I’ve run out of ‘fake.’

I’ve been called a “fake it ’til you make it” type and that’s probably accurate. I do try to look on the bright side, to laugh rather than cry. And I am able to get things done while projecting a measure of confidence—usually. Lately, however, I’ve run out of “fake.” After nearly 16 years grappling with my husband’s journey from a “mild dementia” diagnosis to “can’t rule out Alzheimer’s,” I’ve spun out.

My spin has shocked me because life has actually eased in recent months. Peter is more settled and, in fact, he’s turned into an 81-year-old version of a ten-year-old class clown. He flirts, he lays on his English accent, he entertains residents and staff alike with his antics. He’s in as good a place as he can be physically and mentally. He has his favorites amongst the ladies who he looks out for and helps when he can, although the other day I watched him guide a resident into the wrong room. She knew it wasn’t hers, but he insisted. I ended up directing her across the hall to her door.

So why have I fallen apart? I should be less stressed, but I’m not. Have I spread myself too thin?

For one thing, with Peter more comfortable I’ve turned my attention to other problems. Although he gets good care in the best facility around, I have some gripes. For one thing, his not taking his medications is at the top of my list. It is simply not acceptable that he gets away with his shenanigans to avoid taking them. Again, when I walked in Friday afternoon, his three morning pills were lying on the table in plain few!

I’ve complained about other issues and they’ve been acted upon. That’s good. So now I’m considering ways to get the large raised flower bed dug over so residents—particularly the men who crave more activity—could plant flowers and more vegetables than they are able to grow in the one small raised plot. Then too, the gazebo should be spruced up — Peter decided the other day that the ceiling should be painted a beautiful sky blue — and the outdoor furniture should be replaced. How nice it would be to have a table and chairs in the gazebo where residents could sit, have a snack, play a game. Where we could have a cup of tea without balancing it on our knees. Is that too much to ask for the amount we pay for monthly care?

I don’t think so, but at the moment I’m stalled, burned out, stuck. To aid the burn-out, I’ve been advised to stop visiting him so often, usually four to five days a week. It is wearing and since he never remembers I’ve been there, I should allow myself to take days off. That’s tough. I want to visit because sometimes, sometimes, there’s a glimmer of the man I married, and I always get a hug before I leave. I always hope that somehow—osmosis?—my visits will have made his day better.

How many times over these years have I been told that the caregiver needs to take care of herself? Well, I admit to being stuck between a rock and a hard place lately, but I’ve taken steps. I’m learning to compartmentalize, I’m exploring mindfulness, I’m breathing deeply to meditative music, I continue my every other week massages, and I continue to look for laughs every day. So far I haven’t stilled my spinning brain by much, but I’m a work in progress.

Tiny flowers thrive in crevices in long-abandoned Inishmurray, County Donegal, Ireland, 2009

Header photo: Guillemots cling to tiny ledge on Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland, 2009.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Sneaky Pete can be a real pill!

Oh he’s sneaky, my husband. I know it, our family knows it, his companions know it, the nurses know it. Sneaky Pete. Sometimes it’s funny, other times not so much. Sometimes his sneakiness has the potential to cause real problems.

A couple weeks ago an innocent mistake triggered his wrath. He was really, really angry. Combative. Luckily a nurse was able to intervene and calm him. My husband has so seldom been truly angry that I could count the times on one hand. This was so not him.

I heard about this after the fact.

At the same time I learned he’d been refusing to take his meds again. This had happened now and then for some time, but as far as I knew the problem had been solved long since. Oh, he appears to take the pills but he pockets them, or tucks them under his tongue or inside his cheek, or simply lays them down somewhere. It is likely that not taking his Wellbutrin for several previous days contributed to his rage.

Residents in memory care units often refuse their meds for fear of being “poisoned.” Or because they’re to hard swallow. One common practice is to put crushed pills in applesauce, or ice cream, Reese’s cups, drinks, pudding, peanut butter, Jello.  Those don’t work with Peter, but one nurse who never has a problem with him, puts his evening pills in his doctor-prescribed after dinner Guinness. Works a treat.

Thing is, he likes to tease and he loves the attention he gets when one of the staff realizes he’s tricked them. For all the time I was his caregiver at home, I dealt with his refusal to take pills by donning my “Mother Tough” persona, my left eyebrow on alert. I’d stand beside him and, to make sure he swallowed them, I’d tell him to hold both hands out palms up, then pull his pockets inside out, and finally open his mouth. I wasn’t bound by HIPAA rules that say a patient can’t be forced to take medications if he/she doesn’t want to. Medical personnel cannot force meds on a patient. If the patient says no, that’s it.

That’s just wrong. If refusing a medication were to cause the patient to become markedly worse—or perhaps cause their death—wouldn’t that be a lawsuit waiting to happen?

This morning I popped in for a quick visit between an appointment and several errands. Involved story, but when Peter searched his pockets  he “found” his morning pills. A helper and I noticed at the same time. “Peter,” we yelped in unison, “you’re supposed to take those pills, not carry them around!”

His silly “who me?” face said he’d achieved his goal. He’d been noticed. He protested all the way through the building to his room and, no, I didn’t drag him by the ear, but I wanted to. In no uncertain terms I told him to put the pills in his mouth and drink them down with the cup of water I handed him. He complained and said they tasted awful. “You’re not supposed to chew them!” I said. “Of course they taste awful. Take a big drink and swallow them.”

I know, I know, I should’ve handled it better. But, doggone it, he doesn’t remember why he’s in memory care nor why he must take various medications, but he does remember how to get a rise out of me and anyone else who tries to help him.

It really isn’t a laughing matter.

Header photo: Jersey Urology.com

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Bright spots in down days.

There have been upsets in the past few weeks that nearly brought me to my knees. I won’t dwell on the details here, now, because there were bright spots that made the period tolerable.

Weeding, usually a chore, gave Peter and me reason to smile. I looked out his window last week and noticed the flower beds had been invaded by tall, prickly weeds that were about to flower and overrun the space. “Let’s go out and tackle them,” I said. He was on his way before I finished my sentence. We worked for an hour and pulled a huge pile for someone else to pick up!

The next day I mentioned to Peter’s longtime helper Mark that Peter wanted to dig up the beds and plant something nice. That very afternoon, by the time I arrived, they’d shopped for flowers and planted them in a large red pot Mark brought from home. A mini-sunflower, blue balloon flowers, and fushia Million Bells now brighten Peter’s view.

Happy in a flower pot.

Another time one of the aides made me laugh when she said that my husband has “favorites” he pushes along the hall in their wheelchairs. The thought that my husband was pushing the “old dears” (a kindly English expression) absolutely astounded me!

Happy on wheels.

Another evening, as he walked me towards the exit, he stage-whispered, “Watch out for ‘im.” He nodded toward another resident who used a walker to toddle along. “‘E’s up to no good.” The other fellow watched Peter out of the corner of his eye, and when Peter drew abreast, they pointed their index fingers at each other and said, “Pow! Pow!”

Happy are six-year-olds playing cowboys.

Another of Peter’s carers was outside watering plants yesterday. “Look who’s out there,” Peter said. His smile was incandescent.

“I see,” I said, “do you want to go help her?”

“I’m going,” he said, and headed to the door. “Oops!” he said and stopped long enough to kiss me. “Bye, luv, see you next time.” He was gone.

Sometimes even “gone” can be happy.

Header photo: A neighbor’s sunny peonies make me smile.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

‘Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!’

My high school prom in 1957 — in June or was it May? — is a foggy memory. I don’t even remember who I went with. But April 10, 2019 is a prom date I’ll never forget. I was a bystander at a prom last Wednesday that was memorable for so many reasons. There was fantastic food, live music, corsages, boutonnieres, a big crowd. Kings and Queens were crowned. Many of the prom-goers were in wheelchairs, and most of them forgot the fun and laughter even before the music faded.

That evening, Sigma Kappa sorority and The German Club of Virginia Tech sponsored The Great Gatsby Prom for residents of the facility where Peter lives. When I heard about the event just a day earlier, I dug out the green velvet jacket Peter made for himself years before I knew him. I found his orange and purple bow tie too. Carolynn, here for the week, helped wrestle him into his finery. Typical theatrics ensued as we convinced him to participate: What is a prom? Why do I have to go? I’ll just stay here. We held hands as I coaxed him along the corridor.

Black, gold and white balloons and streamers festooned the dining room, the ladies wore their best attire fancied up with beads and glitter, and the men went along with everything, much like they probably did for their high school proms. The staff were all dressed in 1920’s attire to go along with the Great Gatsby theme.

Didn’t take long for Peter to get revved up and charm the ladies. In his element, he flirted, he danced, he caroused, he was his silly, wacky self. Old pals who remember the Peter of days gone by would have been shocked to see him drinking not one, but two Cokes. Yes!

Carolynn and I giggled hysterically as he entertained his admirers, many of them sorority girls younger than our granddaughter. He teased and made faces and beamed ear-to-ear. I’d figured we’d stay to escort him back to his room, but he was having such a good time we snuck out. The hours for this prom were 6:30-7:30, no all-night after-prom activities for this crowd. By the end, Peter was still cavorting. He didn’t need me nagging him to leave as I used to do. He didn’t even need me at all and I was glad to know that.

As I watched the evening unfold, I realized I’d made the right choice, heartrending as it was, when I moved him into memory care a year ago.

Title quote: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

‘Orange juice for the ear.’

This observation about the late Oliver Sacks’ book Musicophillia (2007) struck just the right note when I read it:

… music can animate people with Parkinson’s disease who cannot otherwise move, give words to stroke patients who cannot otherwise speak, and calm and organize people whose memories are ravaged by Alzheimer’s or amnesia.”

Before Thanksgiving last year, I mentioned to our grandson Miah that I’d been searching for a very simple device that would enable his granddad to hear his favorite music. A few weeks later, he posted an article on Facebook that explained  the positive effect of music on the brains of people with dementia. Carolynn saw our Facebook exchange and within few minutes she forwarded a link to me. She was excited. “I think this would work for Poppy,” she wrote.

Fifteen minutes later I was in The Alzheimer’s Store and, yes, she’d found the perfect solution. The Simple Music Player is a reinforced, sturdy little thing with the retro charm of the radio that sat on my nightstand when I was a teenager. Lift the lid to start the music, push the big black button to change to another song, and shut the lid to turn it off. It comes loaded with familiar 1940s big band sounds and songs. Plus, a USB cable is included so that the caregiver can add favorite music. And, I should add, it’s Made in England.

Before I went to bed that night, I’d ordered the player. A few days later it was on my doorstep. Quite honestly, I wanted to keep it! The sound is outstanding, it is very easy to use and, best of all, neither I.D. nor password are required to use it. But I did put it under the Christmas tree for my husband.

Unfortunately, I have yet to download Peter’s favorite old albums, but I’ve got his extensive list at the ready: Jazz that the world forgot, 1920’s classics; The best of Jelly-Roll Morton; Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom; Louis Armstrong, The Hot Fives; Absolutely the Best of the Blues; Count Basie One O’Clock Jump; Bessie Smith; Cab Calloway Forever Gold; Armstrong and King Oliverto name just a fraction of the hundreds in his collection.

Christmas night, I managed to entice Peter to dance to one of the oh-so-danceable songs. It was the first time in years that we’d “tripped the light fantastic.” Our intent was good, but our feet were laughably clumsy.


Be sure to turn sound up.

Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears—it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more—it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.” Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

 

 

 

‘To-mah-to!’ ‘To-may-to!’

Peter looked very guilty yesterday when I asked about the green tomatoes basking in the sun on his windowsill. My husband doesn’t like tomatoes, ripe or not, although he did eat some fried green ones accidentally one time.

“Tsk, you picked these from that raised garden outside, didn’t you?” I said. I pictured him skulking along next to the tomato plants that had languished all summer in a too-shady spot. Some resident—maybe several residents—had planted not only tomatoes, but cucumbers, squash, strawberries, and a petunia.

Peter looked like a naughty little boy. I could hardly keep a straight face. “Whoever planted them,” I added, “won’t get to eat them.” I threw in an extra “tsk” for good measure.

“Well! They can have them,” he said, shuddering, “I don’t even like to-mah-toes.”

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

‘Aha!’ she said.

Anyone who really knows my husband knows that he has a thing for Mickey Mouse. His obsession stemmed from an outburst nearly 50 years ago when he was a young engineer from England—the great European “brain drain” he said—hired to work for then almighty General Electric. He’d established his quirky personality early on, so he thought nothing of going to his first management meeting wearing an open shirt, no jacket, no tie. He was told in no uncertain terms that he would, hence forth, dress appropriately—necktie, jacket.

The legend is, he returned to his cubicle, slammed down his GE-issue leatherette binder and bellowed, “This is a bloody ‘Mickey Mouse’ outfit.” His colleagues, many of them young hires from Europe too, ran with that. Someone left a Mickey Mouse card on his desk the next morning before he arrived. Just. The. Beginning.

His collection grew to hoarder proportions, especially after we moved to this house which has a tiny room he claimed. At least I could shut the door to keep the big-eared rodents contained.

Last April, in order to make his new new residence more homey — “homelier” his English friends would say — I put  family photos and  English memorabilia around. Wrong. He hid most of the photos, tore some to bits and generally stripped his room of anything personal.

Lately he’s had a lot of way-down days. But during one visit two weeks ago I noticed several female residents had baby dolls to cuddle. Aha! Mickey Mouse could help. Yes!

A plush Mickey Mouse, about the size of a six-month-old infant, was in Peter’s collection. I snuck the little guy into his room when he wasn’t looking and tucked baby M under the bed covers. The following day I asked about the suspicious lump. Without a word, Peter adjusted the covers so I could see.

Every day since I’ve taken some small thing from the Mickey archives—a simple puzzle, a magnet, the new Life magazine’s celebration of Mr. M’s 90th birthday—and left them for Peter to find later.

During my Sunday visit I snuggled Mickey on my lap as if he were a “real” baby. Peter’s eyes twinkled. “He’ll be all grown up soon,” he said. shaking his head.

I played along. “Yes-s, he’ll go away to college, he’ll meet a girl….” What could we do but laugh at our own silliness?

Header: Mickey snug in Peter’s bed.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Ninety-eight days and counting…

Ninety-eight days have passed since my husband was admitted to memory care, first for a month’s respite then, sadly, as a permanent resident.

Ninety-eight days with ups and downs as stomach-twisting as a rickety rollercoaster ride.

Ninety-eight days of uncertainty, confusion, frustration, anxiety and sadness. And that’s just my list. For Peter, I’d add to those anger, fear, anguish and longing.

Since those first heart-breaking mid-April days — I remember them as very cold, though they were not — the succeeding weeks have glommed together like cheap paper towels. There’ve been bad days and good, more lows than highs, a few baby steps forward, but more giant steps back. Silly me, I thought when someone else took responsibility for my husband’s safety, feeding and care, I would be able to catch up with myself. Not so. But it’s not about me anyway.

Within hours of his admission Peter had a meltdown that prompted a call from the evening charge nurse. Would I talk to him on the phone to see if that would help? Yes, I would. When that didn’t work, would I come to try to calm him? Yes, I did. It took several hours, but he was laughing by the time I left. Oh, I’m no hero, but I generally know which buttons to push. The staff had yet to learn.

Within seventy-two hours he’d gotten out of the facility, even as his ankle bracelet screeched while he walked through the main door. A maintenance man found him behind the building near an area surrounded by woods.

By the third, maybe fourth, week he started to acclimate a tiny bit.

The food, though nutritious, does not appeal to my picky husband. And showering with a female aide hovering nearby is not gonna happen. Without me to nag him about changing his clothes, he doesn’t. Instead of putting his things in the laundry, he hides them in the waste baskets and they’re gone forever. His slippers, leather scuffs, have vanished several times. Once I found the left one in a wheelchair parked outside another resident’s door. A few days ago I found the right one under a table in the shower room. But the left one had disappeared again. Peter isn’t necessarily to blame. Residents in memory care units are notorious for “stealing” from other residents.

Houdini could be his middle name.

Peter advises the cat on how to escape.

No, I really can’t blame him for any of this. No one can know what it’s like to be so confused and disoriented all the time. During his first 12 days there, he’d had relative freedom. But he was quickly moved to the “lock-down” wing after he busted out a second time. He left for an outing with Mark in the morning, but returned to a different room that afternoon. He didn’t even realize he’d been moved. And a few weeks later when we were finally able to move our furniture in to replace the borrowed stuff, he never noticed the change.

So, he’s safe under lock and key…touchpad and code.

Except he isn’t. My husband is an escape artist. He snuck out in my care, and when he wants to get out, he continues to walk out right past the nurses. For years Peter took Nobby to visit the residents where he himself now lives. He knew the code to get into the locked areas and how to get out. Served him well when he was the one on the inside. Frankly, I laughed when I heard that he remembered the code. He can’t remember names or places or much of anything at all, but numbers? His engineer’s brain still computes with reasonable ease. Then, too, he can read. There’s a sign on each locked door that says: Press for 15 seconds and door will open—fire code requirement.

It’s all about control.

From the first days he looked for ways to maintain control. Leslie and I set up his first room and made it as homey as we could. It was a large attractive room with a pleasant outlook. He very quickly rearranged things to suit himself—he hid the family photos, stacked books and puzzles in a corner, and put his tooth and hairbrushes in the little refrigerator that was left behind by the previous occupant.

Less than two weeks after he was moved to the more secure area, he started conjuring more creative ways to dominate his surroundings. He folds his clothes and conceals them in pillow cases, then secures them with his belts or wrapped in his shirts. Lately he’s wrapped everything, gift-like, in towels or sheets. He stashes handkerchiefs in the travel toothbrush holder he requested, not for his toothbrush, but to conceal whatever he could stuff into that little green cylinder. He hid family photos underneath a framed picture of his dad.

In more recent weeks he started taking the screens out of his windows. Almost every evening he disconnects his television, but two days ago he hid it. From himself or from me? I found it and hooked it up again, even though I always say I won’t.

Days 94-98 have been more troublesome. No matter howfrustrated I get, I know Peter is a hundred times more frustrated—he isn’t to blame for his shenanigans. I tell myself that while I bang my head against a brick wall.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Pick up sticks? Who me?

On this frigid April day I never dreamed I’d have reason to write a sequel to my most recent post, “Between the sticks.” I expected to be writing about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

This morning I took my husband for his annual check-up with the dermatologist. Right away, Dr. J asked Peter if he’d been alright, had anything to report?

“No, I don’t have anything, but I’ll be she does, ” Peter said, nodding at me.  The doctor and his nurse laughed, as they always do, at Peter’s quick humor.

Dr J looked to me for answers. I told him about the several spots on Peter’s head, ears and arm, and some on his back. He nodded and began checking methodically. It was so cold in the exam room that the nurse hadn’t given Peter a gown. “Too cold,” she said, “doctor will just pull your shirt up in back to examine you.”

Turns out, Peter had put two shirts on — another cause for chuckles — so pulling them up was a struggle. Dr. J took one look at his back, one spot in particular, did a double take and said, “That’s a tick!

“A TICK?” I yelped.

“Sure is,” he said, as he asked  the nurse to fetch tick-removing supplies. He numbed the area, pulled the little bugger out, then drowned it in alcohol. Then he wrote a ‘script for Doxycycline Hyclate. “Better to be proactive and start this right away, than to wait six weeks for the lab analysis to finish,” he explained.

Lyme Disease is the unwanted gift a tick bite brings to people and their pets after they’ve feasted on infected deer and mice. I felt foolish for having seen the spot but hadn’t realized it was a tick. At least it wasn’t engorged and, really, it looked like the other two spots I’d noticed. Thank goodness they weren’t ticks as well.

Peter and I don’t need anymore stumbling blocks right now, but try explaining a tick and what its bite can cause is like explaining why pigs don’t fly to a two-year-old.

“No more picking up sticks in the woods,” I told him.

“Why?” he asked. I explained ticks live in woodsy areas. I explained that we give Nobby tick medicine every month to keep him safe, and Nobby doesn’t even have access to the woods.

“But I don’t go in the woods,” Peter said. “I never do.”

I rolled my eyes and didn’t try to explain further. Too much information is as bad, in our case, as no information at all.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

 

The second worst day of my life so far.

A policeman stood at the door.”Afternoon, ma’m,” he said. “Does your husband walk a big white dog?” I nodded. “He’s had a fall. An ambulance is on the way.” I grabbed the door to hold myself up and he added quickly, “He’s all right, but they’ll take him to the hospital as a precaution.”

“Come in and lock the door behind you!” I yelled, while I ran to turn the stove off, grab my purse, and dash out the side door. “Your dog is OK, too,” he said as he followed me through the house. “He’s right beside your husband. Another policeman will bring him home.”

Peter had fallen — face-planted — into a shallow ditch less than a block from our house. It had rained all day, the ditch was running. I’d fastened his GPS watch around his wrist before he and Nobby left.  Minutes later, I saw that he’d taken the watch off, defying me as he does, and left it the kitchen. If a passer-by hadn’t seen him and called 911 I would have had no way to find him when he didn’t return. It could have been worse.

But “worse” was yet to come.

A second policeman — the same one, incidentally, who helped find Peter last summer when he got lost — took me to the ambulance. He was already on the gurney when I climbed in behind him. He turned his battered, muddy face toward me and said, “Uh oh, now I’m in trouble.” The EMTs laughed. He kept them entertained all the way to the hospital.

In the ER he kept up his joking to the amusement of the various people attending to him.  When two young female aides left the room, one said, “Oh, he’s so cute!”

Mm.

His right hand suffered the worst physical damage — a wide, deep gash required stitches to hold his tissue-like skin together. Numerous other bumps and abrasions punctuated his upper body and knees, including a goose egg and black eye that bloomed later. As I gathered up his bloodied, muddied clothes he said, “S’OK, those will come clean.” Nuh unh, I thought. Not enough Oxy-Clean in the world to get that out.

Peter’s hands and face had been cleaned up by the time the ER doc returned to stitch his hand. “Oh, you’re quite handsome under all that dirt,” she said.

He grinned. “I’ll have to do it again then.”

Turns out, those few hours in the ER were the easiest of the next two weeks. He was understandably confused that Sunday evening, but the next day he awoke a different person. In the next few days he aged ten years.

From the start he remembered nothing about his fall, not that he would, and his few previous memories were erased too. He insisted all along that he didn’t hurt anywhere, though he must have, but his gait was stiff, and he shuffled as if he’d suddenly developed Parkinson’s. He struggled mightily to get out of his chair, even with a cane. He refused my help angrily, viciously, so unlike the man I married. He became argumentative and unreasonable in ways that he’s never been. He had no appetite, strange for him, and he slept soundly twelve or more hours a night. “I’ve nothing else to do,” he said. The Olympics’ coverage saved us.

Help dressing or undressing? “NO, I don’t need you.” Yet it took him twenty minutes to pull one sock off, and forty minutes, with my unwanted assistance, to get up the stairs to bed.

A physical therapist will assess him soon, there’ll be additional lab work to rule out other issues — the urine-analysis showed no UTI so the “hope” that spurred is gone. I may hire additional help, or may go to a nursing home solution. In the meantime, our sons-in-law have made the downstairs more accessible. Moving a bed down is a possibility.

Peter went from being a whisker shy of his eightieth birthday 18 days ago, to looking and acting as if he were ninety.

Still, not all news is bad news. Between the time of my previous post and now, he turned a corner. His dogged determination and bloody stubbornness, that usually makes me tear my hair, has instead helped him rally. He’s not back to where he was before, and never will be, but he’s so much better. But then, anything would be an improvement from the blood, rain and mud drenched man the ambulance crew hauled out of that ditch on February 11.

Header photo: In the ambulance, Peter regaled the EMTs with his patter . From the back, he looks unscathed.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.