Up on the rooftop, ho ho ho!

What to my wondering eyes did appear yesterday, but my smiling husband, a grin ear to ear. Like a child on Christmas morning, Peter was obviously tickled as Santa climbed up and down a red ladder, accompanied by carols. When Leslie bought the toy she knew Peter wouldn’t be able figure it out himself, but she also knew it would make him laugh. Activities director Hailey set it up for him and arranged our FaceTime call as she does every week. When I answered, he was grinning delightedly at the clever Santa Claus.

What a thrill to be able to post good news today, a dramatic change from my previous post which oozed gloom to rival Charles Dickens’ stories. Peter eyes twinkled and he looked more lively. A right jolly old elf. He’d had a shower, his hair was clean if badly in need of cutting, his nails had been trimmed, he wore clean clothes and his new slippers and socks. Joy to my world!

Cheers to whoever prodded my husband to bathe and endure a manicure. He’s a real bear when he doesn’t want to do something.

Unlike the previous few weeks’ calls, Peter was just more present. He was able to converse a bit and he laughed at my pathetic attempts to sing “Jingle Bells.” He even appreciated my sparkly green Christmas ball earrings and was surprised I had two of them. “I do have two ears you know,” I said.

When he asked what I’d been doing, I said I’d baked my annual whiskey cakes. “Remember them? You and your dad loved them,” I said. “Both of you complained I didn’t use enough whiskey.” He shook his head. “No? Oh well, I won’t bring you any then,” I said.

I switched topics and named some old pals from his days at “Generous” Electric. “Do you remember Gary…Dick…Jerry…Vince, Joe or Bill…?” I asked. He nodded. “Of course I remember them!”

“Hmpfh, you remember your old buddies but you don’t remember my whiskey cake! That’s it, I’ll eat it all myself,” I teased.

Quick as a wink, he came back. “I remember now. Never enough whiskey in it though.” His sly smile said he knew I would never eat it all and that he would get his share.

If I were to talk to him today a different scene might be in play. But I like to think that a combination of the clever Santa, a spruce-up and, yes, perhaps the change of meds, all played a part in Peter’s better yesterday. I know, it made my day!

Photos: For all his wild gray hair and beard, Peter looks like a child on Christmas day.

Laughs aren’t always funny.

Writing in the time of Covid has been tough. My mind is as scattered as the wintery mix that bounced on my windowsill all day. It has been so long since I posted here that I struggled to remember how to sign on!

The past several weeks were fraught. Calls from the facility where Peter lives rattled me. He’s become disruptive, combative, with staff and residents alike. This is not the man I married 39 years ago. No, this is a man who has lost his links to the outside world as have so many others imprisoned by both the Covid pandemic and the effects of dementia.

Prior to the March shutdown, Peter’s companion Mark took him for outings several times a week. I visited at least four afternoons. We’d play dominoes, watch sports on t.v. or walk outside. Sometimes we’d go for a drive or an easy hike and we celebrated holidays and birthdays with Leslie and Martin. Not so this year.

Is it any wonder Peter has not been the eccentric funnyman he was when he was admitted more than two years ago? He’s fed up with being locked in. Bored. All along I’ve told him about the pandemic and tried to explain why he’s even more confined than previously. He doesn’t remember what I’ve said. Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? Remembering.

I had to laugh when I learned my husband had sneaked into a resident’s room and tried to put her clothes on. I laughed when I heard that he removed the laces from his shoes and tied them around his ankles for some reason. Not so funny is that he’d taken he laces out of other residents’ shoes. And not funny at all are other offenses that are totally out of character for my toe-the-line, proper English husband.

Combativeness is also unlike him. I’ve read that some dementia patients possess shocking physical strength. Peter is one of them. As a result he’s been prescribed a medication to calm him. It makes him so dopey—stoned, my daughters say—that he can barely talk. I realize his behavior could harm someone, but I wrote a letter to suggest alternative ways to redirect him. A cup of tea, favorite jazz on his “radio,” English football on his t.v.

Now it could be that during these nearly ten months since March that Peter has moved further along the dementia continuum, or it could be that the long isolation has had the debilitating effect that so many elderly residents suffer.

At last though, vaccinations for nursing home residents will begin soon in our area. With that, face-to-face visits might be permitted before too much longer. Maybe the “old” Peter will materialize, at least for a while, and we’ll be able to share genuine laughs once more.

Header photo: During a recent FaceTime chat, Peter wore a hat that he probably “borrowed” from someone’s closet.

Trick or treat.

During these endless agonizing months of pandemic-induced isolation, visiting with dementia patients has been even more difficult for everyone involved than it was during what was formerly known as “normal.” Prior to March, I saw Peter several times a week. Instead of chatting we did jigsaw puzzles, watched sports on television or played dominoes, always accompanied by a cup of tea.

Now, with FaceTime as the only means to visit, talking is the only thing we can do. Until very recently we were able to visit outside through the fence but now — Covid cases are spiking within the facility — even that is out. I struggle to come up with things to talk about during the FaceTime meetings that Hailey, the activities director, arranges.

Yesterday was a different story. When I answered the 11:30 call I didn’t expect to see my husband still in bed and covered with his mattress pad instead of this quilt.

“BWAHAHA!” I burst out. He startled awake and looked directly at my face framed on the laptop screen Hailey had propped near his bed. “How did you get in here?” he asked. I tried to explain that I wasn’t there, but I couldn’t talk for laughing.

I heard Hailey giggle. “Sorry I’m late, Judy,” she said. “We had a fire drill and a lot was going on. I didn’t know he was still asleep.”

“He’s always liked to sleep late,” I said, “but this is late even for him.” Peter was having a very hard time waking up.

“What time is it?” he grumbled.

“Almost noon. Did you have breakfast?”

“Don’t know, but I’m hungry.”

“You’d better get up or you’ll miss lunch!”

He peeked under the covers. “But I’m not dressed,” he said and closed his eyes.

He peeked under the covers. “I’m not dressed,” he said as he snugged the mattress pad over his shoulders and closed his eyes.

Photos clockwise from top left • Peter looked pleasantly surprised to see me when he woke up yesterday morning • Last year on Halloween he was discharged after two days in hospital • Peter’s companion Mark draped him in his bed sheet while waiting to leave • Last January we could still have tea together in his room • Hailey snapped this so I could see what Peter looked like when he was chatting with me via FaceTime.

Pete and Pippa meet at last.

He clutched a brilliant bouquet when he came to the fence. So bright and colorful I thought the flowers were artificial at first glance. But no, with Hailey’s help, he picked them from the raised garden that he helped plant months ago — glowing orange and hot pink geraniums, a pink begonia, a deep red celosia plume, pink polka dotted hypoestes.

And I’d brought along a surprise to show him. Pippa. I’d held off introducing her until I felt comfortable with the idea. Even though Leslie and Carolynn were convinced their dad had forgotten his Golden Doodle Nobby, I was convinced meeting Pippa might spur sad memories and upset him. It didn’t.

Peter did refer to her as “him,” and he called her Nobby several times. He tried pet her through the fence, but she would have none of it unless I would let her squirm her way under the gate towards him. I wouldn’t. But lively little Westie that she is, she “talked” constantly in her squeaky little voice. We didn’t understand a word, but she made us laugh anyway.

We talked for nearly an hour, mostly about Pippa. When I got ready to leave I thanked Peter again for the flowers. “What flowers?” he said.

“These!” I held them up.

“Where did they come from?”

“From you! From that raised bed over there that you helped plant up last spring.”

He shook his head and chuckled. “If you say so.”

“I do,” I said.

Header photo: Peter presents me with a posy.

 

Beard blind?

Lately, Peter and I have FaceTimed exclusively, rather than visiting through the fence as we’d been doing. Several weeks back an employee tested positive for COVID-19 so all residents and staff had to be tested per CMS (Center for Medicare and Medicare Services) regulations. I decided against fence visits for the time being because Peter stands right against it and reaches through to hold hands. It’s breaks my heart to have to back away from him…besides, I want to hold hands too.

Peter never was one for talking on the phone, much less now using a cell phone. He fiddles constantly with whatever device he’s been handed — cell phone, laptop or tablet — so one minute I’m looking at his hand, the next, a close-up of an ear or the ceiling, always accompanied by his muttering. I try to get him to sit still and just look at me to chat. Not gonna happen.

Last week he poked at the laptop so much that he changed a setting somehow so that he could no longer see me, although I could still see him. He fumed, but I reminded him that he knows what I look like—although I’m not sure that’s always true— so it didn’t matter if he couldn’t see me. We can still hear each other, I said.

It was raining heavily that day and the downpour was all he could talk about. I tried to change his focus. “You look good today,” I told him, “but it’s time to have a beard trim, isn’t it?”

He frowned. “What are you talking about? I don’t have a beard!”

“What’s that on your face then?” I asked.

“I don’t have a beard,” he insisted.

“Feel your chin,” I said. He didn’t seem to know where his chin was. “No, move your hand up….” I tried to help by gesturing but, of course, he couldn’t see me.

It took a while before found his whisker-rimmed face. “Well I didn’t know I had that, did I?” he huffed. He was genuinely surprised.

I have to wonder who he sees when he looks in the mirror. But then, as a friend reminded me, he thinks he’s still sixty so he expects to see a younger man reflected back.

Mirror image  The late Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, admitted that he’d always known he was very bad at recognizing faces. Sacks, a contributor to The New Yorker magazine, wrote in “Face Blind,” (8/23/2010), “On several occasions I have apologized for almost bumping into a large bearded man, only to realize that the large bearded man was myself `in a mirror. He went on to say, “…I have been accused of ‘absent mindedness,’ and no doubt this is true. But I think that a significant part of what is variously called my ‘shyness,’ my ‘reclusiveness,’ my ‘social ineptitude,’ my ‘eccentricity,’ even my ‘Asperger’s syndrome,’ is a consequence and a misinterpretation of my difficulty recognizing faces

Prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. Also known as face blindness or facial agnosia. … Some people with the disorder are unable to recognize their own face.

I don’t believe Peter, who is all those things Sacks said of himself, is face blind because he does recognize me, our family, and a few others. The gray-haired, gray-bearded man in the mirror just isn’t who he expects to see.

Header photo: Even though he couldn’t see me when we talked, he enjoyed seeing himself in the corner of the screen, beard, mustache and all.

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Through the plexiglass darkly.

Who would have thought six months ago that this blasted redoubtable pandemic would still have the whole world in its grip come August? When I hugged Peter goodbye that March Friday, who knew my almost daily visits would be reduced to FaceTime, chats through the fence surrounding the facility or, lately, peering at each other through a plexiglass shield?

Now residents’ families can schedule twenty minute visits outside, weather permitting, with their loved one, a recent change. The meetings take place in a secure area, one visitor at a time with no touching, eating or drinking permitted. As should be, the visitor must complete a questionnaire, have their temperature taken and wear a mask.

Brandi had already taken Peter to the shielded area when I arrived yesterday. His eyes popped and he did his “Oh, it’s you,” routine when I walked up. Right away he wanted to know why I had “that thing” on my face. “Because I have jam on my mouth,” I joked. He thought that was pretty funny.

Like the gloomy day, Peter was foggy, a bit more so than usual. It was hard to hear his raspy voice through the plexiglass and his ever more rambling comments made the visit difficult. He brightened, interested, when I told him I’d heard from friends in England. He remembered them, their home where we’d visited many times, and he laughed at the name of the village where they now live—Oxshott. For just that brief bit of conversation he was present, in the moment. I felt better for the glimpse of the old Peter.

When my time was up, he tried to find a crack in the plexiglass to put his hand through. Since we couldn’t hug each other I showed him how to hug himself—arms crossed over his chest, hands gripping his shoulders—while I did the same. He made silly faces, but his eyes were sad. Then, just as I stood to leave, he really looked at me. “Do you have everything you need?” he asked. His concern was apparent.

That tiny shard of clarity—wondering about my circumstances — so surprised me that it brought tears to my eyes. “I’m fine,” I said. My eyes continued to mist over as I walked to my car. It would take more than one cup of tea to make me right.

Header:  Peter’s photo-perfect smile even shines through plexiglass.

 

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Who is that masked woman?

I’ve only seen my husband in person four times since COVID-19 isolated us and those visits were through the fence that surrounds the facility where he lives. We can’t share a hug or hold hands, but at least I can see him, and he, me, although he pretends he doesn’t know me.

Leslie, Martin and I visited Peter recently, a visit arranged by a nurse who urged him outside. We chatted about 30 minutes until Les and Mart had to leave. I stayed longer and tried to answer his questions about the virus. He wants to know if it’s “fixed” yet.  Hard enough to explain the enormity of a pandemic to anyone at all, much less someone who has Alzheimer’s Disease. He repeats his questions over and over and I reply with the simplest explanations I can. That particular day he was clearly distressed. I tried to reassure him that he was safe where he was, while we on the outside of the fence must wear masks and be extra cautious because the virus is so contagious.

As I drove away he kept pace inside the fence with my car. I did the Queen Elizabeth wave to make him laugh, but I was fighting tears. Maybe he was too. It was my worst day since the day he was admitted more than two years ago. I don’t know why it was so difficult. Maybe it was seeing him so uncharacteristically sad.

When I visited the next week he seemed more his old self. I’d meant to take a photo of him during the other visits but stopped myself. Did I really want pictures of my husband behind bars? So this time I decided a “selfie” of the two of us would be fun. It wasn’t easy to stand six feet apart, factor in the length of my arm and still get both of us in the shot. He turned on his usual Peter smile—he’s such a ham—while I snapped several pictures.  When I showed him the results, again at distance, he wondered what “that thing” was on the side of the photo.

“That’s me silly,” I said. I tugged at the mask I’d had on the entire the time we’d been talking.

“Why are you wearing that?” he asked, laughing. I explained yet again.

Then he wanted to know why his head was so small in the picture. I didn’t try to explain perspective nor remind him of the six feet between us. When I pointed out that we’d been photo-bombed by the American flag, naturally that spurred questions about why the Union Jack wasn’t there too. “Because, the Fourth of July is coming up. That’s when we celebrate our independence from you lot,” I said. At least we were both laughing when I left that time.

 

Header photo: Peter’s happy “photo face” and my masked chin, neck and shoulder.

 

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Is laughter quarantined too?

Laughter has been as scarce as toilet paper and hand sanitizer these recent months. There are glimmers of good news now and then, but the bad far outweighs the good. March 14 the facility where Peter has lived for two years closed its doors until further notice due to COVID-19.  “Further” has yet to be determined. Still, who am I to complain when tens of thousands of families will never see their loved ones again?

Oh, Peter and I have talked on the phone and FaceTimed. He always sounds quite jolly when we talk, but it isn’t difficult for me to get him going. I say something silly, he laughs and comes back with something sillier. We’ve been doing that for years. After we’ve talked, whoever facilitated the call—Haley, Brandi, Jordan—lets me know that he smiled the whole time. I appreciate them telling me. Smiles work wonders when reasons to laugh are so scarce.

Peter understands that there’s a serious health crisis, though it would be a stretch to think he understands what a pandemic is or the devastation it has wreaked around the world. His world is limited to the locked doors behind which he and 15 others live. He’s safe there.

When we FaceTimed last week, aided by Brandi, I happened to be sitting outside in the sun—sunlight destroys the virus, they say—and I didn’t have time to corral my flyaway hair. “Is that you?” Peter asked, frowning. He had her phone pressed close to his face the better to decide if the image on the screen was indeed the woman he married.

“I look different with all this white hair, don’t I?” I asked.

He hooted. “Oh, is that you?”

I nodded. “I look like my grandmother.”

“Well how old are you?” he wanted to know.

I sighed. “We’re both over the hill, Pete. I’m eighty-one, and you’re…”

“SIXTY!” he blurted.

“…Eighty-two.” My turn to laugh.

Thursday we visited through the garden fence, again with Brandi’s help. She made sure Peter was outside at one o’clock. He wasn’t quite sure about the masked woman standing near the gazebo. He walked toward me hesitantly. “It’s you!” he said finally.

Leslie and Martin arrived a bit later. We three stood in the sunshine, at distance from Peter, and chatted as if it were a normal day. Peter’s grasp of the virus’s severity is fleeting. “Is ‘it’ just here?” he asked circling his arms around. “How long will ‘it’ last?” he’d say every few seconds. Again and again we told him that the whole world is affected and that no one knows for how long. Each time he’d roll his eyes, shake his head and repeat, “‘Is it just here? How long will it last?”

He took some comfort when Martin told Peter he was safer inside than we were outside. Finally, I encouraged him to go see if there was a cup of tea in the dining room with his name on it. Certainly tea won’t cure this pandemic, but it can’t hurt.

Header photo: I forgot to take a photo of us at the fence, but Peter hasn’t changed much since this one was snapped two years ago when he was only 80.

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Do tell! Or not.

Experts in dementia circles advise that people afflicted with Alzheimer’s or other dementias shouldn’t be told about the virus that is ravaging the world.

As I often do, I went against advice.

The last time I was allowed to visit Peter, March 13, I gave him general information about coronavirus.  He listened intently, the way he always did when he understood I had something important I wanted to talk about. He always gets the message—my evil eye does the trick—that I want him to listen and not make jokes. If he can get away with it, he’ll always joke. He asked questions that told me he understood, at least right then, in that moment.

Before I left him that day, not knowing then that I wouldn’t see him for weeks, I stuck a reminder message on his bathroom mirror: Wash your hands with soap and water. “Why do I have to do that? he asked.

“Because of the virus I told you about,” I said. “Soap and hot water are the best way to keep from getting infected.” He nodded as if he understood. Later I thought of several better ways I could have phrased that.

He probably peeled the message off the mirror within an hour or a day. I believe it was better for him to have heard something about the pandemic than to hear nothing at all.

[Dry erase sticky-back tape, by the way, is available in office supply stores and on Amazon. I’ve used it often since Peter has been in memory care. It’s my way to get a message right in front of his eyes. I don’t know if it’s as effective as I’d like, but it makes me feel better.]

He’d asked questions that day and I answered with words I thought would make sense to him. And when, a few days later, we FaceTimed, thanks to Mark, Peter asked where I was. I thought he was asking why I wasn’t there, with him. But, no, he wanted to know where I was physically. I happened to be walking along the street so I scanned my surroundings to show him. But that wasn’t the answer. “She’s walking in town,” Mark explained

That’s all he wanted to know.

During a phone call several days later, I told him that the sports channels were playing previous years’ best sporting events because no sports were actually being played now. “You can watch them if you haven’t disconnected your television,” I said.

On the one hand it’s too bad the tv in the lounge never seems to be tuned to sports programs. Peter is only one person out of 15 others, most of whom take naps in front of “Golden Girls” reruns. He does have his own television, as do some others, but he  “turns his tv off” by unscrewing the cable connection and unplugging the power cord from the so-called locked outlet!  If soccer, rugby, tennis or golf is on the tube, Peter will watch it. Shouldn’t he be able to watch sports instead of “Golden Girls” in the lounge, where the tv is always on, if everyone else is asleep?

I came across the photo below recently. The activities crew sprayed a table in the dining area with shaving cream and asked residents to make designs in it or just enjoy the feel of the slippery soap. There were a lot of laughs while they mucked about and it smelled fantastic. In a way I’m glad Peter didn’t participate, because I can imagine he might have started tossing blobs of suds! Hm, maybe this should be routine, a way to make sure residents wash their hands thoroughly.

A fun way to wash hands, and it smells delightful.

I was able to talk to Peter on the phone today. He understood without me saying so that I hadn’t been to visit because I wasn’t allowed in. He asked about “this thing,” meaning the virus and, among other things, I told him that Prince Charles and England’s Prime Minister both have the virus.”Charles is safe in a castle in Scotland,” I told him.

“And where’s the Queen?”

“Tucked away in Windsor Castle,” I said. Then I explained that most countries have closed all but the most essential businesses. “But, get this,” I said, “the English were so upset that pubs and fish and chips shops were closed, so they made an exception.”

He laughed. “Gotta have a nice pint, right? Chippies? Can’t close them, can they?”

Header photo: A week before the facility closed to visitors, I walked into Peter’s room to see him sprawled, snoring, on his bed, apparently quite comfortable.

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

Keep calm, carry on and stay six feet apart.

Bad enough that the months since Christmas have been dreary, at least in our area. Bad enough that Peter was sick several times during that period with a combination of problems. Bad enough that laughs were scarce.  Bad enough that in these nearly three months I haven’t been able to write a single post.

All that is just too much oh woe, poor me, poor us when the COVID-19 virus has the entire world in its clutches.

The facility where Peter lives is closed to visitors now and I’ve isolated myself except for my morning walks and occasional visits with friends outside and six feet apart. Thanks to Mark, Peter’s companion, we were able to Face Time once before Mark, too, was barred from going to the facility, as were other companions. Peter has never liked to talk on the phone, so talking to me remotely while looking at my face was almost too much for him. “Where are you?” he asked again and again. I’ve talked to him on the phone once since, thanks to Brandy, one of the nurses. He laughed when I explained I couldn’t visit. I doubt he misses me except, perhaps, for my skill at making tea just the way he likes it.

As last month headed towards its once-every-four years extra day finale I came to believe that maybe we, Peter and I, had “had it good” for too long. His October hospitalization slowed him noticeably and he has remained that way ever since. The second and third episodes in January and early February, a combination of terrible cold and UTI, slowed him further. His behavior was extremely erratic,  his already dementia-confused state, far worse

All bad enough to cause my own brain to stall. My muse and I needed something to laugh about.

“Happy 81st,” I wrote in Peter’s birthday card.

I am not eighty-one!” he said, as I knew he would.

He was right though! He had not turned eighty-one — February 26 was his eighty-second birthday! I laughed at my mistake, but he didn’t. Actually, I’m the one who’ll soon be eighty-one and that’s no laughing  matter to me.

I’d fixed his favorite meal—sausages, mashed potatoes and kale—and it was apparent his appetite, at least, was just fine. He had seconds of everything, plus a big chunk of carrot cake. When he opened his presents from Leslie and Martin, two knit shirts, he tried to give me one. Out of sympathy that I was soon to be eighty-one, I wondered?  I gave him a large jigsaw puzzle of the world. It was for kids really, with large pieces and colorful graphics. When he worked on it he was able to summon up a long ago maths lesson with no problem. Even with the correct puzzle pieces in hand for given spaces, he often had them turned the wrong way ’round. When I told him to turn a piece 45 degrees, or 90, he knew exactly what I meant.

Several months prior to all this, Peter had, for the most part, stopped stripping his room while inventing creative ways to pack up his belongings. No more handkerchiefs jammed in the toothbrush case, no more socks hidden in puzzle boxes, no more pairs of trousers stuffed with all his shirts and underwear. A good thing.

The laundry service had delivered his clean clothes just before I arrived one day not too long ago. I opened his closet to put his things away. It was empty except for one shirt and a tennis ball on a hanger.  Laugh? Yes I did!

 

Header photo: Peter, 82 years and two days, works his birthday puzzle.

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.