive his car alone except to the convenience store three miles down our own road

Alice allowed to leave Ralph home alone for several nights at a time as long as there are friends and Alice phone calls to check on his meds and meals

 

Actually the big change was that N.P. Stephanie suggested that, barring a problem arising, we skip our usual six-month visit and wait to return next July.