Tag Archives: namenda

Ralph “Passes” the Test to Participate in Alzheimer’s Study

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The research nurse at Emory’s Brain Center called a week ago asking if we—Ralph and I because caregivers play an active role—would be interested in participating in a research study.  The nurse had already looked at Ralph’s chart and said she thought he’d be a good fit.

The study is  being conducted by the pharmaceutical company Merck  on a possible treatment to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. As the Merck brochure says, “This study is designed to test the idea that inhibiting a specific enzyme, BACE, may slow or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. The drug in this study, MK-8931, is a BACE inhibitor, which means it helps stop the BACE enzyme from producing amyloid beta peptides. Amyloid plaque deposits in the brain may be the underlying cause of Alzheimer’s disease. By inhibiting the actions of the BACE enzyme, it may in turn help stop the formation of those amyloid plaque deposits.”

In other words, the study hopes to find a way to slow down the build up of the plaque that is assumed to cause Alzheimer’s and that is evident in Ralph’s brain according to the spinal tap his doctor administered several years ago.

I glanced at Ralph, who was on the couch having his afternoon nap, and said yes, I thought we might like to participate. I was actually quite excited. In the past Ralph has not qualified for studies and drug trials like this because of his MRI problem—the bb pellet that has been lodged in his tongue since a shooting accident when he was eight-years-old not only uncomfortably heats up during the procedure but distorts results—but this particular study has dropped the MRI requirement.

The nurse immediately emailed the study’s descriptions and consent forms, which I read and explained to Ralph. And explained again.

“I hate taking pills.”/“You won’t even notice the extra pill.”

“How often will I have to go see the doctor?”/“Every other month.”

“What if I’m stuck with the placebo? It’ll be a waste of time?”/“But the study will give you the real pill afterwards, and in any case, the study will benefit others, like your kids who are at genetic risk.”

“Ok, it sounds good. But I hate taking pills.” The familiar loop repeated itself over and over, and each time he ended up agreeing to participate, if with tepid enthusiasm.

Three days later we were at Emory. (Evidently the study, which has already been going for a year or two, needed a few extra last-minute entries and the deadline got pushed up so we were a rush job.)

Ralph took two memory/cognitive tests which have qualified him although “passing the test” is not the term I’d use exactly, at least not for the second test in which the cut off number had to do with having too much memory. Ralph evidently “passed” with flying colors because his memory score was very low. I have to say when the nurse whispered the news to me, my heart sank a little.

Now we are waiting for Merck to look at the scores before scheduling some physical tests. If Ralph makes it through through those, he will begin taking the extra pill with his Namenda and Donepezil daily. There is a one-third chance or receiving a placebo, a one-third chance of receiving a lowish dosage of the medication, and a one-third chance of receiving a higher dosage. I will be expected to keep track of his progress in some form that has not yet been clarified—I warned the research nurse that I may be travelling some in January after my daughter gives birth, but she said that would not be a problem.

Once Ralph starts the pill, we will meet every two months with medical personnel, including his neurologist, a dermatologist and the research nurse, for the next two years. When the two years are up, if he’s been taking a placebo, Ralph will then receive the higher dosage of the actual medication; otherwise he will continue on the dosage he started with.

I see no downside (except, if I am honest, the extra effort required on my part) and plenty of pluses. Because we are entering the study late, there is plenty of knowledge about side effects—minor and rare. The frequent visits to Emory are a great excuse to get Ralph out of the house and into the world. Plus he will be receiving more detailed health check ups on a more frequent basis. We will no doubt have a better sense of where he is on the continuum than we do now.

And, although he says he doesn’t care, the idea of doing something useful for others, of being part of a cause larger than himself, will give him a sense of purpose; even at Emory the other day I saw the shift from anxiety (which may have caused his low memory score) to energetic good cheer as he interacted with staff.

And if the medication makes a noticeable difference in Ralph’s condition, well that would be great too. Fingers crossed.

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….

Learning to Love Ralph’s Mental Check Ups

“We” had “our” six month check up the other day at the Emory Memory Clinic. “We” and “our” are operative words because I probably get as much out of the appointments with our Nurse Practitioner Stephanie as Ralph does. The visits are medical but also psychologically therapeutic and unlike any other doctor visits I have ever experienced.

I admit it never starts well. Ralph asks if we really need to go all the way there (I have learned not to mention the appointment until that morning). And the waiting room time is always uncomfortable, Ralph and I  both secretly looking around at the other couples—everyone present is in a couple whether husband/wife, siblings, parent/child, or cared for/caregiver—trying to guess which person is the patient. I frequently realize I have guessed wrong when the person I assumed was impaired is the one who heads up to the nurse station to sign in. Ralph gets anxious because seeing people with his diagnosis but more advanced into cognitive impairment forces him to consider his own future. I get anxious for pretty much the same reason.

But once we are in the actual room, I am probably more myself than at any other time these days because we are together with someone who knows our situation, who does not look sympathetic but slightly askance at anything we say. This visit Ralph was to have a battery of tests to check his status. The tests take about 45 minutes; I actually thought of sneaking down to the second floor to say hi to a friend who works in the building. Instead those 45 minutes were filled with conversation with Stephanie about my concerns and worries. When I mentioned issues I don’t bring up anywhere else or to anyone else out of some probably misguided mix of embarrassment and guilt—and there are issues I do not bring up in my support group or even here—she responded with matter-of-fact solutions and understanding of someone who has witnessed all the permutations of cognitive impairment. My tendencies toward defensiveness, guilt, and self-justification melted. I could see clearly where I thought Ralph was on the continuum, that his memory seems to have held steady but his energy, curiosity and interest in the world has faded.

And then Ralph returned from his testing in buoyant spirits. He felt he had done really well on the test. And he had. Although he got more questions wrong than he thought, the score on his memory has held steady. (Shout of thanks to Namenda and donepezil.) He still qualifies as Mild Cognitive Impairment and is holding Alzheimer’s at bay.

We are scheduled to return to see Stephanie in six months. She said that if it was inconvenient since we come from a distance, we could skip that appointment. No way. I am looking forward to it.

Reminders of Alzheimer’s Reality

This must be my week for videos. A few days ago the leader of my local support group sent this three-minute video About Alzheimer’s, from the Alzheimer’s Site blog,  tracing the changes in a person’s brain during the course of Alzheimer’s.

The film follows the areas of brain cells that die off as plaque and tangles increase, not information I didn’t know but stated/shown with a matter of fact approach I find refreshing. While I have to say that Ralph’s case does not follow the pattern in the film exactly–his memory for language has not been the first area compromised as the film suggests—the visualization and concise explanation are useful. I can imagine returning to watch the video from time to time to keep me grounded in the scientific reality I sometimes (perhaps willfully) forget.

Meanwhile at the group meeting yesterday, I was reminded just how different everyone’s situation with dementia is, and how lucky I am, so far. I attend rarely because the meeting conflicts with my Thursday morning Pilates class—and frankly I depend on that 45 minutes of intense concentration on breathing and stretching and keeping my shoulders out of my ears—but class was cancelled at the last minute and I was already walking out the door so why not.

It was a good meeting. Honest give-and-take, practical information. In the other group, all married couples, most of the spouses are still borderline Mild Cognitive Impairment like Ralph, but in this group the caregivers seem to be dealing with parents and spouses who are at later stages. One woman, “Jane,” mentioned that her husband has recently had to be moved into a care facility

When the meeting ended, she and I began to chat. It turns out her husband is 67, Ralph’s age. Okay, I thought, he must have started having symptoms earlier. Then she said he had been diagnosed exactly two years ago. Around when Ralph got his testing results.

I teared up for the first time in two years. How lucky Ralph and I are compared to others struggling with Alzheimer’s. And how cocky I have been in my fool’s paradise. Thanks to Namenda and Donepezil (plus a generic version of  Lexapro for anxiety), Ralph is holding more or less steady, but suddenly the reality of these videos and the stark contrast between Ralph and Jane’s rapidly deteriorating husband brought me up short: This is real life and Alzheimer’s isn’t going away.

So this when morning Ralph turned to me and said, “Coffee in bed and NPR, what paradise,”  I agreed. I’ll live in our fool’s paradise as long as we can.

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.

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.

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.