The tip of the iceberg didn’t sink the Titanic.

Who would ever think that something as inconsequential as a manicure would be the tip of an iceberg? Somedays I look at my hands — never my best feature — in despair. Nails chipped and split, cuticles like the pithy strips inside an orange.

Lately, I haven’t had time to indulge myself, because during the hours I have help for Peter I have to squeeze in shopping, errands, or all-important time to get together with friends. Yet, I make time to attend to his fingernails. He can’t, or won’t, do it anymore. His nails are strong enough to, well, pull nails, and they’re very difficult to trim. I have him soak his hands in warm soapy water to make it easier on both of us, but he complains and wiggles, although I think he secretly likes it.

And I drag him to get his hair cut and beard trimmed. I’ve tried to do both, but failed. I schedule our appointments back-to-back for my convenience. It’s one less trip, but it does take away from that bit of time for myself. Such a small thing, an iceberg’s tip, but underneath…!

images-1As dementia — Alzheimer’s — continues its march, I know more and bigger icebergs lurk. I already have a list of potential problems that lie ahead. The only thing this caregiver can do is lookout for laughs — lifesavers — and go full speed ahead.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

 

 

Header: A “berger bit” iceberg in Alaska, September 2006.

Sweet talk.

Valentine’s Day crept on me, but I decided not to rush out to buy a card for my husband. Instead we’d go to our favorite spot for coffee. Oh, yes, I did cut a big heart out of newspaper and put it in his chair this morning and, yes, I did leave a message on his little white board. He didn’t notice either of them.

When I suggested we go to Our Daily Bread, his eyes lit up. We walked so I could justify one of their beautifully decorated heart-shaped sugar cookies. The place was bustling, as always, and even at 9:30 we were too late to get Valentine cookies. Peter eyed a strawberry-studded chocolate gateau, but in the end, we settled on our favorite apple turnovers.

After repeating his usual questions several times — “any news from upstate? ” and “how’s the big guy?” — he wanted to know what he could say that wasn’t the same old thing.

“How about ‘Happy Valentine’s Day?'” I said.

“When is it?”

“Today.”

“I didn’t know,” he said. He patted my hand and shook his head.

“Oh well, this is better than a card anyway. Two apple turnovers and two coffees for only eight dollars and forty-six cents.”

“Cheaper than a card,” he said.

“You’re a cheap date,” I told him.

images-1

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am


Could be a whole lot worse!

Most of January, I was mired in gloom worthy of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and for no good reason really. We are fortunate to have good long-term care insurance, I have companion help for Peter, and house-cleaning help for me. Best of all, Leslie is close by to bolster me, and Carolynn cheerleads from 596 miles away.

Could be a whole lot worse.

A well-timed phone call jerked me right back to my senses last week. Several times a year, our insurance company nurses call to ask routine questions: “Does Mr. Clarke need help bathing himself? Does he need help brushing his teeth? Has Mr. Clarke had any falls lately? Does he need help toileting? Is he incontinent? Does he have a problem falling asleep or staying asleep?” I always answer no. When they ask him directly how he’s doing, he charms them with a cheery “So far, so good.”

Before she rang off the nurse asked for more detail about his days. Peter is way more forgetful than the last time she checked, I told her, and more confused generally. And no, he can’t really converse except with me or other family members. We try to fill in the blanks and make sense of what we think he wants to say.

But, Peter copes better than most. He doesn’t need nursing care — yet — and he still “lets the dog walk him twice a day.” His sense of humor is intact, and although he often wears me out with his silly jokes and continuous corny patter, he takes care of me in the only way he can. He makes me laugh.

A recent morning for instance.

img_4789

If not now, when?

I’d been begging him to get rid of the moth-eaten, raggedy wool sweater he wears all the time. I dug into his drawerful of English cardigans —”cardis” he calls them — and found a marine blue double knit one. “Maybe you’d like to wear this for a change,” I said when I handed it to him. I thought sure he’d recognize it as one his mum had sent more than forty-five years ago, but he didn’t. He’s never worn it, but he’s always said he would when he was an old man. If not now, when? I thought.

Darned if he didn’t put it on right away. I wasn’t surprised how perfect it looked with the blue tattersall shirt he was wearing. I spread praise thickly.

He looked in the mirror, tucked his chin in, puffed his chest out, and said in a rumbling Churchillian voice, “Hrmp hrmp, erm, yes, jolly good, yes, I say, yes, mmm….”

When I burst out laughing, he wrapped me in a hug and I asked myself, what in the bloody heck do I have to feel depressed about?


2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.
screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

‘…my brain was a jumbled mess and I couldn’t remember what number comes after potato!’

My husband is —was — a math whiz. Dementia overloaded his brain more than ten years ago, but every now and then, it reboots.

screen-shot-2017-02-06-at-11-47-05-amThis puzzle showed up on-line a few days ago.  If you can solve this, you are a genius, it read. I showed it to Peter. “I’ll bet you can do it,” I said, “and you know I can’t!” I added. He laughed. He knows how absolutely hopeless I am at math. I left him to it, pencil in hand.

Within minutes he was done. When he tried to explain how he’d arrived at the correct answer, he lost me, not only because numbers muddle my brain as if it’s being whirled in a blender, but also because he can barely put sentences together any more.

I’d copied the two possible ways to solve it, but I didn’t even understand how to apply either solution. Here’s what Peter did:

img_4779

You are a genius!

Interestingly, he keeps a scrap of paper by his chair that shows the way he figures out how old he is. I’m not smart enough to understand that either. First, he looks at the newspaper to see what year it is: next to 2017 he writes 17 and underneath, 62; to the left, 1938. Simple subtraction, 2017 minus 1938 should tell him he’ll be 79 this month. (Even I can manage that!) But then he adds 17 and 62 to get 79, too. See, I don’t get that at all, but he does and that’s all that matters.

There are probably several geniuses among my followers who can solve the “genius” problem. I am in awe of you. But I’m more in awe of my husband who did it so quickly, yet he can’t remember where the dog’s leash is kept, where the salt and pepper live, nor how old he is.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

 

 

Headline quote: Tara Sivec, USA Today best-selling author, Seduction and Snacks.
Header photo: Performance  Brain Training

‘A good time to laugh is any time there is.’

“Any news from upstate?” Peter asks. It’s dinnertime and that’s the question he repeats over and over during our meals.

“No,” I say.

We listen to the evening news while we eat, me grumbling at the goings-on in Washington, Peter listening carefully to the weather report.

“Any news from upstate?” he asks again.

I start to shake my head, but instead, decide to try a different response. “No,” I tell him, “but Leslie and Martin spent the weekend at the river.”

“Really? In this…?” he asks. He nods his head towards the fog outside, the rain-streaked window. “What did they do?”

I laugh. “We were there, too,” I say. I’d hoped he might remember the two days, the cozy fires, the good food, log-wrangling with Martin, Leslie and me laughing hysterically over nothing at all.

He shakes his head disgustedly, but recovers with his usual line, “Oh, well, that was a long time ago. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast.”

I nod, laugh, frown.

Laughter in the face of reality is one of the finest sounds there is. In fact, a good time to laugh is any time there is.”  Linda Ellerbee


2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

 

Morning walks clear the head.

For the past week a bad cold gripped my head, a cold I caught from my husband who still insists he didn’t have one. For once, I took my own advice and lay low, resting and drinking lots of tea, force-feeding Vitamin C in various forms. I was a real grump because I couldn’t go out and play in the first snow of the season. I even forfeited my daily walks, until this morning.

img_4730Mid-morning, I heard Peter tell Nobby it was time time for a walk. The dog has adopted his master’s ways, he is not a morning dog; he needs coaxing. “Will you wait for me to get dressed so I can go with you?” I yelled. I was still in snowflake pj’s and mommy robe.

Peter smiled. “Yes! Thank  you,” he said. As I dashed upstairs I heard him tell Nobby “she” is going with us so we don’t get lost. He sounded happy. I had to hurry or he’d forget and leave without me.

We walked for nearly an hour, not so far in distance, but slowed by the dog’s need to figure out who else had walked that way.

The fresh air — mild after last weekend’s snow and near zero temperatures — revived me. Ideas began to gel, solutions to problems began to surface. By the time we came in the door, I felt better than I had in more than a week.

While I poured coffee, Peter studied the dry erase board beside me. “Today is Sunday, isn’t it?” he asked.  I nodded, then noticed he was wiping “Saturday” and “14” off the board. I’d been so wrapped up in my thoughts earlier that I hadn’t updated the message first thing, something I always do.

“Yay, you know what day it is!” I said. He smiled proudly while I updated the day and date.

Leslie called a little later. Did we want to go to a matinee and then to eat after? Yes we did. I added that information and showed the message board to Peter. Slowly, he read the words out loud, then smiled. “Something to do on Sunday,” he said.

Smiles are hard to find some days, but they are always worth looking for.

img_4742

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

 

Dementia: tragedy, comedy and love story.

“You know I’m not about rainbows and unicorns,” Elaine Eshbaugh, PhD writes in her first blog post of this new year. I’ve been following her “Welcome to Dementialand: Living, Loving, and Laughing through Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias” for some months. She has a “tell it like it is” style that resonates with me.

“If you are one of my regular blog readers,,” she says, “you likely have dementia or love someone with dementia. I am not going to feed you some bullcrap about becoming a better version of yourself or making 2017 the best year ever. For those of you in the trenches of Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, it may seem laughable for me to wish you a smooth path, so I won’t. My wish…is that you have the strength to endure the journey and…know when to ask for help. My hope is that you have a sense of humor to carry you through and a keen enough eye to spot [even subtle joy….”

Wise, but blunt, honest. I like that.

“I wish you hope even if hope has changed,” she says, citing couples who have planned post-retirement adventures that will never happen. Before dementia engulfed us, Peter and I were lucky enough to complete all but one trip on each of our bucket lists. Antarctica was mine, and the Terra Cotta soldiers in China was his. That worked out just fine because he insists he did go to see them, even though it was on t.v.

“Dementia is a tragedy, a comedy and a love story all at once,” Eshbaugh writes in her 12/26/16 post, “Lessons  learned…” She is amazed that families whose lives are impacted by dementia can still find humor in their situations, yet apologize for laughing.  “…They need to stop apologizing for that. No, dementia isn’t funny, but the more moments of humor you can discover on this journey, the better off you will be.”

img_3354

Tricky Nobby.

The other morning I laughed at a new trick Nobby, Peter’s dog, managed. Lately, we’ve started blaming him — “Nobby did it” — for the strange things that happen around here. For instance, Nobby often takes his Invisible Fence collar off and hides it; he went to Kroger’s and paid for a Hershey bar with his VISA card; he puts food needing refrigeration in a cupboard and leaves things that should be in the freezer on the basement floor. The most recent trick is the most amazing yet. Somehow he managed to unplug a lamp, take its shade off, remove the bulb and hide it!

Yesterday was his ninth birthday, old in “dog years. ” I chuckled at the twist on the old saying You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I’m here to tell you, an old dog can teach himself new tricks!

dfa5e88a41c39e79efa876e6991da1b6

Thanks to Elaine Eshbaugh, PhD, Associate Professor of Gerontology and Family Studies, University of North Iowa for permission to quote.
Header photo: Lisa Frank, 2013 Facebook.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

Cure for common cold!

On New Year’s Eve, with no bubbly in sight, my husband started hiccuping, or hiccoughing as he would spell it. Uh oh, I thought, he’s getting a cold.

I dosed him with vitamin C in the form of Clementines, cups of sweet, hot tea, and homemade elderberry cough syrup. He grimaced and muttered at all my attempts, so I gave up and went to bed. Later, I was awakened from a sound sleep by a cacaphonus hiccup accompanied by an echoing, hacking cough. “Arrrrgh-h-h-h!” I groaned.

“Sorry,” he whispered. He always attempts to be very quiet so as not to wake me. He twisted and yanked at the covers and  finally settled onto his side. “HUH-HUHH-CK,” he said. “Sorry.”

He was asleep instantly, but the staccato sounds continued. I pulled my pillow over my head. “Try holding your breath.”

“Why?”

“To stop your hiccups,” I said, though from experience I knew it would not.

He didn’t even try. The bursts continued until I suggested that he might sleep better if he went into the other bedroom.

“Why would I sleep better there?”

“Because I won’t poke you all night!”

He clomped down the hall and I drifted to sleep. I knew I hadn’t handled that well, but, I rationalized, no one dies from hiccups.

Later still, Peter got up to use the bathroom, but forgot he was sleeping in the guest room. He returned to our bed, grabbed for the covers but instead got my arm which I’d flung across to his side. Both of us yelped. “What are you doing?” I said.

“Coming back to bed…I thought you were sleeping in the other room…”

“No, you were!” He plodded back down the hall.

Sunday morning, froggy-voiced, weepy-eyed, drippy-nosed, and still hiccuping, he croaked, “Good morning.” His voice was in the basement.

“How do you feel?” I asked. He patted himself all over and grinned. I rolled my eyes. That’s always his answer to my how-do-you-feel question.

His symptoms continue to this moment. He’s in the next room watching television, hacking and sniffling and still hiccuping endlessly. When I asked how his cold was this morning, he shook his head and said indignantly, “Cold? I don’t have a cold. Sneezing a bit, that’s all.” He coughed hard enough to untie his shoes and knock his socks off.

images-1

And that, Readers, is how I discovered the cure for the common cold, at least at our house. Dementia, dementia,  that’s the cure. Peter insists he is not sick, does not have a cold or a cough or a hiccough. Since he doesn’t have a cold, there’s nothing for me to catch.

Knocks the achoo right out of the Kleenex™ factory, doesn’t it?

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

Forever — is composed of nows —

For my husband to give me a meaningful card for our anniversary was present enough. But coupled with heart-shaped earrings in a beautiful little box, WOW!  With Leslie’s help — she offered him three choices — he picked the earrings and the handcrafted box to put them in. He doesn’t remember our Boxing Day anniversary, nor how many years we’ve been married, but some glimmer helped him choose perfectly.

When I opened the Leslie-wrapped present, he hung over my shoulder to see what he’d given me and why. “Our anniversary? Did I forget?” I said he hadn’t, and that the box and earrings were what he’d given me.

“I did a good job, didn’t I?” he said. “Did you give me something?”

“I did. That card on the mantle…and shoes.”

“Shoes? You gave me shoes?”

I laughed. “Two pair yesterday,” I said.

“Why?”

“Why did I give you shoes, or why did I give you two pair?

“Yes.”

“”Well, shoes because you’ve been complaining you don’t have any, and one pair because it was Christmas and the other pair as an early anniversary present…”

“Anniversary? Did I miss it?”

“No, it’s today, it’s ‘now,'” I said. I held the box up to show him Emily Dickinson’s line.

He shook his head. “I don’t know what that means.”

Hm, Dickinson is sometimes hard to explain. “It means ‘now’ should be treasured and celebrated, our anniversary, for instance. ‘Now’ means the present…right now…’forever’ is made of all our ‘nows.'”

I don’t think my stumbling explanation made sense to him, but he was pleased that I was pleased with “the present” he chose.

img_4588

Birdseye maple box, Mike Mikutowski Wood-working. Lapis lazuli earrings above, Cathy Guss

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

Be gentle with yourself, you’re doing the best you can.

Notices for books by, for and about caregivers show up in my email every day. I follow blogs by women  who are caregivers, and by experts who advise them…advise us. The common thread is, be kind to yourself and remember, you’re doing the best you can at a very hard job.

images

Monday, Leslie collected Peter at ten for Christmas shopping and lunch. She volunteered for the job. She, and Carolynn too, always lift his spirits and make him laugh with their teasing. I’m sure he enjoyed the day, even though he didn’t remember where they’d been.

After they’d gone, I spent a long hour on the phone straightening out a niggling problem, the sort of thing I despise doing. After that, I thought, I should go to the grocery. But, no, dammit, I would get coffee at Our Daily Bread, a favorite haunt. I’m so glad I did. While I dawdled over coffee and cranberry/orange scone, I read two excellent story drafts by writer friends. Un-in-ter-rupt-ed. I felt a bit guilty that I enjoyed being there without Peter, but I confess, I savored it.

As I was about to leave, a young woman waved from across the room. Stephanie, a gardener friend, worked her way to my table and gave me a hug. “So nice to see you out like this,” she said. “I know how hard things must be, but obviously, you have ‘time off’ today.” She’d just been to Florida visiting her father who has Alzheimer’s too. “I understand what you’re going through,” she added.

Stephanie, with her million-dollar smile and twinkling eyes, helped make my day.

After that, I did get a few things at Kroger’s. While in the card aisle, looking for an anniversary card for my husband, a wheelchair-bound, sweet elderly lady asked me to help her find a Christmas card for a dear friend. I picked out several, but cost was an issue. She really liked an eight dollar one, but wanted something in the five dollar range. I found one with a message she loved. She thanked me over and over.

I hope I helped make her day.

Leslie stayed for a cup of tea after she brought Peter home even though I knew she had lots to do at her house.

She made my day all over again.

This morning, both daughters texted, Today is the shortest day of the year. Won’t be long until time to cut the grass, as my dad always said on the Winter Solstice.

Their reminders made me chuckle and made this day.

images-1

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am