New broom sweeps even better.

Peter clears the litter from the porch.

A nurse sat at the end of the hall when I approached my husband’s room yesterday. “Peter’s outside,” she said as she walked toward me. “He’s had a bad morning…very out of sorts….”

I held up the new broom I’d brought. “He was so thrilled to be able to sweep up grass the other day,” I said, “but he complained he needed a bigger broom. This ought to do it.” She nodded her head and said he’d told everyone that he got to sweep.

She added that she’d just given him his morning beer. I suggested tactfully that a cup of tea usually works better when he’s upset. “Beer with his lunch would be a better idea,” I said. She went off to change the orders—PBR with lunch, Guinness after dinner.

Outside, I saw him at the far end of the garden. When I yelled his name he looked up and laughed. “What are you doing here?” he asked, trotting in my direction. I brandished the new broom. “What’s that?” he  asked.

“You said you needed a bigger broom.” He grinned as if it were the best present ever. “This space really needs to be swept,” I said, as I nudged him toward the porch where we often sit.

Well, that’s all it took! He went right to work sweeping leaves and twigs off the cement and even whisking the seat cushions clean. He also managed to polish off his beer and the coffee I’d brought, before he tracked along the sidewalk with that bright red broom. He was in a much happier mood when I left for my dentist appointment, and so was I.

This morning I learned that Peter’s down mood had returned in the afternoon. Again he asked over and over why he was there? When I got home from the dentist, probably about the same time he had the second meltdown, I looked around at the mess “Florence” had made and wondered how I’d cope on my own without my champion sweeper and all that autumn brings. But my thoughts are selfish compared to those my husband is trying to sort out in his fractured mind.

 

Header: Bittersweet is lush this year.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Old broom sweeps clean enough.

For several days last week Peter was in a real funk or “gray space” as Elaine Eshbaugh, PhD explains in “Sitting in the gray in dementialand.”  My husband would not be, did not want to be, soothed. Furthermore he didn’t want to be “there,” although he wasn’t sure where “there” was. “If you like it so much here you should move in and I’ll find someplace to go,” he snarled. The smiling granddad I wrote about here had vanished “into the gray.”

No caregiver who has made the heart-wrenching decision to put a loved one in a nursing home’s memory care unit ever wants to hear, I want to go home. All I could offer was, “I know you don’t want to be here. I don’t want you to be here either.” At his murderous glance I added,”But I can’t take care of you at home any more. This is the best place for you, the best place around.”

Then I made him a cup of his favorite Typhoo tea sent from England by a longtime friend.

Today was different.

When I tapped on his door about 10:30 this morning he had his winter jacket on. “I’m just leaving,” he said. When I asked where he was going, he admitted he didn’t know, but pointed out the window. “Just look at that,” he said. The sidewalk in the garden was grass-covered from recent mowing job.

“You want to sweep that up, don’t you?” I asked

He nodded. “I don’t have a broom though.”

Well, that I could fix. I asked a nurse if there was a broom I could use. She found one and out we went, Peter with the broom, me carrying his wastebasket. I fashioned a piece of cardboard into a make-do dustpan while he swept. He grumbled about needing a bigger broom and added that he should get paid. I laughed and he did too. Around the other side he pointed at the padlocked gate near the gazebo. He wanted to know if anyone used the gate. I don’t think so, I told him. As if he were a mischievous ten-year-oid, he swept a little pile of leaves and grass under the gate with a flourish. Maybe you had to be there, but we thought it was very funny.

Not so very long ago I complained about him sweeping our terrace constantly, even though I understood. He needed something to do, to be useful. Today I was overjoyed to see him so happy…doing something…being useful.

It’s the little things.

 

Elaine Eshbaugh, PhD is an associate professor of Gerontology and Family Studies at Iowa State University. Her blog, “Welcome to Dementialand, Living, Loving, and Laughing through Alzheimer’s and related Dementias” offers helpful advice laced with her own brand of humor.

Header photo: Lonely little petunia in a green tomato patch.

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Lemons? Squeeze!

Just when I thought I couldn’t make any more lemonade from the lemons that landed in my juicer, encouragement from casual acquaintances has rejuvenated me.

All along, family and longtime friends have been supportive as Peter and I struggled along the hellish road paved with plaques and neuro-tangles. He is largely unaware that support is even needed, but I’ve welcomed every kind word, every smile, every hug, note, email or call. I’ve been surprised—no, amazed—by the helpful ideas and kindnesses from the pharmacist, Peter’s helpers Mark and Bill, the courtesy van driver, the mailman, the waiter, Nobby’s groomer, and from my daughters’ friends and colleagues, many of whom I don’t know.

Even though their main concern is for Peter, nearly all ask how I’m doing. Do you mind coming home to an empty house? one asks. Are you afraid in the evenings, asks another. Is it hard to eat alone? someone else wonders. How do you do all the things it took two of you to do before?

Actually, no, I don’t mind coming home to an empty house, no, I’m not afraid in the evenings, no, I don’t have a problem eating alone, and in reality, I’ve been taking care of the things we shared for a long time. Oh, I wish I didn’t have to deal with the taxes, or take care of the bills, or remember to get gas for the car and the lawnmower, or decide how much or how little to buy at the grocery.

My husband’s slow, ten-year decline forced me to get used to the idea that there was no way back. These past five years the downward tack has been more rapid and way worse.

In truth, I’ve been practicing to be a widow most of my adult life. I was a divorced mom with two young daughters in my thirties. Peter and I were in our early forties when he finally agreed to marriage—he dragged his feet for seven years. We’d never lived together, nor even in the same town, so marrying again took some getting used to for both of us. We were both married to GE too. He traveled a lot, but my job was local so I came home every night and walked the dog. Fred didn’t talk much but he was a nice companion.

Because I retired 10 years before Peter, I was still on my own most of the time. His travel schedule never eased, but I was fine working from home with Fred and new puppy named Decker for company.

But, when Peter retired he hadn’t forgotten I’d promised we could move back south. And suddenly we were together All The Time. No longer could I have what he dubbed “twigs and berries” for lunch, or pasta tossed with black olives, fresh tomatoes and fresh Parmesan for dinner. No, it was meatandpotatoes every evening. Home Together.

He spent days cycling, woodworking, gardening, puttering. I continued to read, write, garden and, a newfound luxury, lunch with friends. If we were home at noon, he worked a crossword puzzle while I read a book. At dinner we talked a bit, but chatters we are not.

Now, again, we don’t live together. I know it’s easier for me than for him. I’m in the same place—home—while he’s in a strange new environment that will never feel like home no matter how hard I try to make it seem so. He’s still as solitary as he ever was and so am I. The upside, and there is one, we talk more now than we ever did, we laugh as much, and the “lovey-dovey” stuff, Peter’s term, has returned. I visit four or five days a week, and I’m greeted with bear hugs and squeezes. Even though the situation isn’t good, and the reason for it is horrible, it isn’t as bad as it could be.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

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.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. screen-shot-2016-12-07-at-10-14-53-am

We soldier on.

One of my husband’s culinary successes has always been perfect fried eggs. And one of his favorite meals is egg and chips. Nowdays it’s my fall-back meal when I’m too tired to cook, even though I’ve never been able to fry an egg. Take last night.

I got out the eggs, skillet, oil, plates for him. I put the frozen chips in the oven and called Peter to fix the eggs when the chips were nearly done.

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Egg and soldier.

I sat down to read for a few minutes, but his grumbling got me up to see what was wrong. “These eggs are no good,” he growled. “I can’t get them out.” He had an egg in his left hand and was trying to peel it with his right, as if it had been soft-boiled for soldiers.

“Shall I do it?” I asked and cracked another against the skillet. In the meantime, he dumped the raw egg he’d scrambled in its shell into the skillet too. Except for that one, my eggs were done perfectly — first time ever! — and the chips were as good as frozen ones ever are.

Afterwards he thanked me and said he enjoyed our little snack. “What’s for afters?” he asked.

“Applesauce.” He was blank. “Stewed apple,” I translated.

Lately I’ve been helping him clear up after we eat. He just can’t seem to manage the task anymore. But this was a simple meal, with just plates and silverware for the dishwasher and cookie sheet and skillet for the sink. I went to watch the news.

“How am I going to get this stuff off?” he yelled. He was poking at the submerged cookie sheet which appeared to be floating on an oil slick.

“What did you put in the water?” I asked. He didn’t know, but I suspect he either dumped in the canola oil out of the skillet, or poured some straight from the bottle in lieu of dishwashing liquid. “Did you put the Dawn in?”

“Didn’t know I was supposed to,” he said.

Deep breath. “You go have your tea. I’ll take care of this.” I sopped up as much as I could and hoped all that oil wouldn’t glom up the drain.

It didn’t, but this morning when I came downstairs, the eggs in the refrigerator were soft boiled. The fridge had gone on the fritz in the night and warmed to 70°.  Not a laughing matter.

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Glossary of English vs American terms:
His chips are our French fries (Crisps, btw, are potato chips)
His stewed apple is our applesauce
Soldiers are strips of crustless buttered toast, dunked into soft-boiled eggs, (pointy ends removed neatly), that are placed in an egg cup. Why “soldiers?” Don’t ask me, I’m an American.

The National Society of Newspaper Columnists contest winner, 2016 —
online, blog, & monthly under 100,000 unique visitors category.

Header photo: Frambled eggs, photo courtesy Epicurious.

Hung out to dry.

“Do you really hang clothes out to dry?” friends ask when they see my clothesline in the backyard.

“Nothing like sleeping on sheets that have dried in the sun,” I say. A clothesline was a must-have when we were looking at houses.

I did the laundry early so I could hang it out before the temperature reached the weatherman’s predicted, blistering 92°.  But I forgot about the wet things, and didn’t take anything out until 11:30. Then I rushed to “peg it out,” as Peter’s old granny would’ve said, so I could retreat to the cool of the house.

Half an hour later, upstairs tidying our bedroom and bathroom, I glanced out the window and saw my husband taking everything off the clothesline. Oh no, I thought, the laundry can’t be dry yet. I opened the window and yelled, “Leave all that there, please.”

“But it’s dry,” he yelled back. He continued folding the sheets.

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 4.43.06 PMI ran downstairs to try to short circuit the process, but he was already inside. The sheets, dish towels, and tablecloth were all folded neatly. He had left tee-shirts and a few other things on the line. “I wanted this stuff to hang out in the sun,” I explained. “It makes everything smell so good and bleaches the whites too.”

He plonked the basket down and stomped off. The sheets were still quite damp, so back out I went to hang them out again.

I walk a fine line trying not to hurt my husband’s feelings when he tries to help, but in this case, I really needed the sun-dried sheets to promote my sense of well-being.

I decided all husbands, not just mine, have trouble with Laundry 101. And most wives don’t understand why they must heed the oil warning light in their cars. In the end, it all comes out in the wash.

Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 2.05.30 PM©Mark Anderson, WWW.Andertoons.com

National Society of Newspaper Columnists 2016 contest winner — 
online, blog, & monthly under 100,000 unique visitors category.

Mow and mow and mow the grass.

Keep him doing chores that he can still do is my motto. Gives him a sense of purpose and helps me. My husband can still empty the dishwasher, clear up after dinner, sweep the terrace, mow the grass. He no longer hauls the garbage bins out to the street because he forgets which way they face. Easier for me to do it than to explain.

Each  of his chores has become problematic for both of us. When he empties the dishwasher I put away the odd things he doesn’t recognize — juicer, salad spinner, flour sifter — and after we eat I must put leftovers away or he’ll throw them out.

Version 2

Cotton-tailed trimmer.

Mowing the yard has become an all-day event. If I remind him that the grass needs cutting, and if he’s in the mood to do it, he’ll mow front and back, come in complaining how hot he is, take a shower, then go back outside and start to mow all over again. When I catch him to tell him he already mowed, he argues. I point out the freshly manicured lawn, but he doesn’t believe me. He is hot though, so he showers again, and tries to mow a third time.

Or not.

A week ago I couldn’t get him to cut the lawn at all. When the grass was nearly at mid-calf, I threatened. He mowed the outer edges of each section, but left the middles. He put the mower away. I asked him to finish mowing. He would not. Suddenly, he went out and started the mower. He was going round and round the front when it started raining. Blinding sheets of rain. He would not stop. He kept going and going and going, an Energizer bunny. He was drenched. “No reason to quit once I got so wet,” he said with a silly smile when he came in the back door.

He headed upstairs to take another shower.

 

 

National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest winner, 2016.

 

Keep on the sunny side of life.

For years and years, long before dementia took control of our lives, if I asked Peter to take the garbage images-3out Thursday evening he nearly always refused. His argument was, no one else had theirs out. Only one other house on our block has front curb pick-up, so it isn’t a contest. Finally, I started doing it . It certainly isn’t difficult, and my nagging was nagging at me.

images-2Before daylight one Friday I noticed the blue bin was in the carport. I was positive I’d taken it out. Did the truck go by already? Did our neighbor bring it back? I went out and peeked inside  — full. Blast!

Peter must’ve rolled it back the evening before thinking it was empty. He didn’t notice that “empty” was very heavy — the week before we’d had a lot of snow so there’d been no garbage collection at all.

Whether garbage is in or out isn’t a big problem, but it’s a worrisome symptom.

A few days later I was in the pantry when I heard Peter and Nobby come back from their walk. “Knock, knock?” he said, peeking around the door. “Oh! I didn’t think you were here.”

I’d been pouring kibble into Nobby’s metal bowl. “Didn’t you hear the racket?” I asked.

Peter shook his head and pointed toward the carport. “Your car isn’t there.”

This was a Sunday. My car had been gone since Thursday evening. Leslie traded cars IMG_0461with me so she and Martin could take mine to a family ski weekend in West Virginia. “You haven’t noticed my car was gone? We ran errands today in Leslie’s car, remember?”

Of course he didn’t remember. But he’d laughed at me trying to adjust her seat and mirrors while complaining I felt like I was sitting on the road in her much lower car. Even after all this time I can’t seem to remember that he really can’t remember.

Peter no longer fixes meals. He used to make Indian dinners, bubble and squeak, and he always cooked fish. He still makes the best fried eggs. He does them, with supervision. I get out the skillet, eggs, oil, spatula, and put the frozen chips in the oven. I tell him when to start the eggs.

I watched him a few nights ago so “I could see how he did it,” I said. When they were just right, he slid the skillet off the burner, then reached through the grate. “NO-O,” I yelled when I realized what he was doing. He singed his fingers before my yell penetrated. He said he  thought he had to twist the “thing” (burner cap) to put out the flame. He wasn’t burned badly, thankfully.

Days like these, “Keep your sunny side up” are words to live by.

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Sweet tooth, Sweetheart?

Toothpaste-PeopleHe squeezes the bottom, I squeeze the middle…of the toothpaste, that is. Who squeezes where has never been a problem in our marriage.

What is a problem these days is Peter’s obsession about having toothpaste. In spite of the tube on the sink and a new one in the cupboard, he always writes “toothpaste” (actually, touthpaste) on his ever present shopping list. He used to walk the two blocks to the grocery, but he doesn’t go on his own anymore. Neither does he give me his list which always includes string as well. I don’t understand that either.

His toothpaste concerns befuddle me. I wonder, does he remember rationing as a child during World War II? Toothpaste wasn’t rationed in England or here, but in both countries a purchaser had to turn in the used metal tube in order to purchase another. I remember my mother carefully slitting the tube open to scrape out the last traces of toothpaste. I thought she was being too particular, but apparently that was the only way she could buy more. The metal was recycled for the war effort.

Even though we have a drawerful of the toothbrushes the dental hygienist gives us, toothbrushes are always on his list too. About once a month he goes to the grocery with me. Grocery-getting is my least favorite of all household tasks because it is so labor intensive. Plus, keeping my husband in sight is like tracking a three-year-old in a toy store. He doesn’t think it’s a problem, so I try not to complain.

When we finally meet up, my large cart is overflowing. Peter’s small one has only beer and a Hershey bar inside. I ask about toothpaste.

“It’s OK,” he always says, “I’ll get it another time.”

Maybe he puts toothpaste on the list to justify the Hersey bar? He used to buy flowers occasionally, but now it’s chocolate for himself. And he doesn’t share.

Even this silly story makes me laugh, sad though it is.

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‘I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.’

Losing car keys doesn’t mean Alzheimer’s disease is lurking, but forgetting what the keys are for might. That’s a simplistic example of the difference between simple forgetfulness, and a more serious problem.

I asked Peter to put some towels into the washer. He went to the laundry room and stood in front of the washer and dryer, muttering. After a few minutes he said, “Which one do you want me to use?”  Since he hasn’t done his own laundry in forty years or more, the question wasn’t too surprising.

On the other hand, I’ve been doing weekly laundry for more than fifty years, but lately I simply forget it until I realize I’m out of underwear! I do know which appliance is the washer, which, the dryer.

Once upon a time I was so organized that my brain was a calendar, neatly compartmented with to-do lists. I never left work without clearing my desk and writing a chronological list of the next day’s projects. When Peter left work, papers were an avalanche waiting to happen. Pens and pencils were strewn like trees in the Midwest after a tornado. Dust bunnies raised families in the crevices of his desk chair.

Now, both his desks look like a military parade: pencils and pens aligned at right angles to the front edge, calendars hung at studied levels — turned to the wrong months however — and stacks of coins in ranks as if on review. His other desk, the one dedicated to model ship building, is arrayed similarly: special brushes and tiny tools in rows, regimented.

My desk looks as if the recycling truck backed up and dumped a load of papers, boxes, sticky notes and Mentos wrappers. Every few weeks I attempt to organize my desktop and files. The mess is viral.

Household chores? While Peter attends to his self-assigned tasks, I seldom even clean the coffee maker anymore. For many years I had a rigid first-Friday-of-the-month routine: run vinegar through the coffeemaker, use baking soda and vinegar in all the drains, and turn the mattress, end-to-end one month, side-to-side the next.

pea_princessBack then, flipping the mattress made us laugh so much we couldn’t lift the thing. Neither of us remembered, one time to next, how to do it, end-to-end or side-to-side, without demolishing the ceiling fan. Last week, I realized we hadn’t turned the mattress in months. I called Peter to help.

We’ve never agreed how to do it. In the past we laughed at our contortions, but this time we barely managed to heft it, much less laugh.

Time was, I vacuumed and dusted obsessively. Now I have Carri who does it for me, and if she’s away, I don’t bother. Peter likes to “Hoover,” as he calls it, but insists on parallel lines across the rugs. He combs their fringed edges with a fork. I wish his hair looked as good.

We’ve reversed habits. His new obsessiveness stems from a need to have control. My escalating lack of organization says I have more chores than I can manage, so I let everything slide. Peter can’t help himself, but I really must revive my routines.

A magic wand might help!

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Quote at top: Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland