Tag Archives: diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s

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.

“So, How Is Ralph Doing?”

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An old friend called to catch up yesterday. We talked for maybe 40 minutes, were nearing the end of the conversation, when she asked, “How is Ralph doing.”

She’d clearly been both hesitant and dying to ask. I had been equally hesitant and dying to answer.

This scenario seems to be repeated in one form or another multiple times a week these days. Everyone who knows, however vaguely, about Ralph’s cognitive problems wants an update but everyone seems slightly uncomfortable asking.

For my part, I am both reticent and overeager to share.

I always find myself answering, “He’s holding steady,” and then launching into all the little negative changes I’ve noticed, interrupting myself to say, “I know this sounds trivial but…”

Because, really, I don’t know how he is.

Ralph is scheduled for his annual testing in two months. As the appointment nears, I find myself thinking about it more and more with both dread and anticipation. (Ralph doesn’t know it is coming up and there is no reason to mention it; either he would quickly forget or the fact of the looming appointment would lodge like a lost jigsaw puzzle piece in his memory, making him anxious on a constant basis.)

Whenever I think that Ralph’s cognitive abilities have slipped, I wonder if I am over-analyzing. This testing will tell me if we are maintaining the status quo. But a sliver of me also wants to hear that my perception of Ralph’s condition worsening is correct.

This is not comfortable to admit. I realize it sounds as if I want Ralph’s diagnosis to be worse than it has been. Maybe part of me does; the Purgatory of our current status quo is certainly preferable to the Hell that may well lie ahead, but the gray haze of impermanence is difficult to sustain emotionally. Sometimes I just want to know the worst and get on with it.

Also I can’t help hoping that once we have definitively crossed the River Styx from MCI to Alzheimer’s, Ralph will be more willing to discuss our situation and plan for the future (ie. leaving the farm) in ways he will not consider now—of course I realize that not only is this wishful thinking but dangerous wishing because what is more likely is that once is denial defense system stops working, a spiral of distress will set in.

So I mostly hope that I am wrong, and that he IS holding steady…that as imperfect as things are, we can continue to muddle along as long as we can. Like any couple in a marriage full of ups and downs.

Alzheimer’s Self-Tests–Hmmm

 

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Scrolling on-line this morning, I was amazed at the number of do-it-yourself Alzheimer’s tests “available” and I use that word advisedly since it includes a positive implication that may not be true. I decided to try a couple of tests, in part to see how I’d do and in part to feel a tiny bit what Ralph must feel every time we visit the doctor’s office, not only facing his annual test to recalibrate his level of cognitive loss, but when he has to answer the short list of questions his doctor not so subtly slips in during our interim six month check up.

I took the SAGE (Self-Administered Gero-Cognitive Exam), developed by the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center plus a test developed by the Department of Veterans affairs that Dr. Oz promotes .

A disclaimer–I am not a fan of Dr. Oz. Maybe that’s why I scored only 59% on the Dr. Oz test the first time I took it. Or maybe it’s because I kind of cheated: I didn’t have the stopwatch the test required so I had to guess how many animals I could name in a minute (full disclosure: while writing this, I had to go back to the site-twice- to see just how long I was supposed to have, thirty seconds? Ninety seconds?).

Of course Dr. Oz invited me to take the test again and also to buy some memory aid products. I nixed the products but I did take the test again, raising my score 71%. This time round, I also realized I had not properly memorized the five (or was it four, I can’t remember) items I was supposed to remember. Tie was an item after all. But I still couldn’t, and can’t, remember the last one.

Taking the Sage test was more interesting because I found myself uneasy and unsure how to answer some of the subjective, non-memory introductory questions. Do I have balance problems? Well, I don’t think so, but I am accident prone, having had two sidewalk mishaps in the last three years—once tripping on my shoelace and once slipping on ice—so maybe I’m kidding myself. Have I had changes in my personality? Yes, and yes, also to whether I have “more difficulties doing everyday activities due to thinking problems”. I like to blame those yeses on my anxiety regarding Ralph, but then again…. My palms were sweating before I even started.

As for the SAGE test itself, I got the first 10 out of 11 questions right effortlessly. But on number 11 I did the unthinkable—I didn’t follow the directions! My shape was right but I missed a step, and as I recall from ninth grade Algebra (or was it Geometry?), skipping the step is bad, bad, bad!

So the good news is that while I didn’t exactly ace my exams, I don’t have Alzheimer’s. The bad new is that if I got this tense taking these tests on a whim, what must it feel like for Ralph taking much more complicated, exhausting tests knowing how much is at stake. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own anxiety/resentment/struggles that I lose sight of the existential crisis he faces daily, hourly even, every time he grasps to remember and comes up empty handed.

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.

The Theory of Alice–A Politically Incorrect Review Revised

After two back-to-back days of movie going last week, I got fired up to write a politically incorrect review. Something along the lines of:

The Theory of Everything, about brilliant but Lou Gehrig’s disease enfeebled Steven Hawking and his complicated marriage(s), is fairly standard, respectful bio fare but speaks to me about the nuances of living with a disabled spouse more than Still Alice’s Alzheimer’s stricken professor facing her deterioration with noble grit. Alice, like the earnest, follow-the-dots novel on which it’s based, struck me as an agenda film meant to pull heart-strings without making anyone too uncomfortable. All the chestnuts about Alzheimer’s —forgetting words, getting lost, not remembering names, faces, or recent conversations—get represented, but without much density or complexity. While Hawking came across as multi-dimensional, Alice, even in her worst moments, is always noble, essentially intelligent despite her impairment, and Julianne Moore beautiful even at her most faded. I hate the manipulation at the end when Alice’s daughter reads her a monologue and asks Alice what it means so we can hear Alice struggle to respond ‘love;’ hell, I couldn’t tell what that monologue was about. And of course I resented the spouse’s portrayal in both book and movie as a selfish jerk.

So those are the bare bones of the review I was writing in my head when I met my daughter for supper the other night. Just the two of us, a rare treat.

“I saw Alice,” she told me as soon as we were settled in with girl drinks.

“You did?” I asked genuinely surprised. I began to launch into all the things I thought were wrong with the movie. “Ugh, and that speech she gave.”

“I loved that speech.” She also loved the actress daughter who ends up moving back.

“But you wouldn’t move home to care for Dad, would you?”

“If I didn’t have a job and it was Manhattan I might,” she laughed. In fact, she and her husband are planning to move out of Atlanta in the next year, but she’s become indignant whenever I’ve raised the thorny issue of selling our farm when it becomes too much for Ralph and me. Now she added, “Really, I would love it if you and Dad moved wherever we end up. You could babysit.”

“And you could help with Dad.”

We laughed and proceeded to have our first in-depth discussion about Ralph’s condition. About whether Ralph counts as Early Onset Alzheimer’s given that my daughter noticed changes when he was barely sixty long before the MCI diagnosis; about how tense she gets around other people because she sees Ralph’s moments of self-consciousness and anxiety and how it breaks her heart; about how people who have met him in the last ten years, including her husband, don’t realize that he has changed in some essential ways; about what to expect down the road; about my frustrations; about her fear that she might inherit the Alzheimer’s gene (“but I would never have that test.”).

We were honest and respectful and loving. I left the restaurant a little elated, went home and told Ralph what a great time the girl and I had together. Also hugged him in pure exuberance. Moments of intimacy with my kids are hard-won and I will take them whenever and for whatever reason I can.

So as for Forget Alice, forget my griping in the first paragraph.

What a great movie, huh.

Mourning Ralph’s Memory Loss As Well As My Mother

A friend called to offer condolences yesterday concerning my mother’s death. Having cared for her mother for several years, she reminded me that people who have not been through the experience don’t realize the amount of energy expended. Then she added, “At least you will have new energy now that you are done being a caregiver.”

Not quite. As I explained to my friend, my caregiving has just begun.

Just the day before her call Ralph and I had gone to the Memory Center at Emory for his six-month check up. Although it did feel a bit odd heading out only two days after my mother’s death, these appointments are like gold and I was not about to re-schedule.

It was a rough visit. Although Ralph did not have to take the big battery of tests this time, our NP Stephanie did one brief test, giving him a name and address that he was to remember. A few minutes later he had no clue what she had told him to remember. She offered a clue that might have tipped him off that the last name was his, but it evidently didn’t help since he made a wild guess.

This small memory failure felt more demoralizing than all the previous results we have received over the last 18 months. It was so stark: no retrieval was possible. The box where he’d stored the memory was simple empty and he knew it.

Also upsetting, although a matter of stating the obvious, was Stephanie’s warning about driving. While Stephanie reiterated that Ralph’s motor skills and problem solving are still fine, she said he should limit driving alone because she’s had “dozens” of patients at his level of cognitive ability who became dangerously disoriented when something on a usual route changed; confusion combined with anxiety caused them to drive off course, sometimes for hundreds of miles. “We don’t want to lose you,” she said gently. The truth is that I already do the driving when we’re going anywhere together these days including his last two fishing trips to Florida—actually, the time before last he drove, took a wrong term and got us lost before I used my phone GPS; I drove us down last time. We hadn’t talked about why I’m the driver though and now it was out there on the table. Stephanie agreed he could still drive himself to Atlanta for his weekly therapy appointment, but the writing is on the wall. And Ralph could read it perfectly well. He looked beaten down even as he smiled in jovial agreement.

Then there was the discussion of activities and depression. Ralph’s lack of activity worries her. She has increased his dose of anti-depressant and he reluctantly agreed to sign up for an art class and to go out with me one night a week. This was major: although Ralph, who has some genuine talent, always said he was looking forward to painting in earnest once he had some time, he has not picked up a pencil or brush for two years. I have nagged him about classes of course, but he has refused. I’m glad he has finally agreed, but his meekness was disconcerting. I know that my own emotions are on edge as I deal with my mother’s death, but I could tell that Ralph was processing Stephanie’s words differently than he has in past meetings.

As soon as we were back in the car, he turned to me and asked, “How long do you think I have?”

To live with a modicum of dignity and awareness was the unspoken second half of the question.I answered the only way I could.  “I don’t know.”

Then I drove him home and dropped him off before heading to the funeral home to pick up my mother’s ashes.

Between MCI And Alzheimer’s–Treading In Place But For How Long

Funny how one sentence can pack such a wallop. The other day I received a flattering comment from Alzheimer’s Wife who writes an elegant blog about caring for her husband with advancing Alzheimer’s. I am pleased that she like my post of course. But all I can focus on and what I keep re-reading is the second half of her sentence, “and this really brings home my life about four or five years ago.”

Will I be living Alzheimer Wife’s far from easy life in four or five years? The scary thought I mostly try to avoid bubbles up. I have read her excellent, low-keyed but insightful blog about dealing with her husband’s advancing Alzheimer’s without quite connecting it to my life with Ralph.

I don’t want to worry about what is coming. I prefer the strange complacency of MCI Purgatory where Ralph and I carry on perfectly reasonable conversations (that we sometimes repeat word for word three or four times in less than an hour), and where Ralph functions responsibly within the parameters of his (increasingly restricted) routine. Where the doctors’ warnings about what lies down the road for Ralph don’t quite resonate as long as Ralph’s tests scores hold steady, even if holding steady means treading water with the help of Namenda and Donepezil.

In MCI Purgatory I can choose not to notice small, undefined changes: how after a burst of intense reading a few months ago, Ralph now barely looks at the pile of books beside his bed; how he no longer bothers to follow the thread of most television dramas, how his favorite activity has become sitting on the porch watching squirrels with his dog—well, to be honest porch sitting has always been one of Ralph’s favorite activities, but he used to sit there listening to talk radio gathering fodder to argue politics with me. The radio is still on but he doesn’t much listen, and we never argue because he agrees so easily with whatever I feel like pontificating about.

But Alzheimer’s Wife has forced me to think about the years to come, to wonder if I should be using this time better—working with more discipline on my writing, volunteering more actively in the community, travelling. I keep making those plans but have yet to follow through.

Mostly Ralph and I live in a kind of calm bubble of daily routine, many of those hours spent nearby but apart. I write down any activities or appointments he needs to complete on an erasable board. Then, while I take care of the loose ends of our business and avoid working on my third novel, he mows grass, does the chores we’ve set together, or sits on the porch.

The one ritual that defines us as a couple, that we still share almost exactly as we did thirty years ago or maybe with improvements, is morning coffee. When we first married, I didn’t drink coffee but made Ralph’s every morning because his first wife did (or he said she did). Eventually I started drinking it myself. Then once the kids were out of the house, Ralph and I started taking turns making it and bringing each other our first cup, then often our second. Morning coffee, Ralph is sharpest and most relaxed. We watch the birds through our uncurtained window, listen to NPR rest stories, talk. This when we discuss any issue I want Ralph to understand and remember, doctor’s appointments, financial decisions, anything about our kids, lately the preparations for my daughter’s upcoming wedding.

In four or five years will we still be able to share coffee? Alzheimer’s Wife can’t answer that question. No one can. But Ralph and I giving up morning coffee together is the Rubicon I dread crossing.