Seize the day!

It was more than a year after I placed my husband in memory care before I found a new normal. I’d skimmed across the days, weeks, months in a daze, I now know. Friends said I was doing well, but I knew I was barely hanging on.

But at last, mama’s got her mojo back. Carpe diem.

Almost from the start, I had concerns about certain aspects of Peter’s new life. Nearly 18 months later I realized that the route to change was for me to Do Something.

I made an appointment to talk with one person but ended up in the office of another, a nice young man who had the authority to affect change. When I sat down with him—I’ll call him Mr. L—I had two pages of notes ranging from serious matters like Peter’s refusal to take his meds or take supervised showers regularly to other, superficial items. He lay my top priorities to rest quickly. Weeks prior word had reached Mr. L’s desk that twice I’d found pills lying on my husband’s table. Steps were taken. Peter no longer gets away with his tricks to hide meds, although I’m sure he still tries.

My complaint that two showers a week aren’t enough for anyone, anywhere, anytime, much less my often “fragrant” spouse, was addressed. It’s still a battle for whoever has to convince him, but it’s happening. Who knows, maybe Peter will come to accept his new normal.

When I visited recently, an aide told me Peter had refused to shower that morning, as he had on Friday. “I’ll talk to him,” I said, thanking her for telling me. While we had our tea I told him how upset I was about his refusing showers. He looked like he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but he continued to insist he didn’t need to shower “all the time.”

I persisted. He held firm. Finally I suggested we play dominos and the best-of-seven winner would make the shower decision. Peter lost. He went to the shower room willingly. Afterwards, he came back to his room arms raised, hands clasped above his head. He looked good, he felt good and he he’d made me happy. “Domino effect” has taken on new meaning. I might have to show the aides how to play the game!

Peter always liked to garden.

Next on my list was the garden that surrounds the wing where Peter and as many as 15 others live. “The front of the facility is very nice, well maintained, welcoming,” I said to Mr L, “but that garden is pitiful. The raised bed is full of weeds and mint. The area is not inviting at all.” He agreed. I also suggested painting the ceiling of the gazebo blue. That struck a chord and Mr. L added that the porch ceilings needed paint too. Yes-s.

Then I mentioned my two occasional gardeners—they help me at home—and asked if it would be OK to contact them to see if they would be interested in a garden overhaul. Yes and yes. Before long they’ll start work on their plan that includes brilliant perennials with compelling scents—lavender, lilac, viburnum—and although fall hasn’t even started, I can’t wait until spring.

The tall black garden fence is meant to contain residents who try to escape, Peter among them! I proposed murals on some fence sections to make them less prison-like. Murals are on the radar with two potential artists lined up.

Peter ponders his next domino move.

When I asked about a table and chairs for the gazebo, snap, they appeared a few days later. I hope other residents and their families enjoy sitting there as much as we do.

How about enlisting student volunteers from local schools and the university to visit with residents or plan entertainment? I asked. Maybe youngsters could write notes to them? Would young children from day care facilities come to cheer the residents? I wondered. Worth trying, Mr. L thought, and before long he’d made some calls and ideas are flowing. Peter loves little children and I imagine other residents would enjoy little children and their antics, too.

My list grows, even as I sit here tweaking this post. At least now I’ve Done Something about things that can be remedied with the right sources and not too much money. I’ll probably make some enemies in this process, but it wouldn’t be the first time. I’m not called Mother Tough without reason!

Header photo: Peter asks if he can help when the garden rehab starts. “You can sweep up every day,” I offered.  He nodded. “I’m good at that,” he said.

 

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Shower power.

How I pity the aides who try to get my husband to shower. His jovial personality disappears when he really Doesn’t. Want. To. Do. Something! And he really doesn’t want to be prodded towards the shower by a female aide, or for that matter, by a male aide. I’m reasonably sure he isn’t the only male resident who balks. It’s got to be embarrassing, humiliating, to be led off to the bath room as if they were little boys.

A year ago, early in Peter’s stay in the memory care unit—the best facility around I might add—I complained, rather loudly, that my husband needed a shower. “He stinks!” I announced. Another day I asked if I could try to get him to shower. The answer was yes and I was successful. He stayed a long time and all I had to do was be there. I didn’t help him wash, didn’t help him dress, but I did tell him how “fresh” he was afterwards. He grinned as if to say it was his idea in the first place.

Unfortunately, showers are only scheduled twice a week, for the men at least. Not often enough for anyone, and especially not enough for my pungent husband at any time and certainly not in the heat of summer. Oh I understand there could be staffing issues and I readily acknowledge my husband is stubborn. But good hygiene is absolutely necessary, in my book, clean clothes too.

Peter’s dug-in heels are contrary to the man who sometimes showered three times a day when he was working in the yard. He’d mow the grass, shower, put on clean clothes, go back out, do another task, come back inside…repeat…repeat….

I had quite a laugh last week when I heard that he had two showers on Tuesday—one in the morning overseen by one aide, the second in the afternoon with help from a different aide who didn’t realize he’d already washed and put on clean clothes. Two showers, two changes of clothes, one day! Woo hoo! Apparently, he didn’t object either time and, because he didn’t remember the first one, he didn’t fuss the second time. Blessing disguised.

Friday, the other shower day for the men, an aide convinced him to shower again. When I picked him up at five to go out to eat with Leslie, Martin and me, not only was he clean, but he was wearing clean trousers and the blue golf shirt Leslie gave him for Father’s Day.  Win. Win. Win.

 

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

 

He who laughs last…

A number of conversational prompts loop through Peter’s brain — he’s concerned about how tall the trees are, he wonders at the numbers of cars in parking lots, he’s overly curious about what lies at the bottom of a hill behind the facility, and he constantly asks “How was work today?”

“I’ve been retired for 30 years, Peter.”

“Thirty years?” He’s astonished.

“I retired a couple months before Samantha was born, you know.”

“How old is she?”

“Uh-h, thirty!” He shakes his head. “And I’m eighty,” I say.

“EIGHTY?” He collapses with laughter. He sputters, his face is red and tears leak out the sides of his eyes as he collapses against the back of his chair. “EIGHTY?” He slaps his knee as he cackles.

I’m a bit miffed. “Don’t laugh so hard, bud,” I say, “you’re eighty-one!”

His eyes pop and he gasps. “No one told me! How did that happen? Eighty-one?” He thinks for a few seconds, then, quick as ever, says, “We look pretty good, don’t we?” And we both laugh uncontrollably, me at how quick, how sharp his retort, and him at his own joke about our unbelievable, hysterically funny ages.

Header photo: 1930’s era Packard is older than we are. And it’s punctuated with bullet holes.

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. 

 

 

Briefly.

My husband was a cyclist in his day, not a pro, but darned good even into his late sixties, before Alzheimer’s commandeered his brain. Now 81, he hasn’t ridden in years, so when I got a text message from his Tuesday helper that he’d ridden half a mile at level two in the fitness center, I whooped.

YAY!

Later that same evening there was a second text to tell me that the day had been a good day: “He told me he knew he lived there now and the place was okay. He had a clear moment while we had tea outside the cafe.”

With tea came clarity.

I’d waited one year and four days to hear those words. Some caregivers never hear them, so I count myself lucky.

Peter has seemed more settled in recent weeks, and although I know he doesn’t remember that day or that brief bit of conversation, the thought is tucked in there somewhere amidst those damnable amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.

His good day made mine.

Header: My May flowers flourish thanks to April showers.

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

 

 

Don’t deal him out.

When I left Peter one afternoon, I stopped to chat with the wife of another resident. We compared notes, as we’ve done before, and agreed that the year just past, for both of us and our spouses, had been terrible. She’s a woman who tries to look on the bright side too, so we’ve shared laughs over the months as well.

I told her I’d just reintroduced Peter to cribbage and that it had been more successful than I expected. “He remembered enough about the game to play fairly well,” I told her. “I never could play very well, so he’s at my skill level now.” 

“Well then, what did you think about our husbands’ poker game last week?” 

“Poker? Peter doesn’t even know how to play!” I was astonished. At Christmas the family poker players drag him to Leslie and Martin’s kitchen table and coach him.

She explained that our husbands and another resident had played one afternoon. “They had beer, chips and dip, laughed and carried on as if they’d been pals for years. They seemed to know what they were doing.”

“Could they hear each other?” 

She shook her head and laughed. “Didn’t matter, they had a terrific time.” 

“That’s wonderful! I hadn’t heard about it, but you just made my day!” I drove home with a big smile on my face.

Ol’ Poker Face Pete looks like he’s ready to ‘fold.’

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 
 
 
 
Header photo: freepik

How lovely are thy branches?

The Christmas morning clatter—save the boxes, keep the ribbon, recycle the tissue, read the directions, where’s the receipt, the vac is clogged—is a week in the past. As I write, the new year is just hours away.  I can’t say I’m sorry to see the old one out.

This dwindling year has been an annus horribilis, as Queen Elizabeth II defined her 1992. She referred to her children’s marital follies and questionable clandestine issues, as well as the costly fire in Windsor Castle, one of her favorites.

Even though this has been an awful year for the Clarke family, we’ve found bright spots to keep us laughing. The house didn’t burn down either.

One of Peter’s new helpers, fascinated by his natural affinity with children, observed him interacting with a little boy. They stood on the fringe of a crowd waiting to see the Nutcracker ballet. I wasn’t there but I’m sure my husband’s eyes twinkled while he made silly faces and crouched to the two-year-old’s eye level. More than once, the boy announced loudly to anyone else in range that this, pointing to Peter, was his New Best Friend.

When I heard the story I smiled in spite of myself and my fretting.

For months I’d wondered how, or if, I would cope, how Peter would do, how would we all manage during the holidays. But, miraculously, my husband had settled into his new “digs” and no longer asked, “Is this my room?” every time I led him inside.

With a lot of propping up from family and friends, I spun through Christmas with more good cheer than I’d thought I could muster. I dashed and twirled and muddled, but in many ways, the week was actually one of the best we’ve ever had. The eight of us kept him busy with meals and snacks, card games, walks, movies, billiards, and chatter. Not that Peter talked much, but he smiled, chuckling, as he listened. If he had been able to channel my dad, my husband might have said, “Well, someone has to listen.”

Header: In 2017, Peter lifted a dug-up pine to bring home with help from Leslie who wore red and white striped camouflage.

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. 

 

Two laughs are better than none.

Laughs have been scarce lately. Stress, angst and tears blot out any chuckles my husband’s quick humor would usually egg on.

Twice this week, laughs ruled.

I visit nearly every day, in spite of advice from daughters, doctors and friends. As soon as I walk in — I know I shouldn’t do this either — I immediately begin to put the place to rights. I grumble, yes I do, as I put his clothes away, plug in t.v. and lamps, remove socks from his toothbrush holder, and find missing photos, pencils, and domino’s score pads.  Wednesday, in addition to the usual chaos his nightly dismantling causes, the comforter was turned so that the ends were dragging the floor off the sides of the bed.

“Did the aides make your bed or did you?”

“Is it right or wrong?” he asked.

“It’s the wrong way ’round,” I said.

They made it,” he said quickly.

We laughed like we haven’t laughed in weeks.

The next day, his new doctor visited. “I’m Dr. K,” she said. She held out her hand asking, “Would you like me to call you Peter or Mr. Clarke or Dr. Clarke?”

“Hm-m, Dr. Clarke, I think. Sounds good.” She laughed and we did too.

A second laugh in two days, wow! Can’t beat that with a stick, as his ol’ granny might have said.

 

Header: Peter wore his Union Jack necktie to watch the royal wedding May 19. He enjoyed the tea and biscuits as much as I enjoyed the wedding.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Just call me Lipton and pour the hot water.

Early in Peter’s the long journey, people warned me, Take care of yourself, take it easy, don’t wear yourself out. They were right, but I didn’t take their advice.

Several months ago, I added more hours to Peter’s two helpers’ schedules to give myself some time off. With those hours I run errands without worrying about getting home to Peter who can’t be on his own for more than a few minutes at a time. Really, he can’t be on his own for any time at all. And I’ve been able to schedule massages every other week, or go to the bookstore and sit with coffee and a new book for a whole hour.

I’ve wondered, how long can I continue doing this 24/7? What would happen to Peter if something catastropic happened to me?  He couldn’t live alone and he would make life miserable for himself and a caregiver without me as a buffer. Carolynn and Leslie have always said they’d take turns taking care of one or both of us. I know they mean it, and they would do it too, but at what cost to them? These are the kinds of questions that keep me awake nights.

I’ve known for months what I must do, but I played ostrich. I should have done my research, should have put my husband’s name on lists. The multiple choice answers to my question include Assisted Living? Nursing Home? Memory Care? Private Care Home? Additional Care at Home?

When it comes down to it, assisted living is what Peter has now. I assist. In any case, he would not qualify now — he is cognitively impaired, he wanders, and he’s close to late-stage Alzheimer’s.

Nursing homes conjure thoughts of elderly residents parked at the nurse’s station in wheelchairs. No thank you. He doesn’t need nursing care, he needs loving care.

Additional in-home care would likely expand quickly to ’round-the-clock. It may yet come to that, but that would be the last resort. My husband is uncomfortable, always has been, with too many people around, and I’m a loner too.

What about a “memory care” unit at a nursing home, I wondered? Six weeks ago, when I began to scribble thoughts for this post, I wrote, …no need yet for that level of care.

That was six weeks ago.

Since then, my emotions and any rational ideas I might have had have tossed in my head like wet blankets in a malfunctioning dryer — around and around, flip and flop, toss and turn.

After Peter’s accident four weeks ago (two previous posts) I understood what my friend Lourie meant — she has faced these questions too — when she said, “You’ll just know when it’s the right time…” to put him into care. Or when Karen, owner of a caregiving service, said, “Remember, you ‘have Alzheimer’s’ too. You have to choose what is best for Pete, and for yourself.” And I took comfort from something gerontology professor Dr. Elaine Eshbaugh wrote in a blog, “You are just a person — doing the best you can under circumstances that aren’t great. And you’re not alone.”  Others I begged answers from had similar thoughts — don’t feel guilty and don’t let anyone tell you what to do unless they’ve walked in your shoes.

So, after Peter fell on his face, literally, I was smacked in the face figuratively. I had not done my homework and I was not prepared  for the awful days that followed. Somehow, in the swirl of emotions, I thought of respite care, something I hadn’t even considered before. Leslie went with me to visit likely facilities. Respite seemed like the right answer for the short term. Rescue for both of us. Peter would get good care in a more pleasant setting than I would have imagined, and I could put my crumbled self back together again.

I started the process, I talked to family and friends and all agreed it was a good idea. They knew Peter’s state was precarious after his accident, and how exhausted I was. Then, then, Peter’s awful journey changed course. He morphed into the person he was several years ago, before his brain was ravaged by rampant plaques and neuro-tangles

Again my own brain tumbled with conflicting thoughts, but after further counsel from friends, I put respite care on hold. Our life is now paused in that blissful place where romance first bloomed.

A delay was the right thing to do.

“A woman is like a tea bag — you can’t tell how strong she is
until you put her 
in hot water.”  Eleanor Roosevelt

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.