A man and his dog.

After several years together dog owners and their dogs begin to look alike, so they say. They begin to act alike too, in my opinion. Take Peter, 81, and Nobby, his golden doodle, nearly 12.  Both are mischievous and have the inherent ability to make people laugh at their antics. Both would fetch sticks for hours if their years hadn’t slowed them.

The final week of October was a week I’d like to forget and one Peter forgot as it was happening.

Monday, Nobby had surgery to remove a suspicious lump from his left front leg. While he was anesthetized, the vet cleaned his teeth, too. When I picked him up, he was wobbly, confused and so ashamed of the blue cone around his head. It interfered with his food and water consumption, his ability to walk through doors easily and, worst of all, he couldn’t find the right spot outside, um, to mark his spot.

Tuesday, just as I was leaving for my own teeth-cleaning appointment, the phone rang. Peter had had a bad turn at lunch. He was disoriented, more confused than usual, incontinent and his temperature was 101.2°.  Would I come? Of course I would. Hindsight tells me a trip to the dentist’s office would have been a piece of cake and Peter likely would have chosen a root canal over what followed.

His temperature had spiked by the time I got to his room. His face was so red it was almost incandescent. “Can someone take his temp please?” I called out. Whoa, it was 104°! I put cold washcloths on his forehead while waiting for the doctor to return my call. I requested Tylenol from a nurse. Nunh uh, without doctor’s orders not even Tylenol can be given to a resident.

As is always the case, Peter said he wasn’t sick. He tried to bluff his way past my concern. He was as dazed and unsteady as Nobby was on Monday. I urged him to drink water, then steered him toward the bathroom. Like Nobby the night before, Peter didn’t know why he was in there, but at least he didn’t have to go out into a dark, drizzly night.

We went to the emergency room where he was seen quickly enough, though it was a five-hour ordeal. He was hooked-up, jabbed, poked and questioned. He tugged at his IV, tangled the blood pressure tubing and tried his best to get the pulse oximeter off his finger. He bellowed and cursed during one particularly sensitive probing. Later he erupted like a child when a nurse gave him Tylenol tabs and a cup of water. “Tastes awful,” he yelled, even as I cautioned against chewing. This was not the behavior of the mild mannered man I married. This was dementia talking.

Like Peter, Nobby refuses to swallow pills, even wrapped in Pill Pockets. He spits them out with such force they fly across the room.

With a presumed diagnosis of prostatitis, Peter was finally admitted and in a room by 9:15. A steady procession of nurses, students and doctors paraded in and out. He couldn’t answer any of their questions, still insisted he wasn’t sick, still babbled as if drunk. When one asked his full name, he slurred his words. “Whydoyawannaknow?” he asked. Did he know the date or where he was? I cringed. Hadn’t she read his chart? Didn’t she see that he has dementia and lives in a memory care unit? Finally, gritting my teeth, I said that he hadn’t been able to answer those questions for years.

Meanwhile, Nobby had been home alone for hours. Leslie went to him after work. When I got home, the dog, way peppier than the day before, wanted to play. I went to bed.

Wednesday, the doctor definitely ruled out a UTI, flu, pneumonia and several other possibilities, but had ordered blood and urine cultures. Peter was to stay another night. Leslie and Martin brought dinner to me and afterwards, she went to the hospital. He was his goofy self, she texted. He walked her to the elevator so many times, she finally shut the door to his room and told him firmly to stay there.

Peter the ghost.

Always a trickster.

Thursday, Peter was back to his old tricks. He hid in doorways and yelled boo at passing nurses. He joked and teased and wouldn’t give anyone a straight answer. He’d pulled his IV out and was so energetic that they turned off the “fall alarm” on his bed. When yet another nurse arrived, Peter said he wouldn’t answer any more questions. Still she tried. “What hobbies have you enjoyed, Mr. Clarke?” she asked.

He had an devilish look on his face when he pointed to me and said, “Her.” She blushed, I laughed and Peter turned as red as he’d been two days earlier.

By the time I got home, Nobby had discovered he could lick his sutures through the cone, and later still he figured out how to bend the cone for unobstructed access to those pesky stitches.

Friday, Nobby’s doctor called with good news. “The lump was benign!” she said. “I’ve never heard of it, I can’t pronounce it, but it’s something particular to poodles.”  Good news indeed. That evening, Peter was seen eating popcorn while glued to “The Queen” with Helen Mirren. Such was the week that was.

Header photo: Nobby looks good in blue.

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Orange is the new faded blue.

Last January I vowed to spruce up Peter’s dreary grubby room. When he was admitted to memory care ten months earlier I did the best I could at the time, but knew I could do a lot better when I was less stressed and he was more settled. The look of his room was the last thing on his mind during those first unsettling weeks…months. And really, just coping was all either of us could manage for a long time.

Last week, I finally “spruced” aided capably by housekeeping and maintenance personnel.

An efficient young woman had already mopped the floor—even behind the furniture, mind you—wiped down doors, cleaned splotches off walls and washed windows and screens by the time I arrived. All she had left to clean was the bathroom. She held up the grimy blue bathroom wastebasket. “Do you want to keep this?” she asked with a shudder.

“No, it was here when he moved in,” I said.

“It’s gone!” she said.

Then two cheerful maintenance men, Smothers Brothers types, arrived to shuffle the furniture around. They approved my plan and the new dashes of color. “Needed a woman’s touch in here,” one said. I chuckled. The old look was this woman’s touch too, though lacking any appeal whatsoever. When they finished, I tidied Peter’s things and cleared the clutter, so pleased to make good on what I’d pledged to do so many months ago.

What an enormous difference the bright comforter, new Mickey Mouse poster and change to the furniture arrangement made. The orange paisley comforter replaced one I’d bought nearly 40 years ago for eighteen-year-old Leslie. That faded blue relic was way past saving.

I didn’t expect—and didn’t get—a reaction from Peter to the room’s new look when he and Mark returned from lunch. He never was one to notice little things I did around the house—husbands usually don’t—but I felt better for having accomplished my January goal.Sad to say, another goal dating from September remains unmet. I’d thought my plan to revive the gardens outside the area where Peter and 15 others live was a done deal. Flowering shrubs, evergreens, scented plants and bulbs were proposed for planting this autumn to head-start growth and be ready for springtime bloom. Unfortunately, that project is on hold until the new year, not because I didn’t fight for it as much as I dared.

Next time I visit I’ll take the tulip bulbs saved since Peter’s February birthday, Leslie and Martin’s gift to him. We’ll plant them in a big pot to brighten the view outside his window come March. There’s more than one way to get a head start on spring.

 

Header photo: Bright new look to Peter’s room.

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

 

Random reasons to smile.

According to one of my daughters, my most recent post made her laugh and cry. Here, for Carolynn, are four reasons to smile.

One recent Sunday I didn’t feel well, thought I was catching a cold, so I didn’t visit Peter as usual. I felt guilty all day. Monday I was slightly better, but decided to stay away. Finally, Tuesday, I went to see him. We were having tea when one of the nurses stopped to tell me she’d brought her four-year-old granddaughter to work Sunday and Peter had entertained her all day. “He loves little children,” I said. “Bring her back again for a playdate.”

Pfftt, no need for Sunday’s guilt, he was fine without me.

Another day he teased a nurse who was working at the computer in the corridor. “Want my help?” he asked, acting as if he might touch something he shouldn’t.

She laughed. “You stay away from this. You help in other ways.”

“He loves to clean up the kitchen, wipe the tables,” I said, a hint that he wanted more to do.

“Yes he does, and he helps with residents too. Pushes their chairs, cheers them up when they’re down…he’s great.”

That’s my husband. He’s lucky to be a bit better off than many.

Earlier this week, I turned his music on. The throaty sound of Louie “Satchmo” Armstrong filled the room.  Peter began to sing along—badly—the way did when he blasted his thirties jazz in the basement right below my office. His carrying on always made me tear my hair and laugh at the same time.

And so it did again.

Just yesterday morning, Nobby and I were ready for our walk when I realized I hadn’t taken the garbage can to the curb and the truck was already next door. I got to the curb seconds before he rumbled to a stop. I waited there to roll the empty back to the house. When he finished dumping the garbage into the truck, he deftly used the lift arm to push the empty can right to where where I stood about ten feet away.

That random act of kindness has nothing to do with caregiving, dementia, my husband, guilt, doubts or tears. But it did make me smile.

Header photo: Peter and I at a garden party several years ago.

 

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

‘Will I see you tomorrow or the day before?’ he asked.

These days Peter often wears two shirts because he doesn’t remember he already has a shirt on. Sometimes he wears two socks on one foot, sometimes no socks at all. The other day he fished around in his pocket and finally pulled out a cracked white plastic spoon, a mechanical pencil and a tan sock with red, white and orange stripes. He studied the sock, shrugged, then used it as a handkerchief. I couldn’t help it, I laughed and laughed and he did too.

Sometimes laughter is all you’ve got.

I knew his hankies were well past their use-by date, so I bought new ones. When I took them to him he was as thrilled as if they were woven with gold threads. A day or so after that, he pulled out all eight of the new handkerchiefs, still neatly folded. Maybe now he’ll put the socks on his feet, rather than in his pocket, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

As days go by my husband loses more and more words and his voice is fading, not that he was ever very loud or even very vocal. He’s long since forgotten my name, as well as family and friends’ names. That makes me sad, but it wasn’t unexpected. Now though he doesn’t know his dog’s name—Nobby. That’s very sad. Even more surprising, he can’t remember the name of his favorite Disney character either—Mickey Mouse!

Laughter can make sad things better…sometimes.

When I walked in Sunday Peter was sitting in the lounge holding a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I’d brought his favorite McVitties Chocolate Digestive biscuits to have with tea. “Do you want to finish your beer and wait awhile before I make tea?” I asked.

“I don’t have a beer,” he huffed.

“What’s that in your hand then?”  He doubled over laughing. I suggested he set the dominoes up while I fixed tea.

“OK, but I don’t know where my room is, do you?” He was surprised when I said yes. We only played three hands. Generally he plays well enough with a little prompting, but he was struggling.  He seemed tired.

“Let’s finish this game next time,” I said, gathering my things. “But remember, you’re ahead by thirty points,” I told him.

“Will I see you tomorrow or the day before?” he asked.

“Today is the day before,” I said. He smacked his forehead and laughed again.

“Good thing you don’t make calendars,” I said. He shook his head and waved me off.

Sometimes laughter really is all you’ve got.

Header photo: Peter holds his beer.

 

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Moments shared.

A few months ago I muddled through a string of down days. Nothing specific was wrong, but nothing was right either. I sought help from family, friends, doctor, therapist. I grabbed myself by the scruff of the neck and gave myself a talking to as well. Then, I had an “aha!” moment.

Peter was watching tennis when I left him that day. He waved me off and stayed in front of the tv. He didn’t mind that I left. The next day, when I picked him up to go on a picnic with Leslie and Martin, I suddenly, aha, got it.

You see, when I collect him to go for coffee or to the car wash or lunch, I feel guilty because when I arrive the other residents are usually parked in front of the tv or tottering up and down the hall aimlessly. Many don’t seem to have visitors very often, if ever, although there are a lot of hours when I’m not there so I don’t really know.

Peter and I go out the locked door leaving them behind—it’s like picking one puppy over another, I think. Guilt swamps me because I can’t take them too, yet sometimes I can barely deal with my own husband, much less with someone else.

But Sunday when I walked in the residents—Peter included much to my surprise—were batting a balloon around and laughing hysterically. What could I do but laugh with them? Always the clown, Peter tried some of his practiced soccer maneuvers while sitting in a chair. Activities like this may happen often, but this was the first time I’d witnessed it. Aha, I thought.

No sooner had the balloon floated away than a man came in, pulled the piano to the center of the room and started playing and singing familiar old songs: You are my sunshine; Row, Row Row Your Boat; Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do; Shine on harvest  moon and on and on non-stop for nearly an hour. The nurses and aides clowned to the music, chair-danced with the residents, and everyone joined the singsong or tapped their feet. I even got Peter to dance with me. He remembered those moves too, although he said he wouldn’t try to “dip” me. Funny, he seemed to remember he’d dropped me once.

Two days earlier the activities personnel had organized a fall festival, complete with games and food, crafts and music, baby animals and even antique cars. Fun-filled late summer days! Moments to remember…

January to December, we’ll have moments to remember…
the New Year’s Eve we did the town…
the ballroom prize we almost won…
though summer turns to winter…and the present disappears…
the laughter we were glad to share…
will echo through the years…

Excerpted lines from “Moments to Remember,” Al Stillman and Robert Allen, music and lyrics, 1955.

Header photo: Peter and Nobby walk in the mountains, 2015.

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Seize the day!

It was more than a year after I placed my husband in memory care before I found a new normal. I’d skimmed across the days, weeks, months in a daze, I now know. Friends said I was doing well, but I knew I was barely hanging on.

But at last, mama’s got her mojo back. Carpe diem.

Almost from the start, I had concerns about certain aspects of Peter’s new life. Nearly 18 months later I realized that the route to change was for me to Do Something.

I made an appointment to talk with one person but ended up in the office of another, a nice young man who had the authority to affect change. When I sat down with him—I’ll call him Mr. L—I had two pages of notes ranging from serious matters like Peter’s refusal to take his meds or take supervised showers regularly to other, superficial items. He lay my top priorities to rest quickly. Weeks prior word had reached Mr. L’s desk that twice I’d found pills lying on my husband’s table. Steps were taken. Peter no longer gets away with his tricks to hide meds, although I’m sure he still tries.

My complaint that two showers a week aren’t enough for anyone, anywhere, anytime, much less my often “fragrant” spouse, was addressed. It’s still a battle for whoever has to convince him, but it’s happening. Who knows, maybe Peter will come to accept his new normal.

When I visited recently, an aide told me Peter had refused to shower that morning, as he had on Friday. “I’ll talk to him,” I said, thanking her for telling me. While we had our tea I told him how upset I was about his refusing showers. He looked like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but he continued to insist he didn’t need to shower “all the time.”

I persisted. He held firm. Finally I suggested we play dominos and the best-of-seven winner would make the shower decision. Peter lost. He went to the shower room willingly. Afterwards, he came back to his room arms raised, hands clasped above his head. He looked good, he felt good and he he’d made me happy. “Domino effect” has taken on new meaning. I might have to show the aides how to play the game!

Peter always liked to garden.

Next on my list was the garden that surrounds the wing where Peter and as many as 15 others live. “The front of the facility is very nice, well maintained, welcoming,” I said to Mr L, “but that garden is pitiful. The raised bed is full of weeds and mint. The area is not inviting at all.” He agreed. I also suggested painting the ceiling of the gazebo blue. That struck a chord and Mr. L added that the porch ceilings needed paint too. Yes-s.

Then I mentioned my two occasional gardeners—they help me at home—and asked if it would be OK to contact them to see if they would be interested in a garden overhaul. Yes and yes. Before long they’ll start work on their plan that includes brilliant perennials with compelling scents—lavender, lilac, viburnum—and although fall hasn’t even started, I can’t wait until spring.

The tall black garden fence is meant to contain residents who try to escape, Peter among them! I proposed murals on some fence sections to make them less prison-like. Murals are on the radar with two potential artists lined up.

Peter ponders his next domino move.

When I asked about a table and chairs for the gazebo, snap, they appeared a few days later. I hope other residents and their families enjoy sitting there as much as we do.

How about enlisting student volunteers from local schools and the university to visit with residents or plan entertainment? I asked. Maybe youngsters could write notes to them? Would young children from day care facilities come to cheer the residents? I wondered. Worth trying, Mr. L thought, and before long he’d made some calls and ideas are flowing. Peter loves little children and I imagine other residents would enjoy little children and their antics, too.

My list grows, even as I sit here tweaking this post. At least now I’ve Done Something about things that can be remedied with the right sources and not too much money. I’ll probably make some enemies in this process, but it wouldn’t be the first time. I’m not called Mother Tough without reason!

Header photo: Peter asks if he can help when the garden rehab starts. “You can sweep up every day,” I offered.  He nodded. “I’m good at that,” he said.

 

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

‘Caregiver’ redefined?

The word “caregiver” in the tagline above bothers me because it really isn’t accurate any more. But the title, Dementia isn’t funny, still works because dementia isn’t funny. Not in the least.

The thing is, I’m no longer my husband’s caregiver per se. For the past 18 months, since he moved to a memory facility, there’ve been are nurses and aides, companions and activities personnel doing what I did at home for years. A care giver I’m not, but I do still care.

I’m no longer in charge of trying to get him to take his meds or take a shower, to change his socks, or brush his teeth. No longer do I drag him to get his hair cut, his beard trimmed, no more do I do his laundry. Still, when I visit I often try to get him to put his clothes away properly rather than stuffed in his shoes or under his pillow. To convince him to change into a clean shirt is almost  impossible. He’ll answer “Yes, dear” and continue to ignore me as he always has. I always laugh because I never could change his ingrained stubbornness and I certainly can’t now! On the other hand, the things he likes to do, sweeping for instance, he’ll do willingly, thoroughly. He leaves no leaves unswept, no blade of newly mowed grass on the pavement.

One afternoon we were sitting in the gazebo when, out of the blue, Peter said it needed a coat of paint. I agreed—that gazebo is very shabby looking. I suggested a blue ceiling, a tradition in the South said to scare “haints” away and possibly even mosquitos and wasps too. I decided to find out if painting was even possible. And it is!

The following Sunday we looked at color chips at Lowe’s and picked some blues— Playful Pool and Vintage Aqua were nice. Later I found the color at left on-line: Benjamin Moore’s Ohio Haint Blue. I favor that because, well, I grew up in Ohio. Both sets of grandparents had blue porch ceilings and none of them had ever been further south than Columbus.

The gazebo hasn’t been painted yet, but I’m confident it will be. In fact, I have it on good authority that the ceilings of the porches will also be painted “haint” blue. I’m lobbying to have the garden benches painted a matching color, and maybe find floral chair cushions shades of blue for the porch furniture.

Meanwhile, I haven’t thought of a new word to replace “caregiver” in the tagline. Peter would probably suggest “the wife”: The wife, Judith Clarke, looks for laughs every day.  He’d laugh himself silly at his joke, knowing I would not!

Haint (haunt) ain’t in my dictionary, but hain’t is.
The latter, a contraction of ain’t and have not. 

Header photo: Peter loves to sweep the porch near his room. Soon there will  be a haint blue ceiling above his head.

 

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Shower power.

How I pity the aides who try to get my husband to shower. His jovial personality disappears when he really Doesn’t. Want. To. Do. Something! And he really doesn’t want to be prodded towards the shower by a female aide, or for that matter, by a male aide. I’m reasonably sure he isn’t the only male resident who balks. It’s got to be embarrassing, humiliating, to be led off to the bath room as if they were little boys.

A year ago, early in Peter’s stay in the memory care unit—the best facility around I might add—I complained, rather loudly, that my husband needed a shower. “He stinks!” I announced. Another day I asked if I could try to get him to shower. The answer was yes and I was successful. He stayed a long time and all I had to do was be there. I didn’t help him wash, didn’t help him dress, but I did tell him how “fresh” he was afterwards. He grinned as if to say it was his idea in the first place.

Unfortunately, showers are only scheduled twice a week, for the men at least. Not often enough for anyone, and especially not enough for my pungent husband at any time and certainly not in the heat of summer. Oh I understand there could be staffing issues and I readily acknowledge my husband is stubborn. But good hygiene is absolutely necessary, in my book, clean clothes too.

Peter’s dug-in heels are contrary to the man who sometimes showered three times a day when he was working in the yard. He’d mow the grass, shower, put on clean clothes, go back out, do another task, come back inside…repeat…repeat….

I had quite a laugh last week when I heard that he had two showers on Tuesday—one in the morning overseen by one aide, the second in the afternoon with help from a different aide who didn’t realize he’d already washed and put on clean clothes. Two showers, two changes of clothes, one day! Woo hoo! Apparently, he didn’t object either time and, because he didn’t remember the first one, he didn’t fuss the second time. Blessing disguised.

Friday, the other shower day for the men, an aide convinced him to shower again. When I picked him up at five to go out to eat with Leslie, Martin and me, not only was he clean, but he was wearing clean trousers and the blue golf shirt Leslie gave him for Father’s Day.  Win. Win. Win.

 

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

 

Shades of happy.

A neighbor drove by while I was walking the dog one morning. She stopped to say she missed seeing Peter out with Nobby. “I do too,” I said, “thanks.”

“How is he doing?”

“Better than most,” I told her. “We’re ‘lucky.'”

“Tell him Ron and I said ‘hello.'”

Another morning walk and another neighbor, Ann, stopped at the curb. “I’ve wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your blog,” she said. “I help someone who has Alzheimer’s. It’s tough all ’round…” she waved goodbye, then called out, “by the way, love your dog.”

Monday an email reminded me, as if I could forget, that my blog would be featured July 17—today— on the AlzAuthors’ website. Anyone who writes, who longs to be published, who doesn’t care if she ever earns a cent will understand what an absolute thrill this is.

Published!

When I took Nobby out yesterday I was still doing my happy dance from the previous day’s news. Yet another neighbor came along and, when Nobby bounced over for a cuddle, she remarked that her golden doodle was as happy as mine.

Any of my followers who are dealing with or affected by any of the dementias should look at AlzAuthors to read other writers who have advice, ideas or kind words on a subject that affects 500 thousand more people each year in the United States alone. You can learn more about AlzAuthors here https://www.facebook.com/AlzAuthors/  here  https://twitter.com/AlzAuthors and here https://www.instagram.com/alzauthors/

To be published on a national site and, more importantly, to be able to share, more broadly, our experiences, Peter’s and mine, well, it’s intoxicating! “Happy” doesn’t begin to describe my joy.

Header photo: Delicate old-fashioned hollyhock disappeared from my garden years ago. I spotted it recently, tucked among the branches of the Nashiki willow, in a different spot entirely, but still as pretty.

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

 

 

He who laughs last…

A number of conversational prompts loop through Peter’s brain — he’s concerned about how tall the trees are, he wonders at the numbers of cars in parking lots, he’s overly curious about what lies at the bottom of a hill behind the facility, and he constantly asks “How was work today?”

“I’ve been retired for 30 years, Peter.”

“Thirty years?” He’s astonished.

“I retired a couple months before Samantha was born, you know.”

“How old is she?”

“Uh-h, thirty!” He shakes his head. “And I’m eighty,” I say.

“EIGHTY?” He collapses with laughter. He sputters, his face is red and tears leak out the sides of his eyes as he collapses against the back of his chair. “EIGHTY?” He slaps his knee as he cackles.

I’m a bit miffed. “Don’t laugh so hard, bud,” I say, “you’re eighty-one!”

His eyes pop and he gasps. “No one told me! How did that happen? Eighty-one?” He thinks for a few seconds, then, quick as ever, says, “We look pretty good, don’t we?” And we both laugh uncontrollably, me at how quick, how sharp his retort, and him at his own joke about our unbelievable, hysterically funny ages.

Header photo: 1930’s era Packard is older than we are. And it’s punctuated with bullet holes.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.