Tag Archives: tracking memory loss

18 Months Post Diagnosis of MCI–Where Are We in Memoryland?


I just realized that I began blogging about Ralph and me in April of 2014. Is that only a year and a half ago? It feels much longer, as if Ralph and I have gone through years and years of changes in the last 18 months. At the same time it feels as if the two of us are stuck and not moving forward at all.

FEELS is the operative word. Feelings are subject. Feelings can’t be trusted.

A lot of things happened—deaths, weddings, children moving away, friendships evolving, business crises. The accumulation of events big and small that form our lives. But how much as really changed in terms of Ralph and me. Have we moved deeper into Memoryland.

To gain perspective I went back to my first post to compare and contrast the salient points:


Then: He “does not yet have the disease called Alzheimer’s. He has the CONDITION called MCI.”

Now: Still true as of his last test results at the Emory Memory Center


Then: Impersonal facts like those on Jeopardy, His Meds, His Daily Routine, How to Drive

Now: He watches Jeopardy but not so much. He still retains facts, but not quite as many. He still can take his meds from his weekly box. His daily routine looks about the same on the surface although his actual day has shrunk. It is hard for him to get moving before 10 am or stay up past 8 pm. And he does a lot more sitting


Then: Who people are. Conversations. Memories, especially bad memories…

Now: Fewer conversations are retained. More people and also facts seem lost. Old memories too.


Then: “Sweeter than he used to be; less aggressive; more patient; less easily bored (because he doesn’t remember the twenty minutes of waiting for the doctor once it’s over); more in the moment.

But also less ambitious; less energetic; less adventurous; more passive; more dependent…Passionate about his farm and his dog…able to fix anything with his hands…a voracious reader.”

Now: Here is where the changes start. His personality is if anything even sweeter, even less aggressive. He no longer has an interest in analyzing numbers, facts and human nature. He may still be able to fix things with his hands but he doesn’t have much interest. Changing a light bulb becomes a major occasion, not because he can’t but because “it is so much trouble.” There has been a shift. A subtle withdrawal from the world we share that cannot be measured by memory tests.


Then: Eighteen months ago, I wrote, “although I’ve been warned there’s no telling how long before MCI begins chipping more deeply into his identity, Ralph is still himself in the most important ways.”

Now: I don’t know if I can honestly make that statement today. According to tests and my own comparison, Ralph is still functioning adequately with my support, but I have more trouble recognizing the man I married. There is a vacancy, a growing disconnect, that I sense but can’t measure.

Perhaps the greater change is not in Ralph at all, but in me. The relief I felt at first when we finally received a clear diagnosis for Ralph’s cognitive changes has shifted to something between acceptance and resignation. The support he requires weighs heavier.

We get along well on a day-to-day basis We still laugh together, usually in the mornings when he is sharpest, but we have less and less serious conversation either about the world around us or about ourselves. Sometimes, in a burst of ebullience, he’ll declare how much he loves me. And I love him, but the love is different and not exactly ebullient.

18 months ago I was a spouse learning with my husband to deal with his cognitive condition. Now I am not sure how to describe our relationship. I often feel more parental than wifely. But saying so feels (that word FEEL again) inaccurate and unfair. Because whatever we have become to each other and whatever we are becoming together and individually changes every day.

Alzheimer’s, Baby Boomers and Ralph’s Python Theory


Until recently Ralph has always been a man passionate about theories. He would grab an idea, explore it to death and then eagerly explain it to everyone he knew.

He stopped believing some (socialism) and lost interest in others (glucosamine), but there were plenty (what it means to be “cool”) he never stopped expounding.

The Python Theory was among the theories he told me back when we first met in our twenties and never tired of explaining for decades.

According to the Python Theory, the Baby Boomer generation is so large that its influence moves society the way a swallowed egg moves through the body of the python. I assumed he picked up the term from something he read, but when I went online, the only reference I found was a 2008 article in the N.Y. Times stating a very different Python Theory of Inflation.

Of course, Ralph is a Baby Boomer—as am I. Whether or not Ralph came up with this baby boomer Python Theory metaphor on his own, in his version, he always considered himself (and by extension me) a cutting edge Baby Boomer/python egg.  A trendsetter for other baby boomers. And it’s true—in his music, in his politics, in his lifestyle choices and life occurrences, he has usually been slightly ahead of the curve.

So when he first got the diagnosis of Mild Cognitive Impairment, he laughed with sardonic, ironic pride that once again he was leading the Baby Boomer egg through the Python’s body.

And he was right. According to the recent article “As Baby Boomers Age, Alzheimer’s Rates Will Soar” by Dennis Thompson on the WebMd site,  Ralph is on the cutting edge.

The article is a bit terrifying in terms of both numbers and costs.

For instance

….More than 28 million baby boomers will develop Alzheimer’s disease during the course of their lifetimes, the researchers estimated.

By 2050, all baby boomers will be older than 85 and half of those still alive will suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, said lead author Lisa Alecxih, senior vice president of The Lewin Group and director of the Lewin Center for Aging and Disability Policy.

That’s up from an estimated 1.2 percent prevalence of Alzheimer’s among boomers in 2020, when most boomers will be in their 60s and early 70s….

…In 2020, the projected Medicare costs of caring for baby boomers with Alzheimer’s in the community will be about 2 percent of total Medicare spending, amounting to nearly $12 billion in 2014 dollars, the researchers estimated.

But by 2040, when the baby-boom generation is between 76 and 94 years old, projected Medicare costs increase to more than 24 percent of total Medicare spending, or about $328 billion in 2014 dollars, the new analysis said…

The article goes on to recommend more funding for research and more involvement by Baby Boomers, quoting Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association:

“The folks in this baby-boom generation are really the ones we need to step up to the plate and participate in some of the large Alzheimer’s prevention studies that are happening now,” he said. “Even people who don’t yet have any cognitive [mental] decline can help in this fight, by participating in those prevention studies.”

I think Fargo’s talking about me. I need to be an egg too.

P.S.  While writing the above, I asked Ralph to define his Python Theory. He couldn’t remember it. I jogged his memory. Then he described the visual of the egg and the snake perfectly but said, laughing, that he had no idea why he once thought it was important.

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.

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.

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.

Alice Takes a Short Quiz

I used to love those self-help quizzes in magazines so now I have made up my own and taken in. I am not sure if I passed or not.


Who did the following, A (Alice) or R(Ralph), in the last week?

  1. Who asked repeatedly where the other was going today?
  2. Who asked repeatedly what the other was doing all afternoon?
  3. Who went to an Alzheimer’s support group Friday?
  4. Who took the dog to the vet?
  5. Who could not find his/her cell phone for two hours?
  6. Who doesn’t answer the phone when called?
  7. Who answered the final Jeopardy question right?
  8. Who got in the car without putting the dog in the house yesterday?
  9. Who left the eggs boiling on the stove last night?
  10. Who noticed and turned off the stove last night?


  1. R (Although I was only going to the gym) but also A (To remind Ralph he had a doctor appointment)
  2. A (Because I worry he just sits and smokes unless I push him to do a chore or activity); Not R (He has lost curiosity about my activities)
  3. A (Ralph refuses to go because he says one person always talks too much and he doesn’t get enough factual information)
  4. R (While I was at the support group actually; this was the first time he has taken responsibility for a chore in a while, and I was nervous about sending him alone. But he assured me that he knew the way and he did. The dog’s check up went without a hitch. The sense of normalcy was a good experience for Ralph and for me.)
  5. Well, I think that might be R and A, each on different days. (Actually I am not sure where mine is right now. Oops, there it is under an envelope on my desk.)
  6. R. (When I misplace my phone, I start calling it. When R misplaces his phone, he doesn’t notice. If I am out and checking on him, I get extremely nervous that he’s not answering. When I am the one home and he is not in the house and not answering the phone, I can get a little frantic. So far my worry has been needless, thank goodness.
  7. R (One advantage of having a husband with MCI/Early Alzheimer’s—he doesn’t lord it over me because he almost immediately forgets that he’s one-upped me)
  8. R (This was disturbing because, see 4., the dog is the area of responsibility where Ralph usually seems the most his old self; I took care of the dog without mentioning to Ralph who would have become very upset at his lapse)
  9. A (I put them on, left to check email and Ralph was the one who noticed and turned off the burner just as I was walking back into the room)
  10. R (See 9. Above.)

Answering my little quiz has been a good reminder to myself that the line between forgetfulness and Alzheimer’s related loss of memory is not always as clear. What is different is often more in the reaction. I fret while Ralph doesn’t know what he’s forgotten or that he’s forgotten. I think I may quiz myself more often to keep track of how we’re doing.

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.”

The Ever Changing New Normal

Eighteen months ago I was sitting in a six-week support group I had recently joined for caregivers when a new member walked in late, sat down and burst into tears in. She was a young woman in her late forties with a child in college and another in high school. Her husband was a former economics professor no longer able to teach due to his Early Onset Alzheimer’s. While she struggled to maintain her high pressure banking career to support their family, he spent his days in his home office playing chess on the computer and supposedly organizing his files. She tearfully described what a mess the office had become. She said he was depressed and angry and she was not sure how to go on.

At the time I was full of pity and secret relief. Her husband seemed so much further along the Alzheimer’s path than Ralph. Interestingly enough, her husband was the one person Ralph genuinely liked in the care-getters group which met at the same time as our care-givers group.  Ralph complained continually about having to listen to people drone on in his group, but when givers and getters came together for a luncheon when the six weeks series ended, he made a point of going up to the former professor to shake his hand and wish him well before we left.

Flash forward to the present. On my way to the grocery store this afternoon after a morning of office work, I realized that Ralph was not at home in his usual spot on the porch or out in the field mowing, but at his barn office/painting studio where he keeps a few files, his fishing equipment, and his art supplies. Ralph has always been a talented painter and always said that once he retired he would take it up more seriously. But despite my nagging, he has not lifted a paintbrush.

Still I became briefly excited.  Now that  the weather has turned cold, sitting on the porch smoking might be less appealing, so maybe Ralph was going to buckle down and begin to paint again after all.

But no. Ralph was sitting in his messy office, smoking a cigarette  with his dog at his feet.  When I walked in and asked what he was doing, he  said he was organizing his files.

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.

My Confidence in His Competence–The MCI Conundrum

I just got home from the feed store about twenty minutes ago. Last week, the woman who pasture-boards her horse with us told Ralph we were out of feed. Unfortunately she didn’t tell me until late yesterday afternoon. I have suggested that she contact me directly when she needs anything from now on. But I’m a little annoyed because she should have known not to trust Ralph with that kind of information—and I should have checked myself sooner

Yet, as I write I can hear the humming whir of Ralph’s John Deere, a strangely calming sound on a warm summer day in Georgia. You well may be wondering whether it is safe for Ralph to be on a huge tractor if he can’t remember simple conversations? The short answer is: at this point yes.

The long answer is that we are at a strange place in terms of Ralph and responsibility. And his work on the farm encapsulates the conundrum.

Ralph loves mowing and is still more capable than most people of any age at most physical chores—a good thing since we’re busy readying the farm for our daughter’s wedding here in early October. Ralph has mowed the fence lines and frontage and will need to mow them again, he has scraped our winding, unpaved driveway as well as the dirt floor of the barn where we’re holding the reception. He works about four hours every day, rarely starting before eleven after a long morning of coffee and time with the dog. When he stops in mid-afternoon, he’s dirty, hot and tired, but he’s also savoring the knowledge he is needed and useful, and—even more important to his sense of self—still competent at what he does.

To Ralph competence, has always been a primary virtue. He may no longer be able to function as a businessman, he may not be able to remember how to get to the dentist he’s gone to for twenty-five years, he may not be able to follow a movie plot, but he is competent out in our field on that tractor—a man in control of all his faculties (or at least the ones that matter to him these days).

On the other hand, I am always a little nervous. Not that he’s unable to do the work (well, a little that he’ll drive the mower into the pond) but that he’s forgotten what work needs doing. Sometimes when I tell him NOT to mow the front field, he gets so fixated on remembering there is something about that field that he ends up mowing it. He has mowed certain fields way more often than they need mowing. I have to remind him and push him but doing either too much can be counter-productive. It is less a memory issue than one of anxiety.

So everyday, instead of over-reminding I double-check his work.

I want Ralph to feel competent for as long as possible. In fact I will him to be competent. My worry is that I selfishly have him take on more responsibility than he should because I can’t ride the John Deere or fix the plumbing or cut the firewood. What if I miss the signals warning me of decreased capacity. What if something bad happens because I am not vigilant enough. But on the other hand, to deprive him of activities he can do and loves prematurely would be a huge mistake too. This is the teeter-totter we are riding together, weighing the rise and fall, hoping not to knock each other off.