‘Peaks and valleys,’ he said.

We were an instant couple, Peter and I, when we met forty-some years ago. At the time, I was a struggling single mom with two young daughters to raise. “Peaks and valleys,” Peter would counsel when I fretted, “life is all peaks and valleys.”

I’ve thought about his mantra recently and wondered, would he even understand the meaning of the words now. As his dementia worsens the valleys are deeper and wider, the peaks, fewer.

A week ago, we teetered on the edge of an abyss.


The day started beautifully, definitely a “peak.” Soft warm breezes encouraged me to garden and Leslie came for lunch and cards. Perfect. Peter used her visit as an excuse to take his lunch to the basement where he’d watch t.v. Two hours later, when I yelled to tell him tea was ready, the silence below screamed. The basement was dark.

I dashed upstairs calling his name. Gone.

Gone!

He’d sneaked out while Leslie and I sat just outside. I use “sneaked” advisedly because he’s done it a few times. He has a “stealth” mode that allows him to slip away. Nobby, usually at his side, wasn’t with him because for the previous four days he hadn’t walked at all. His woeful puppy eyes told us his old arthritic knees ached.

Leslie took charge immediately, while I, heart-hammering and generally useless, attempted to follow her orders. She called the police, family, friends, told me to send photos of Peter to her, posted Facebook messages. With three photos on her phone, she sped off to nearby businesses — grocery, restaurants, bakery, wine shop, hairdresser. I stayed home to answer phone calls and texts, to be there in case he came back on his own. I called friends to be on the lookout and soon, unbidden, Peter’s carers, Karen, Bill and Mark, showed up to offer help and support.


The power of Facebook startled me, a hesitant user. Re-posts popped up quickly. Granddaughter Samantha, who lives in Washington, DC, has a friend with a niece who’s interning with our local EMT squad. Some four hours after I discovered he was gone, the young woman, thanks to her aunt’s post, spotted Peter on the steps of a church on the northern edge of town.

Meanwhile, son-in-law Martin, directed by Sam 267 miles away, went to collect Peter. Sam was still on the phone with her dad when Peter got into his car. “Want to talk to him?” Martin asked Sam.

She said yes, even knowing her Dad-Dad hates phones. “How you doin’, Dad-Dad?”

He chuckled. “Well, Luv, I thought I was going to get away,” he said, “but they caught me.” Hours walking in the hot sun, no hat, badly sunburned, no water,  tired and confused, he was still ready with a joke. Just after seven Martin brought him home. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” he said.

He hugged me so tightly I feared for my ribs. “No, not in trouble, but Steps. Will. Be. Taken,” I said, raising my left eyebrow to high-threat-warning level. He shook his head and gazed at the roomful of people without seeing them.

“Why did I do that, where did I go,” he asked over and over.

“If you don’t know why, then no one does,” I said, “and where you were is a mystery to all of us.”

Steps have been taken. Leslie installed door alarms that screech when the doors are opened and I’ve chosen a bracelet-style gps that will help me keep track of him. He’ll hate it.

In the meantime, we walk Nobby together. Peter doesn’t like it because he wants to be out in the neighborhood on his own with his dog. I don’t like it either because the half hour they walked was thirty minutes to myself, to read, write, or do nothing at all.

In that one afternoon, our lives changed more dramatically than the day, years ago, when the doctor diagnosed “early dementia.”

From now on the peaks will be ever smaller, the valleys, broader and more difficult to traverse.

Header photo: Victoria Falls, Zambia, September, 2005.
Bottom photo: Alaska Range, Mt. KcKinley in the distance, 2006.

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‘What do I want?’

Peter and I spent the morning of June 6 at the Commemoration of the Normandy Invasion at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. We’ve visited many times in the sixteen years since it opened. We go because we remember D-Day. Well, I do. Peter doesn’t remember much anymore, but I’d hoped the grandeur of the place would spark a memory.

A soft breeze wafted around us as we walked up the alleé and through the immense granite Overlord Arch. Above us, Allied flags flapped in the wind. As we gazed out at the awe-inspiring depiction of a Normandy beach, a soldier fighting to gain the cliff, another sprawled in the sea, Peter said, “We’ve never been here before, have we?”

* * *

After the ceremony we went to Roanoke for lunch. When I drove into Montano’s parking lot, his eyes lit up. “I know where I am now,” he said. We were seated quickly at one of Theresa’s tables. After so many Montano’s lunches, she knows us.

She patted Peter on the shoulder. “You remember, we don’t have Guinness on tap anymore,” she said, apologizing.

He shook his head, and finally settled on another choice. When she returned with his beer, she said, “Ready to order? Too many decisions, I know.”

He looked at me. “What do I want?”

“Fish and chips.”

“Yes, that’s what I want.”

When Theresa brought our food, he asked me about the contents of the three little cups on his plate.

“Tartar sauce. Horseradish sauce. Malt vinegar,” I said, pointing to each. “You use malt vinegar. It goes on the fish and chips.”

He dipped his spoon into the tartar sauce. “Oh, that’s good,” he said. Once upon a time, he wouldn’t even have tasted tartar sauce. “Too sweet,” he would’ve said. He dipped his spoon in again. “I could eat it all.”

He wrinkled his nose at the horseradish sauce, but then, he picked up the container of vinegar, put it to his lips…and…

NO-O! Don’t drink the vinegar!” I yelped. Too late.

He shuddered. His eyes watered. “Bl-l-l-ech! Wasn’t supposed to drink it, was I?”  He laughed and choked at the same time.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the look on his face. “You’re supposed to sprinkle it on the fish and chips.”

He did “sprinkle” the remaining vinegar, but then, to add to my shock, he plastered the fish with tartar sauce. By that point, I guess I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d licked the container clean.

We’re reflected in the granite Overlord Arch in Bedford.

 

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Header: Monument at front of National D-Day Memorial, Bedford, Virginia

Wuz Goldilocks here?

In recent months, Peter has been much sleeping later in the mornings, sleeping downstairs occasionally, getting up in the night to go to the bathroom and then going to another bedroom to finish the night.

Oh yes, I’m aware when this happens — Leslie calls it “using my mommy ears” — though I’m not necessarily wide awake.

In the wee hours one night I woke up and realized Peter wasn’t in bed and hadn’t been. The sheet on his side was cool and still smooth. I didn’t look at the clock, but I knew from the hush on the street outside that it was about about four. Just then the floor creaked. Peter was tiptoeing along the hall trying not to wake me.

When he opened the door, I asked where he’d been…as if he’d remember. “I just went to the toilet,” he said, climbing into bed.

“Um, no, you haven’t been here at all,” I said, but he was already asleep.

After sunrise I got up and headed downstairs for coffee. Whoops, what did I just see, I asked myself as I reached the top of the stairs?

I backed up and looked in Carolynn’s room. The bed was slightly mussed and looked as if someone had been sitting on it.  Then I peeked into Leslie’s room where the bedcovers were turned back, the pillow squashed. Peter’s slippers were placed neatly beside the bed and his winter jacket was hanging on the bedpost. “Hm-m,” I said.

Leslie’s bed was just right.

The coffeemaker’s drips woke my brain and I soon solved the mystery. The pillows on the sofa were piled up in a way that told me my husband had tried to sleep there using the cushions and his jacket for warmth. Upstairs, he’d first tried the bed in Carolynn’s room and decided it was too hard, but in Leslie’s room the bed was just right and he no longer needed his jacket for warmth.

When he finally came down, he sat in his chair — just right — and I gave him his coffee. I was tempted to offer him a bowl of porridge, but I kept that thought to myself. He doesn’t have a sense of humor in the mornings.


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Header: Carolynn’s bed, too hard.

Cork, blown!

Individually, the silly, almost daily things we blame on the dog — Nobby did it — aren’t really worth mention: a china tea cup in the butter compartment; tiny potatoes tied up in a green newspaper bag and tucked in with the bread; Peter’s three nights in a row sleeping on the couch because he forgot to come to bed; him not only mowing the grass two days in a row, but three times in one day. All quickly forgotten by him, but I’m buried in what feels like wet sand.

Most Alzheimer’s caregivers know that “going with the flow” is often the best way to handle such things. But sooner or later, even the most patient of them — us — will blow a cork, a lid, a fuse, a gasket.

I am not a patient caregiver.

I’d sorted the edges of the 252-piece puzzle Carolynn brought to me, and put about half the frame together on the kitchen counter. The rest, I’d organized by colors on paper plates. Peter enjoys jigsaws and he’d placed several pieces while waiting for dinner one evening.

Next morning, I came downstairs, turned the coffeemaker on, filled Nobby’s bowls, sorted our daily rations of pills, then noticed — WHAT? — the puzzle had been cleared away, all the pieces were back in the box. The paper plates were stacked neatly, empty.

My lid hit the ceiling. I needed a new fuse. My gasket wanted replacing.

In the previous several weeks I’d warned, if he didn’t stop moving my “stuff,” I would wreck his towers of coins, even knowing that his need to organize helped him control his out-of-control brain. So that morning, sputtering like a kettle on the boil, I stomped down to his desk, took a deep breath, and raked my hands through his stacks of quarters.

I was furious, childish beyond reason. How absolutely infantile of me! If Peter noticed at all, he never said, and I’m sure he was quite content to re-stack the coins and make order out of the chaos I’d caused. That evening, I sorted puzzle pieces once more and started putting it together again. To be safe, I wrote “LEAVE THIS ALONE” on a paper plate.Thursday,  we browsed through a local thrift shop. From a table laden with jigsaw puzzles, Peter picked up a brilliantly colored 1500-piece one that would measure 33″ x 24″ when assembled. He debated buying it — too intricate, he wondered? In the end, he paid the 53 cents and brought it home. In the days since he has done little else but sort. By last evening, he had more than half of the outside in place, the rest of the edge pieces set aside, waiting.

Will I box the pieces up and put them away like he did to me? No.

Will I try to work the puzzle with him like we used to do? No. Togetherness is more than he can handle.

Will I slot a few pieces in when he’s not around? Darn right, I will.

Pretty French scene reminds me of our trip to Nice 12 years ago. Peter doesn’t remember, but I do.

 

Header: Kim McFarland painting of perplexed Westie with a ladybug on his nose.

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Wrinkles in time, smoothed.

Peter has been sleeping much later in the mornings, sometimes until ten or after. On the one hand, that gives me time to write or go for my morning walk, but on the other hand, I wait for him to get up so I can do laundry, tidy the bedroom, or maybe run an errand. While I’m glad to have extra time to myself, I’m also testy with him because he sleeps undisturbed while I wait to get my chores done.

Ironing, for instance.

Peter wears long-sleeved dress shirts every day and they need, if not ironing, then at least touch-ups. True, I’m the one who nags him to put his shirts into the hamper, while he insists they’re clean even when they’re so stiff they could walk to the laundry room. If he hasn’t spilled soup on the front, he says they’re fine.

I seldom have time, or more correctly, seldom have the inclination, to iron his shirts, or anything else, anymore. Recently, when he asked if he could help me, as he does several times a day, I suggested he iron shirts. And he did! He does a better job than I do, although he thought eight shirts were too many to do in one afternoon. Humph.

The next time he asked if he could help, I again suggested he iron shirts. Those shirts still hang, wrinkled, in the guest room closet. He doesn’t want to do them and I’ve decided to go on strike. He can no longer do most things around the house, but he can still use an iron and, well, he’s the one who wears the shirts. If he chooses not to iron them, then wrinkled they’ll be.

It isn’t really about the ironing, of course, it’s about all the other tasks that pile up like unmated socks. Another iceberg lurking.

If it were possible to smooth the “wrinkles in time” to squeeze more hours into a day, I’d get the iron out…or ask my husband to do it.

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Right now is the right time.

My Peter, now more than ten years along dementia’s downward slope, is slipping faster. I try to ease the skid by finding activities to occupy him, to give him a sense of accomplishment. Many things he once did easily aren’t possible now. It has been a long time since he could cook anything, not even fried eggs or bubble and squeak. Sometimes he even forgets how to make a cup of tea.

I waited too long for the right time to introduce these “sort or organize” ideas I found online. But on his own, perhaps prompted by some brain tweak that Alzheimer’s patients experience, he’s been doing many of them for months, maybe years. I offer them here, for readers looking for in-home occupational therapy.


Sort or organize…

  • …nails, screws, and other hardware. Peter has long since sorted, by size and age, his collection of antique hammers and other old tools.
  • …nail polish and lipsticks, sorting by color, brand or on a scale of 1-10 by preference. Not bloody likely, he’d say to this one, but I might push him to tackle it.
  • …buttons, using muffin tins to sort by color, size or style. Not even the antique buttons my mother collected piqued his interest.
  • …coins, according to date, value or place of origin. Ah yes, he stacks coins, wraps others, and bands paper currency he brought home from our travels and his business trips to Europe and Japan.
  • …the pantry, arranging cans and jars by size, brand or contents. Unfortunately for me, he does this often. I want my pantry to be organized the way want it organized — tomato products together, vinegars and oils, all condiments, and so on. He likes everything lined up like soldiers, no matter their culinary purpose. (I’ve declared the pantry off limits, for all the good that does.)
  • …the silverware drawer, rearranging the order of the forks, spoons, and knives. Peter often reorganizes our two sets of everyday cutlery. He likes the two sets separate from each other, and I don’t give a hoot about that. I prefer all dinner forks in one compartment, all salad forks in another, likewise all soup spoons, all dessert spoons, and so on.
  • …playing cards into decks that match, or into suits within a deck, or by numbers. He’s been doing this for months, endlessly. He hates that my canasta decks are the same on the backs and tosses them aside because they don’t suit his orderly sensibilities.
  • M&Ms, using muffin tins to sort by color. Choose one color to eat. Haven’t tried this yet, but I have a feeling he’d eat all of them before they made it from bag to tin, all except the green ones, that is. “Green candy isn’t good,” he’d say.

Just a few years ago, Peter would’ve laughed at the thought of doing such silly activities. Now, they calm him, and give him a sense of purpose, in his increasingly purposeless world.

Header photo: Stacked coins in his closet.

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‘This high’ with no caffeine.

This morning, Peter and I had our annual back-to-back wellness check-ups, fasting check-ups, no caffeine, nothing to eat. Our stomachs growled menacingly.

For the first time in his life my husband has a “spare tire.” He weighed in at 145.5 pounds, up from a low of 128 a few years ago. (I’d have my other knee replaced if I were guaranteed another miraculous thirty-pound loss like the one, post surgery, in 2013.)

When the nurse asked my height, I answered 5′8″, but I think I’ve shrunk to less than that. When she asked Peter, he put his hand on top of his head and said, “This high.” She laughed and so did I. Then she listed three words for him to remember — “apple, penny, watch” — but he forgot all of them. I only remembered two!

When Doctor T bustled in, he asked Peter, first thing, if he was still walking his dog. “Oh yes, he walks me, twice a day,” he said, as he always does. I explained that they still visit nursing homes once a week. “Good, that’s good,” the doctor said. “Those old fellows must love you.”

“The old ladies love Peter and Nobby,” I said. “They both get their share of hugs and pats.”

“See, if you’d known that years ago, Mr. Clarke, you’d have had women swooning at your feet.” Peter has always had women swooning at his feet.

After our labs were finished, Peter asked where we were going next. “Home,” I said, although I was already plotting where to go for coffee and pastries. He started nudging me to the left like a Border Collie herding sheep. “What are you doing?” I asked, pushing towards my car on the right.

He laughed. “Silly me! I looked at that one and thought it was yours.” He pointed to the sleek black car next to my boxy blue one. Its license plate read C-L-A-R-K, while my plate describes my stern personality.

Later, Peter sipped his coffee and stared at the scrawl on the door across the alley. “I’m trying to figure out what that says.”

“Good luck.”

“Good luck?”

“No, I mean ‘good luck’ figuring out what it says!”

If the doctor had written a prescription for laughs prn, it would’ve already been filled by eleven this morning.

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Domino effect.

“You know how to play dominoes, Pete?” Bill asked on Wednesday. That question was all it took to wind my husband up after four weeks of down.

Not only did Peter go on and on about the social aspects of an Englishman “going ’round t’pub” on a Saturday afternoon, leaving “the little woman at ‘ome,” he chattered about the game  of dominoes itself. Bill always wanted to learn how to play, he said.

Peter’s sudden change four weeks ago forced me to act. I’d reached the end of my rope, stressed, dithery, muddled, still trying to handle everything myself. Leslie and Carolynn got after me, good daughters that they are. As happened, Bill, who’s been helping Peter for almost six years, suddenly had more available hours per week.

Serendipitous!

Monday, I’d arranged to use more of Bill’s time and provided a list of ideas and hints to guide him. In spite of Peter’s usually cheery persona, he isn’t always an easy client. And there are a lot more things to be aware of these days. His confusion has amped up.

So Bill was primed about dominoes. He no sooner mentioned the game than I began to look for our set. “It’s really easy,” I said, “but Peter can keep track of which ones haven’t been played. I just play what matches.” He laughed.

The two were out longer than usual Wednesday, while three of my friends came here for a lunchtime meeting. We did have some business, but more importantly, we laughed…a lot! It was a good time.

That evening, Bill texted to ask how Peter had seemed when he came home. “He was great,” I texted back. “You struck a chord mentioning dominoes.  More like himself than he’s been since that time…four weeks ago.”

The rest of the week was mixed ups and downs, but that one big, bright UP on Wednesday made such a difference.

Today we played dominoes, Peter and I. No surprise…he won…best of three.


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Salt and pepper to taste.

“What do I eat here?” Peter asked over and over. I told him his usual Cuban pork wasn’t on the menu any longer, but he could have fish and chips. He was happy.

When our meals were served, Peter doused his three separate times with enough salt and pepper to fill all the shakers in our house. He has always used way too much of each, but lately, his habit seems even more excessive. Dementia, I’ve learned, can destroy the sense of taste, hence so much salt and pepper. In addition to over-salting, Peter has developed a sweet tooth that could make him a poster boy for the American Dentists’ Association dire warnings about sugar.

After watching salt avalanche off his mountain of fish, I pointed to the malt vinegar. “What is that?” Peter asked. I told him. “What’s it for?” he wanted to know. I raised my left eyebrow. “This is what you’ve always used, not all that salt and pepper,” I said. Malt vinegar on fish and chips is what one does, he told me early on when he introduced me to the English staple!

A sudden seismic change in my husband’s behavior has made the past few weeks troubling. I called it his “new normal” in a recent post. Not recognizing malt vinegar, nor knowing what it was for, was further sign of the change I’d noticed.

When the waiter asked if we were ready for the bill, I surprised both him and Peter. “No. I’d like coconut cake, please, and coffee. Two coffees.”

“Well, I’m having dessert then,” Peter said. The dessert menu was all photographs so it didn’t take him long to zero in on a chocolate cream puff.

Our coffees came first, each with tiny cups of half-and-half. “What are these?” Peter asked.

“Coffee creamer…you stopped using it years ago.”

He pulled a lid off. “Can I drink it?”

“No-o, you’re not five-years-old.”

He grinned and pretended he was going to drink it, then started to pour it into his beer. “Aren’t you going to finish your beer?” I squealed. I could not believe he’d leave a couple swallows of beer, much less pour cream into it. In the end, he put it in his coffee rather than waste it.

When his cream puff came we laughed. It was cantaloupe sized. Even he couldn’t eat it all. I ate every last bite of my coconut cake.

This hint for my husband to fill the S&P shakers didn’t work.

Header photo: Shakers waiting for me to fill them.

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Down the down staircase.

The downward path that any of the dementias take follows various routes, with stops and starts along the way. There are plateaus when it seems the diagnosis is a bad dream, when everything seems all right again. Normal.

Until the next minute or hour or day when the nightmare resumes.

Even though I often say — and truly believe — that my husband isn’t as bad off as most, that my caregiving tasks are easy compared to some, truth is, it’s a roller coaster ride that is not for sissies.

We’d been coasting along with mild ups and downs, a kiddie roller coaster, until one day three weeks ago. Peter and Nobby returned from a weekly nursing home outing with ever-faithful Bill. My husband came back so distressed and overwrought that it was as if had morphed into another person entirely. His mild-mannered self was gone, and in its place was a man I didn’t recognize. His face was different, his eyes were wild, his whole demeanor changed.

“That’s it. We’ll never go back there. Can’t go anymore,” he yelled as he paced. “They won’t let Nobby in any more.”

My worst fear came to mind. “Did Nobby knock someone down?” I asked. He’s a big dog, but as affable and lovable as a puppy. I envisioned him jumping on a frail old lady causing her to fall and break her hip.

“No, no, but they won’t want us anymore!” I continued questioning, but he couldn’t explain.

I contacted Bill to ask what had happened. He said Peter seemed “off,” very quiet, and he hadn’t wanted to go to their usual lunch. Nobby had been his usual friendly self,  no one was harmed, the visit had gone as well as it always does. Bill chuckled when I told him Peter thought he had gone to visit his mother. (Bill’s mother passed away twenty-some years ago.)

That day was a turning a point, a sharp turn in the steep, down staircase. I had hoped he’d magically snap back to the way he was, to the holding pattern he’d been in, but he hasn’t. This, then, is his new normal.

 

Nobby always watches Peter.

 

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