Love and loneliness sit together.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to write a post about Peter’s acceptance of his new wrist-hugging PALLess than two weeks after I introduced him, he rebelled:
He tries to take the “watch”off, by pulling, tugging, fiddling with the locked clasp. (I have the unlocking device.)
He purposely ignores and/or forgets — a bit of both, I think — the time I ask him to to return.
He gets mad when I pick him up after tracking him, way out of range, an hour later.
When I put a note on his watch to remind when to be home, he stuffs it in his pocket and forgets about it. As he would, of course.
He always insists he knows where he is when he’s out walking, but when I ask where, he says, “I don’t  know, but I know.” I actually understand what I think he’s trying to say.
When I pick him up after he and Nobby have been gone way too long, he doesn’t recognize me or my car. When I beckon to him, he waves politely, and keeps walking. Nobby knows and he’s tired. He drags Peter to the car.
Because my paper note didn’t work, I try to write on his hand. Angrily, belligerently, he jerks away. “The only option,” I say, “is that I walk with you.” I set the alarm on my phone for fifteen minutes and walk along. Though he’d insisted he would be back, when my alarm beeps, he says I didn’t tell him he was supposed to be home at a certain time.
“I will not be told when and where I can walk,” he says repeatedly. “You don’t tell me what I can and cannot do.” I try to make him understand that I want to make sure he’s safe. “We’ll see about that,” he mutters, stomping like a child.

Ah, I don’t blame him for any of it. He can’t help it, I know that. I’d hate it too. Everything, everything, about dementia — Alzheimer’s — sucks! I’d be way worse if I were in his shoes.

To anyone who has ever known my husband, these words don’t describe the lovable, affable Peter of their acquaintance, the man they worked with, laughed with, caroused with.

He isn’t the lovable, affable Peter any longer. He knows it. I know it. He hates it, I hate it. At least I still see brief glimpses, some sparkles and shy smiles of the man I fell in love with.

I created a piece that is a tribute to life and society. Love and loneliness are a part of society and The Lovers’ Bench combines them both. At one point or another in our lives, we all sit on this bench,” artist Lea Vivot says of the entranced couple and the lonely woman beside them.
Header: Lea Vivot’s “The Lover’s Bench,” Montreal’s Botannical Gardens, 2009.

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Lights out.

Over the years since his dementia diagnosis, my husband has invented ways to control anything he can in his increasingly hazy life. I’ve written about his stacks of coins, never-ending twig collecting, his sweeping, folding, smoothing, polishing, wiping.

I. Want. To. Scream! And sometimes I do. Having said that, I’m sure he wants to scream too.

His latest attempt at control is not only baffling, it’s downright dangerous. I discovered it several weeks ago when I went down to the basement, a dungeon I try to avoid. Dark at mid-day, the windows are grimy and any light coming in is grayed.

I flipped the two switches several times. Nothing. I scrabbled around and finally discovered Peter had removed the bulbs from the six overhead fixtures. I don’t know why and I didn’t ask because I’m sure he wouldn’t have known either.

I put new LED bulbs in all the sockets. He took them out. I talked to him about the danger of going down the steps and walking around in the dark.

I put the bulbs in again. He took them out again.

Our basement is not a finished space. Hazards lurk — bicycles, tools, piles of newspapers and magazines, chairs, tables, workbenches. I thought I’d solved the problem with my little chat about dangers in the dark.

Today I realized I hadn’t. The bulbs were gone again. Why did I think he’d remember?

Laughs, I’m looking for laughs, but it’s dark in here. A bigger bulb maybe?

 

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Find Peter!

Nearly two months have passed since Peter took a five-hour walk away from home. That’s eight weeks of frustration for both of us, him because I had to follow along when he walked Nobby, and me because I had to follow along when he walked Nobby. I’d learned the hard way that I couldn’t let him go by himself any longer.

It was mid-July before I decided on and ordered Peter’s PAL (Protect and Locate) device sold under the umbrella of International Project Lifesaver.  Then, several more weeks passed and multiple shipping hiccups occurred before it arrived, just hours before we left for a ten day visit to Carolynn and Bill. Not that I had any warped ideas that I could set it up myself!

Leslie and Martin applied all their considerable technological know-how and stick-to-itiveness to get it working while we were gone. Even for them it was not easy — “You really could not have done it, Mom” Leslie said — but now, at last, Peter is “free” again.

Happily, and completely unexpectedly, he didn’t object to the clunky-looking “watch.” Yes, it is a digital watch, but more importantly, it’s a tracker too.

“With this,” I told him, “you’ll be be able to walk Nobby by yourself. Without it, you’ll be stuck with me going along every time.” With no hesitation he chose his new PAL over me tagging along. No doubt about where I am on the totem pole!

He had a lot of questions, but then he would. Tucked inside his blurring brain there is still DNA with “engineer” written on it. “How far can I walk?” was his first question.

“Not as far as you walked the last time you walked alone,” I said, my left eyebrow on high alert. His slight nod told me he remembers, if foggily, that he walked a long way the wrong way in hot sun. Rightly or wrongly, I continue to force him to remember what he’d like to forget.

His second question was, “Will it tell me when I’ve gone too far?”

The short answer was, No. Later, it occurred to me that I should have said, If you’d ever agreed to using a cell phone, then I could call you when the tracker shows you’ve gone too far, or you could call me for help. But that would’ve been thirty-eight wasted words.

Each time he repeated his two questions, I reminded, “All you have to do is walk. I have to be ‘tuned in’ for a possible alert, check my phone for texts, the computer for a map, and be ready to  jump in the car to pick you up.”

He shook his head. “How does ‘it’ know?”

“Smoke and mirrors and a satellite in the sky,” I said.

He shook his head again. So many technological advances have taken place since the last time he was curious enough show interest.

It took all Leslie’s considerable teaching skills to pound the multiple steps into my head. She already knew I had little capacity to absorb any more high-tech stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had a lesson plan labeled, “Teaching Mom.”

Nobby is little miffed.

Header: Nobby anxiously watches for his master.

 

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Caregiver’s worst nightmare.

Five weeks have passed since Peter went for a walk without Nobby, without my knowing, and without realizing he was on his way to lost.

Five weeks that I’ve been on alert setting door alarms, walking with him when he takes the dog out, researching a tracking device he would tolerate.

Hounding, watching, nattering.

Five weeks trying to make him understand that he can no longer walk out with or without the dog. Five weeks of him slamming doors and stomping to the basement. No, he doesn’t want to be “locked in,” tracked, or told what to do. Who would?

Other caregivers have a much worse go than I do. Others aren’t as fortunate to have outside help and helpful daughters, plus the wherewithal to cover expenses. But that doesn’t stop me fuming over our situation, or trying to make things right when they can go so wrong, so quickly, with no warning.

My caregiving ways reflect my general “fly in the face of convention” attitude. I’ve never done things the easy way. “My way or no way,” Peter would say say. Oh, I do read articles, blogs, and books about dementia and I’ve learned. I’ve listened to advice from the doctor, our daughters, and friends, and I’ve acted upon much of it.

But, I do ignore some of the basic no-no’s for dementia caregivers including don’t argue, don’t ask if they remember this or that, and don’t point out that they’ve forgotten again.

Peter is “luckier” than many. Although his dementia is markedly worse than just a few months ago, he does understand what is happening to him, not because I’ve used the dreaded A-word, but because he just seems to “get it.” He’s an engineer, a problem-solver, who still has a determined stick-to-it-iveness that helps. I’m sure of it.

So, I do point out things that are arguable, I do ask if he remembers then tell him a story about the memory I’ve mentioned, and he does laugh with me and the family when we point out, jokingly, that he’s forgotten something.

Wrong? Perhaps, but for us, for him, it seems to work, seems to keep him in the moment, the now, however fleetingly.

A few days after his long walk, I drove him from our house along the route I think he took to end up five miles away. He was amazed. “Why’d I do that,” he kept asking. “How did I get there?” I did it to impress upon him, as much as possible, that his “escape” was daring and scary, for him and for all of us who searched.

Ignoring the wisdom, until a month ago I did let him walk the dog on his own, and I looked for tracking options only for future reference. Even having experienced that worst nightmare, I think I’d do the same again. He had his freedom as long as possible and now it isn’t possible anymore.

Would I recommend my approach to others? I would not. Every situation is different and what works for one likely wouldn’t work for another.

Oh, yes, it could have been a lot worse. The ending could have been tragic, but it wasn’t. Peter’s still here to growl at me every time I say he must wait to walk until I put my shoes on. He still has to listen while I explain why it’s necessary.

And he’s still here to make me laugh.

Header: Rainstorm over Alaskan waters, 9/7/06

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‘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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