Right or wrong? Left or right? Here or there?

Thoughts about my ability to live in this new world where I’m practicing to be a widow rattle around in my head like stray coins clanking in the clothes dryer.

When will I, or will I ever, sleep on the other side of the bed. When will I, or will I ever, stop walking around the bed on my middle-of-the night treks to the bathroom, when I could just roll out the left side?

Will I ever sit on the other side of the kitchen table where Peter always sat?

Will I ever be able to clear the cedar closet of the suits he wore to work (once he realized he had to wear a suit to work) or the Burberry all-weather coat he never ever wore, or the cowboy boots we spent hours shopping for in Santa Fe and that were too nice to wear?

And will I ever stop being his caregiver?

The answer to all the above is, probably not. Anyway, Peter isn’t gone, he’s just removed from the life we lived together.

It just wouldn’t be right to sleep on the left side of our bed, or to change my path to the bathroom, or to sit on the opposite side of the kitchen table. And now, even though he’s in a care facility with round-the-clock coverage, his care really is still in my hands. Anyone in care or in hospital needs an advocate because the carers, the nurses, the aides can’t be everywhere, every time, all the time.

But that’s neither here nor there.

I have no choice but to be Peter’s caregiver as long as he lives—or as long as I do—and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know, if our positions were reversed, he’d take care of me. Oh, he wouldn’t bring me tea and he wouldn’t fluff my pillow, but he would make me laugh.

I’ve learned from my husband how to laugh at myself and life and him, always him.

 

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. 

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. 

 

Right now is the right time.

My Peter, now more than ten years along dementia’s downward slope, is slipping faster. I try to ease the skid by finding activities to occupy him, to give him a sense of accomplishment. Many things he once did easily aren’t possible now. It has been a long time since he could cook anything, not even fried eggs or bubble and squeak. Sometimes he even forgets how to make a cup of tea.

I waited too long for the right time to introduce these “sort or organize” ideas I found online. But on his own, perhaps prompted by some brain tweak that Alzheimer’s patients experience, he’s been doing many of them for months, maybe years. I offer them here, for readers looking for in-home occupational therapy.


Sort or organize…

  • …nails, screws, and other hardware. Peter has long since sorted, by size and age, his collection of antique hammers and other old tools.
  • …nail polish and lipsticks, sorting by color, brand or on a scale of 1-10 by preference. Not bloody likely, he’d say to this one, but I might push him to tackle it.
  • …buttons, using muffin tins to sort by color, size or style. Not even the antique buttons my mother collected piqued his interest.
  • …coins, according to date, value or place of origin. Ah yes, he stacks coins, wraps others, and bands paper currency he brought home from our travels and his business trips to Europe and Japan.
  • …the pantry, arranging cans and jars by size, brand or contents. Unfortunately for me, he does this often. I want my pantry to be organized the way want it organized — tomato products together, vinegars and oils, all condiments, and so on. He likes everything lined up like soldiers, no matter their culinary purpose. (I’ve declared the pantry off limits, for all the good that does.)
  • …the silverware drawer, rearranging the order of the forks, spoons, and knives. Peter often reorganizes our two sets of everyday cutlery. He likes the two sets separate from each other, and I don’t give a hoot about that. I prefer all dinner forks in one compartment, all salad forks in another, likewise all soup spoons, all dessert spoons, and so on.
  • …playing cards into decks that match, or into suits within a deck, or by numbers. He’s been doing this for months, endlessly. He hates that my canasta decks are the same on the backs and tosses them aside because they don’t suit his orderly sensibilities.
  • M&Ms, using muffin tins to sort by color. Choose one color to eat. Haven’t tried this yet, but I have a feeling he’d eat all of them before they made it from bag to tin, all except the green ones, that is. “Green candy isn’t good,” he’d say.

Just a few years ago, Peter would’ve laughed at the thought of doing such silly activities. Now, they calm him, and give him a sense of purpose, in his increasingly purposeless world.

Header photo: Stacked coins in his closet.

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

Trouble with a capital T rhymes with me!

My friend Bette made it a point to tell me she’d seen Peter at the grocery store recently. She figured I must be in the store somewhere, although she didn’t see me. Bette introduced herself to him because she knew he wouldn’t remember her name. His response was quick and so typical of him. “Don’t tell ‘anyone’ I’m here. I’ll be in trouble.”

Anyone meant me, of course.

She didn’t remember what day it was, but I figured it was probably the Tuesday he snuck out without telling me he was leaving, nor where he was going. When I realized he wasn’t here and that he had probably been gone well over an hour, I went looking. By the time I got home, he was back. “Where’ve you been?” he asked, greeting me at the door as if he’d been out looking for me.

“You didn’t tell you were going out,” I said. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“I didn’t know where I was going,” he said. “I just went for a walk.”

“Where?”

DSC01592He shook his head. “Can’t remember.…that was a long time ago.” He uses the “long time ago” line a lot in attempt to joke his way out of Trouble. His only Trouble would’ve been if he had gotten lost for real!

That evening I found a Hershey bar wrapper and deduced that he’d gone to Kroger’s.

Several days later someone else told me she’d seen Peter at Kroger’s and he seemed confused. She saw him leave and decided to call me — it was that same Tuesday. I didn’t see her voice mail until after he’d “found himself,” but it is comforting to know we have friends to help me keep track.

Screen Shot 2016-06-15 at 11.56.06 AMI am researching personal tracking devices. There are several types on the market, but he wouldn’t use any of them willingly, and I know he would find ways to “lose” them. He’s crafty that way.  I wish someone would come up with a microchip like veterinarians implant in dogs. The idea would make Peter laugh…I think that will be my little secret.

screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-10-14-07-am

Breadcrumbs?

 

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

Fish story.

A rank smell had permeated our basement for weeks. I couldn’t find the source so chalked it up to our muggy summer and a husband who refuses to let the dehumidifier run.

When we got back from ten days away, the odor, now thick as mud, impregnated my nose. I asked Peter to help track it down, but his sense of smell only extends to candles and perfume, both of which he dislikes intensely. I was on my own.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-4-03-12-pm

“Welcome to Dementialand: Living, Loving and Laughing through Alzheimers and Related Dementias” is an informative blog by Elaine Eshbaugh, PhD. A gerontologist at University of Northern Iowa, her expertise centers on many things we caregivers need to know. She has written a series on how dementia changes the way individuals experience the world, one post about each of the five senses. “Smell” couldn’t have been more timely for me.

“Many people…notice that as they get older, they no longer detect smells like they [did] in the past. However, the change…for individuals with dementia is more severe and can even be dangerous.” Burning food and smoke, for example. “Smell has an important function for us,” she says. “…People with dementia may lose the ability to interpret certain smells as signs of danger.… Smoke alerts us to fire…that connection is eventually lost for people with dementia.”

Eshbaugh’s words reminded me that my husband’s grandfather, over ninety then, had nearly set his house on fire because he forgot he’d put the kettle on for tea. Not long after, Peter’s dad had to move the old fellow to a nursing  home, because of his own Parkinson’s. He could no longer look after his father. Peter burned up our electric kettle several months ago when he put it on the gas stove to boil. He didn’t smell it smoldering, and I, upstairs reading, didn’t either. The next morning when Peter picked up the kettle, chunks of plastic fell off the bottom. I realized what happened, but he didn’t. He had no memory of it and wondered why the kettle wouldn’t work.

“Smell also alerts us to spoiled food. … It doesn’t work that way for people as dementia progresses,”  Eshbaugh writes. “Keep in mind that our actions are based on how we experience the world. Dementia alters [that] by changing sensory perceptions. … And those experiences are based on what they do and do not taste, see, hear, touch, and smell.”

And that brings me back to our stinking basement.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-4-03-12-pm

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-12-19-25-pmThe mystery wasn’t solved by Friday evening and I was tired. I decided to fall back on a frozen pizza from the basement refrigerator. When I  opened the freezer a stench rolled out like a London fog, yet everything inside was solid. I opened the fridge door and gagged. Hm, something suspicious in the crisper drawer.

Ah-h, two formerly frozen packages of trout my friend John had brought us months ago. I’d planned to fix them one night, then changed my mind. I asked Peter to put them back in the freezer, but obviously, he’d put them in the fridge instead. I never thought to check, then or while I sleuthed.

Since he can’t smell anything, he got the task of triple-bagging the reeking fish, dousing them with baking soda, and trashing them.

Nancy Drew would have laughed at my noticeably lacking skills.


The National Society of Newspaper Columnists contest winner, 2016 —

online, blog, & monthly under 100,000 unique visitors category.

Caregivers’ resource: “Welcome to Dementialand: Living, Loving, and Laughing through Alzheimer’s and other Dementias,” Elaine Eshbaugh, Phd.

 

The little things are getting bigger.

It’s him asking over and over “why they’re digging up our driveway?” It’s not understanding that the plumber’s crew aren’t “looking for” anything. They’re replacing our sewer line, collapsed and choked by roots, after 60 years.

It’s knowing that telling him something will make no impression, as if I never said anything at all. It’s knowing that he won’t even see my note, underlined in red, that I’ve left to remind  him of an event, a date, a task.

It’s putting a shovel in the ground exactly where I want a hole dug for the azalea that was yanked out last week, knowing the shovel will be put away before the task is even started. It’s knowing he’ll ask why the azalea, jammed in a big flower pot, was sitting next to the shovel.

It’s me YELLING because once again he managed to confuse our so-called “smart” tv by pushing the wrong buttons on the remote. I’m not smart enough to know what’s wrong, so I can’t fix it.

IMG_3266I thought I’d come up with a brilliant way to avoid telling him things he’d forget, or writing notes he wouldn’t understand: I suggested he write a note to himself about how to turn the tv on and off, for example. He liked that and labored over the words. His own message worked for 24 hours. We’re lost without the tv, Peter because he watches anything, anytime, and me because he’s content and calm when it’s on.

It’s me begging him not to move the plumber’s drainpipe extension because it helps direct rainwater away from our not-yet-resurfaced driveway. I growl when I see that he’s moved it to where he wants it again. I had him insert metal garden stakes along the pipe to hold it where it’s supposed to rest, thus reminding him that it shouldn’t be moved. Worked so far.

It’s me, arguing when he said he did not fill in the hole he’d just dug or “plant” the weeds I’d just pulled. I know better than to argue.

Yes, I look for laughs every day, but days like this, there aren’t any.

IMG_2818

This is where the azalea once lived.

Don’t kick the buckets, fill ’em!

There are bucket lists and then there are bucket lists. The former includes trips to take, Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 10.13.32 AMbooks to read, movies, to see. The latter, “buckets of information,” are different entirely.

Sandy Markwood, chief executive of the National Association of Areas of Agencies on Aging, describes three buckets of information that caregivers must organize — Health, Financial, Legal.

Used to be, I was Org-An-Ized. I had a master list of my lists. But then, as my caregiving responsibilities escalated, daily crises took precedence and my organization crumbled. I had at least managed to fill the Health Bucket with the things Markwood suggested: list of doctors, medications, medical history, health and long term care insurance paperwork, and emergency contacts. The medications’ information is in the kitchen drawer with all our prescriptions. And I make copies for us to carry in our wallets. Peter never remembers he has his own list, and doesn’t understand why he has to carry a list of mine. Both daughters know where pertinent information is, though responsibility rests heavily on Leslie’s shoulders because she lives nearby.

The Legal Bucket contains wills, financial power of attorney, medical power of attorney, living will, and caregiving plan. The latter should be shared with family and anyone else connected to the loved one to help avoid a frantic search for a critical legal, health, or financial document during a crisis.

The Financial Bucket contains birth certificate, mortgage/rental documents, bills, bank records, passwords for online accounts and contact information of financial advisors. I’ve corralled all that at last.

Passwords, necessary to access nearly everything in every bucket for everyone, are maddening to keep up with. Seems every few days I have to change an old one or concoct another for a new purpose. I love the line, I changed my password to “incorrect” so whenever I forget it the computer will say, “Your password is incorrect.”

Except for the time, years ago when I was a single mom, I hadn’t had to do the taxes or pay the bills during our marriage. For most of our thirty-five years, I was in charge of spending, not keeping track.  Anything to do with numbers makes my stomach turn inside out, yet now I’m in charge of the things Peter once could do easily. The best thing I ever did was find an excellent financial adviser. I don’t know how he puts up with me, but somehow he keeps me straight. I strongly advise anyone who walks in caretaker shoes, to find a good financial adviser.

Time was, Peter got cash from the bank every week or so. If I said I needed money he’d hold out some bills for me. But when I tried to pull out a couple he’d tighten his grip so I couldn’t take hold. He was always too quick for me, and we always laughed. I called him affectionately inappropriate names. Now I take care of having cash on hand. When I hold money towards him and grasp it the way he used to do, he still laughs, but I’m not sure he remembers why.

Header photo: Isles of Scilly, England, June 2010.

‘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!

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 7.26.23 PM

Quote at top: Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Ten more years.

We set off for Charleston, West Virginia just before 9:00 a.m. Our destination was the US Customs and Immigration Office (USCIS). My English husband had to be photographed and fingerprinted so he’d be a legal permanent resident for another ten years.

Our little corner of Virginia is tucked into an indent in West Virginia’s border. The drive is a beautiful one that hugs the New River as it flows north, continuing to carve away at the Allegheny Mountains as it has done for millennia.

As happens so often these days, a thought lodged in Peter’s mind. Over and over, like a needle stuck on one of his 78 rpm records, he said, “I can’t imagine how they moved all these rocks and trees to make this road, can you?” I always try to answer his questions until I realize he’s in repeat — in my mind it’s “rePete” — mode. After about the fifth rePete I murmer the noncommittal and very useful British “mmm.”

Even with a stop for coffee, we arrived in Charleston two hours early. “Arriving at your destination. Turn left. Turn left here!” the GPS nagged frantically.  Silly thing failed acknowledge the median down the middle of the street. I had to drive another two blocks to make a U-turn in order to truly arrive.

The name on the building wasn’t the same as the information USCIS had furnished, so I parked and went inside to make sure we were in the right place. We wanted to have lunch before Peter’s two o’clock appointment.

Not only was it the right place, but the young man in charge offered to process Peter right then. He began to sign in and, as I often do, I tried to help. I was told politely that Peter was to do it himself. I whispered to the fellow that my husband has dementia and would need some prompting. He whispered back that he understood. “We’ll take care of him,” he said.

He handed Peter additional papers and a pencil. It was the very same form I’d completed on-line several weeks earlier to expedite the process! Peter worried about using a pencil instead of a pen, but I assured him that’s what they wanted.

“Hm, do you think his eyes are hazel,” the young man asked when Peter completed the paperwork. “I think they’re blue,” he said as he studied my husband’s eyes. Difficult for Peter to hold eye contact for so long, but he managed.

“Well, he’s always said ‘hazel.’ But he did start to write ‘gray’ for eyes and ‘hazel’ for hair color,” I said.

He laughed. “OK, hazel they are.”

Peter was processed quickly — no messy ink these days, nor film either — and we were on our way to lunch within minutes. At his scheduled appointment hour, we were almost halfway home.

The drive was punctuated with another question that had snagged in his brain. “How long before I have to do this again?”

“Ten years. They probably won’t even care by then,” I said. “And I certainly wouldn’t drive you to Charleston anyway!”

“Why not?” he asked.

“Can’t drive a wheelchair on the interstate,” I said, and we laughed.

Screen shot 2015-06-18 at 7.23.48 PM

National Park Service photo.

 

Header photo: New River, Virginia, Eric T.Gunther, Creative Commons Attribution.