A man and his dog.

After several years together dog owners and their dogs begin to look alike, so they say. They begin to act alike too, in my opinion. Take Peter, 81, and Nobby, his golden doodle, nearly 12.  Both are mischievous and have the inherent ability to make people laugh at their antics. Both would fetch sticks for hours if their years hadn’t slowed them.

The final week of October was a week I’d like to forget and one Peter forgot as it was happening.

Monday, Nobby had surgery to remove a suspicious lump from his left front leg. While he was anesthetized, the vet cleaned his teeth, too. When I picked him up, he was wobbly, confused and so ashamed of the blue cone around his head. It interfered with his food and water consumption, his ability to walk through doors easily and, worst of all, he couldn’t find the right spot outside, um, to mark his spot.

Tuesday, just as I was leaving for my own teeth-cleaning appointment, the phone rang. Peter had had a bad turn at lunch. He was disoriented, more confused than usual, incontinent and his temperature was 101.2°.  Would I come? Of course I would. Hindsight tells me a trip to the dentist’s office would have been a piece of cake and Peter likely would have chosen a root canal over what followed.

His temperature had spiked by the time I got to his room. His face was so red it was almost incandescent. “Can someone take his temp please?” I called out. Whoa, it was 104°! I put cold washcloths on his forehead while waiting for the doctor to return my call. I requested Tylenol from a nurse. Nunh uh, without doctor’s orders not even Tylenol can be given to a resident.

As is always the case, Peter said he wasn’t sick. He tried to bluff his way past my concern. He was as dazed and unsteady as Nobby was on Monday. I urged him to drink water, then steered him toward the bathroom. Like Nobby the night before, Peter didn’t know why he was in there, but at least he didn’t have to go out into a dark, drizzly night.

We went to the emergency room where he was seen quickly enough, though it was a five-hour ordeal. He was hooked-up, jabbed, poked and questioned. He tugged at his IV, tangled the blood pressure tubing and tried his best to get the pulse oximeter off his finger. He bellowed and cursed during one particularly sensitive probing. Later he erupted like a child when a nurse gave him Tylenol tabs and a cup of water. “Tastes awful,” he yelled, even as I cautioned against chewing. This was not the behavior of the mild mannered man I married. This was dementia talking.

Like Peter, Nobby refuses to swallow pills, even wrapped in Pill Pockets. He spits them out with such force they fly across the room.

With a presumed diagnosis of prostatitis, Peter was finally admitted and in a room by 9:15. A steady procession of nurses, students and doctors paraded in and out. He couldn’t answer any of their questions, still insisted he wasn’t sick, still babbled as if drunk. When one asked his full name, he slurred his words. “Whydoyawannaknow?” he asked. Did he know the date or where he was? I cringed. Hadn’t she read his chart? Didn’t she see that he has dementia and lives in a memory care unit? Finally, gritting my teeth, I said that he hadn’t been able to answer those questions for years.

Meanwhile, Nobby had been home alone for hours. Leslie went to him after work. When I got home, the dog, way peppier than the day before, wanted to play. I went to bed.

Wednesday, the doctor definitely ruled out a UTI, flu, pneumonia and several other possibilities, but had ordered blood and urine cultures. Peter was to stay another night. Leslie and Martin brought dinner to me and afterwards, she went to the hospital. He was his goofy self, she texted. He walked her to the elevator so many times, she finally shut the door to his room and told him firmly to stay there.

Peter the ghost.

Always a trickster.

Thursday, Peter was back to his old tricks. He hid in doorways and yelled boo at passing nurses. He joked and teased and wouldn’t give anyone a straight answer. He’d pulled his IV out and was so energetic that they turned off the “fall alarm” on his bed. When yet another nurse arrived, Peter said he wouldn’t answer any more questions. Still she tried. “What hobbies have you enjoyed, Mr. Clarke?” she asked.

He had an devilish look on his face when he pointed to me and said, “Her.” She blushed, I laughed and Peter turned as red as he’d been two days earlier.

By the time I got home, Nobby had discovered he could lick his sutures through the cone, and later still he figured out how to bend the cone for unobstructed access to those pesky stitches.

Friday, Nobby’s doctor called with good news. “The lump was benign!” she said. “I’ve never heard of it, I can’t pronounce it, but it’s something particular to poodles.”  Good news indeed. That evening, Peter was seen eating popcorn while glued to “The Queen” with Helen Mirren. Such was the week that was.

Header photo: Nobby looks good in blue.

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

 

Random reasons to smile.

According to one of my daughters, my most recent post made her laugh and cry. Here, for Carolynn, are four reasons to smile.

One recent Sunday I didn’t feel well, thought I was catching a cold, so I didn’t visit Peter as usual. I felt guilty all day. Monday I was slightly better, but decided to stay away. Finally, Tuesday, I went to see him. We were having tea when one of the nurses stopped to tell me she’d brought her four-year-old granddaughter to work Sunday and Peter had entertained her all day. “He loves little children,” I said. “Bring her back again for a playdate.”

Pfftt, no need for Sunday’s guilt, he was fine without me.

Another day he teased a nurse who was working at the computer in the corridor. “Want my help?” he asked, acting as if he might touch something he shouldn’t.

She laughed. “You stay away from this. You help in other ways.”

“He loves to clean up the kitchen, wipe the tables,” I said, a hint that he wanted more to do.

“Yes he does, and he helps with residents too. Pushes their chairs, cheers them up when they’re down…he’s great.”

That’s my husband. He’s lucky to be a bit better off than many.

Earlier this week, I turned his music on. The throaty sound of Louie “Satchmo” Armstrong filled the room.  Peter began to sing along—badly—the way did when he blasted his thirties jazz in the basement right below my office. His carrying on always made me tear my hair and laugh at the same time.

And so it did again.

Just yesterday morning, Nobby and I were ready for our walk when I realized I hadn’t taken the garbage can to the curb and the truck was already next door. I got to the curb seconds before he rumbled to a stop. I waited there to roll the empty back to the house. When he finished dumping the garbage into the truck, he deftly used the lift arm to push the empty can right to where where I stood about ten feet away.

That random act of kindness has nothing to do with caregiving, dementia, my husband, guilt, doubts or tears. But it did make me smile.

Header photo: Peter and I at a garden party several years ago.

 

 

 

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

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.