Tag Archives: family reactions to Alzheimer’s

Ralph’s Night to Shine (And Forget Alzheimer’s)

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It never fails. Whenever I start complaining about my life as a caretaker spouse, events remind me to shut up, stop griping and recognize the good stuff.

Case in point, we had house full of guests last week:

My 20-something nephew living with us for the summer while doing an internship; my 13-year-old (step)granddaughter was having one of summer weeks at the farm; and a photographer from out-of-state here to defend (with my support) her local portrait project, which was being attacked as too controversial by some members of the project’s sponsoring art organization board on which I serve.

So the five of us were sitting around the dinner table, one of those big group meals at which Ralph and I used to excel and which I tend to avoid now because I hate sitting beside Ralph as he withdraws into silence unable to follow the thread of conversation. What I usually feel is a mixture of guilt that I am not finding a way to include him and impatience that he is ruining my enjoyment. (And the truth is it is my responsibility to make him comfortable in a variety of situations and I sometimes chafe under that responsibility.)

What I felt the other night was, well it was envy. Ralph was so damn charming that the three others at the table—for whom I’d been working all day to entertain in different ways—were enraptured. Even the 13-year-old, jaded as only a 13-year-old girl can be—sat up straight an listened with fascination as Ralph told his stories about meeting MLK Jr. The photographer leaned over to whisper how handsome he was. My nephew acknowledged that Ralph scared him when he was a little boy. “You weren’t mean, but you were stern,” my nephew said. The 13-year-old smiled slyly because the Ralph she knows is a pushover softie. Ralph agreed with her.

My envy reminded me how I used to feel in my introverted twenties when I was in a group setting with Ralph and he was the energy force around which everyone orbited. In those days I was obviously drawn to his charisma, if a little jealous of sharing it with others.

This envy was oddly refreshing. I admit I kind of like my new role as the social butterfly in our marriage but it can be tiring. I have become so used to being the one responsible that it took a moment for me to relax and let Ralph hold the limelight for a change. Once I did relax, what I really felt was wifely pride in Ralph’s charm. And even a little wifely love.

(But I can’t get too Pollyannish because the next day, exhausted by his social efforts, Ralph was more foggy than ever.)

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The Thorn Among The Roses

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Our fourth annual “Camp Mountain Creek” gathering of the cousins ended this morning. For the last eight days Ralph put up with three female adults (me, our niece and her friend) and four teen and preteen girls (our niece’s daughters and our granddaughter). Enough to wear out any man.

I have watched with fascination the evolution of the relationships among the girls as they mature. There used to be spats and hurt feelings that had to be soothed. This year they simply enjoyed one another. While there were shifting match ups there was no ganging up. The kids have created traditions they cling to (killer charades, skinny dipping, endless junk food) and have amassed stories they can tell and retell (scary moments, funny moments, angry moments, and serious moments like discussing racism and violence in America in light of the recent shootings). There were lots of tears when the cousins said goodbye.

I have also watched how their interactions with Ralph have changed. Four years ago he was at the center of things: taking them fishing, scaring them with ghost stories, driving them to Dairy Queen, and disciplining them on occasion.

Three years ago, they thought it was hilarious when he got a little lost on the way to McDonalds. Two years ago, they begged him to play Scattergories but he wouldn’t. Last year they couldn’t get him to tell his ghost stories.

This year we managed to get him to come with us for one meal out. He didn’t swim, despite temperatures in the nineties. He didn’t play games. He didn’t tell stories.

Mostly he enjoyed the girls’ presence at a remove. While he was not disturbed by the altered routine, the messy house, the noise, he did not go out of his way to be part of the activities. He kept up his daily routine—sleeping late, sitting on the porch, disappearing for an hour or two into his “office”, taking his afternoon nap followed by more time on the porch, dinner, and bed.

Sometimes he rallied. After enough teasing, he changed from jeans into shorts and sat with everyone by the pool one afternoon. Last night eating pizza at our last dinner together, he was as funny and engaged as ever.

The girls still adore him but they are old enough now to understand and want to discuss. I had to explain his diagnosis and what Alzheimer’s entails. The younger ones asked the older ones what he used to be like. The older ones talked about being “sad” over the changes they have noticed. They are all incredibly patient with him.

At first I was upset that they were so aware of Ralph’s diminishing self. But a friend pointed out that they were experiencing the life cycle first hand. She’s right. These girls will never forget their carefree weeks together on the farm, and sharing not only the joyful but also the bittersweet will make those memories all the more powerful. I wish I could be around to hear them reminisce about their “Uncle Ralph” and “Oppa” when they get together thirty years from now, as I have no doubt they will.

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