‘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

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

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.

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National Park Service photo.

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

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Always something new to remind him.

A bubble flood in our kitchen several years ago started a sticky note tide in our house. That sudsy event showed me that I needed to be more vigilant. It was time, past time really, to attach little reminders around the house for Peter. First were the under-kitchen-sink soaps. Then came notes on certain light switches, followed by color-coding to match keys to doors — red for one set, purple for another.

Soon, tv remote, wastebaskets, dog food bag, garbage disposal switch, bottle of hand soap, toothbrushes all had instructions stuck on or  near them.

A small dry erase board propped near the coffee maker each morning announces the day, DSC00769_2date, and year with reminders about activities and appointments for that day. Several years ago I tried an extra large calendar for Peter to fill in, but he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do it.  Calendars were useless, he complained. In truth, in years past when he wanted to keep track of things or plan a trip for instance, he did an engineering timeline. Fair enough, I never understood his timelines anymore than he understood calendar squares.

Now, once again, a large calendar resides on the kitchen counter. Difference is, I fill in the spaces and I outline significant dates in red — birthdays, Valentine’s day, Christmas, our anniversary. Waste of red ink, that idea.

Every few days Peter asks if I need something from Kroger’s. He’s always Screen shot 2015-01-17 at 4.03.05 PMliked grocery shopping and he can walk there with purpose and, more importantly, he doesn’t get lost. I give him a little sticky note, even if there’s only one thing on it. Three items are his limit, but even so, most of the time he doesn’t remember he’s got a list and will come home with an odd assortment he thinks we might need — yogurt, a few bananas, a Hershey bar. He always insists the latter must have fallen into his bag because he certainly didn’t buy it. I laugh at the thought of all those Hershey bars jumping onto the check-out conveyor and sliding into his bag.

Now, I’ve started putting bright notes inside some of the kitchen cupboards to remind him where certain things go. The salad spinner for instance. I use it several times a week. It lives conveniently in the cabinet toDSC00756_2 the left of the sink. Peter always empties the dishwasher, but lately he’s started stashing the spinner wherever he sees an empty space — in the cupboard where seldom used things reside, or maybe in the laundry room pantry. When I’m fixing dinner I do not want to look all over to find this essential tool. One day I’ll break something with all the door- and drawer-banging that accompanies my searc

I do know that washing lettuces for a tossed salad is significantly less of a problem for me than trying to cope with his tossed mind is for Peter. I try to keep that thought in my mind when I get frustrated with him over something so silly as a salad spinner.Screen shot 2015-01-17 at 3.58.28 PM

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Bubble troubles suck.

Ever since he retired, Peter has cleaned up the kitchen after dinner, no small job when I cook. He’s always been rigid about loading the dishwasher, as an engineer would be, but now he stacks and restacks, never sure he’s done it right.

These days he doesn’t actually  wash the pots and pans, but he dries them meticulously. I grit my teeth and remind myself to wash them before I use them. Recently, I got a pan out and realized it had gone directly from stovetop to pot drawer — mashed potato bits were still inside.

It has become my job to put the detergent in the dishwasher and either turn the machine on right away or set the timer. My husband has a history of putting liquid Dawn in the dishwasher because he forgets it’s only for use in the sink. We’ve had bubble floods several times. If that happens, and I’m not close by, he panics and can’t remember how to turn the dishwasher off, nor that the wet/dry shop vac lives right at the bottom of the basement stairs.

At least, by the time the mess is mopped up the kitchen floor is cleaner that it has been in weeks! Both the liquid Dawn and Cascade powder are labeled so he’ll know which to use, but he doesn’t always read them.

Over one Christmas holiday, the guys — Peter, Martin and Bill — were to have day out. Before they left, I noticed suds oozing up in the sink. “I hope you didn’t put washing-up liquid in the dishwasher…” I said to Peter. He was positive he hadn’t and it was already cycling with no apparent problems.

Screen shot 2014-10-05 at 11.53.13 AMBut a few minutes after they left, I noticed a dribble of water on the floor in front of the dishwasher, then a frothy stream. I peeked inside. Betty Grable needed those bubbles for her bathtub scene in “My Heart Tells Me” (1943).

Carolynn was here helping fix dinner. She ran to get the shop vac, I grabbed old towels to soak up what I could, and together we attacked the bubbles and water, proud that we were coping so brilliantly!

“Mom, turn it off!” she yelped suddenly.

Water was shooting out the vac’s exhaust and spewing across the kitchen. The vac was more than half full of soapy water, so we dragged it outside — that much water is heavy — and managed to dump it down the carport steps.

Then she suggested that she hold a big leaf bag over the exhaust’s opening, a prophylactic of sorts, while I finished clearing the dishwasher. The bubbles were nearly all sucked up when she yelled again, this time while laughing hysterically. “Turn it off! MOM, TURN IT OFF!

The bag, inflated from the powerful exhaust, was pulling the vacuum cleaner into the laundry room. My daughter was skidding along behind it, while I slid to the floor laughing.

We were Lucy and Ethel in a scene even they never imagined.


2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Short-term memory long gone.

Years ago, when I was a single mom, my tools for household repairs were glue gun, duct tape, and WD-40. If those didn’t do the job, whatever needed fixing remained broken.

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Where’s the glue gun?

Then I met Peter. After our first date forty years ago, I brought him home to meet my young daughters. He made an impression on them, as he had on me, but when he looked beyond usat our house, he shook his head and rolled his eyes. He brought his tool box to our second date.

From then until five or six years ago, he fixed all sorts of things with ease, built and refinished furniture, made games and toys, painted and wall-papered, took care of the cars, grocery-shopped, and occasionally cooked meals.

He can no longer do any of those things, nor does he notice they need doing. For a while he was mad at himself because even simple tasks were beyond him. Now he doesn’t seem to care.

I care.

I care that he doesn’t notice, that he can’t do little jobs, that he can’t care. It frustrates each of us in different ways, though there’s a common denominator — dementia.

Household repairs piled up undone, but I long since surrendered my glue gun. Then I realized that a member our writers’ group writes in his spare time, but is a handyman by day! Several members of the group have used him and all speak highly of his work.

John! He studies the problem, figures out what should be done, what parts he’ll need, and arrives on time — often with bounty from his garden — to do the work.

And Peter likes him, he really likes him. Usually, if someone he doesn’t know comes to the house he hides upstairs to work on his Cutty Sark model. But from the first, he laughed with John as if they were old buddies.

Last week, John asked Peter if he’d like to go to Lowe’s with him to get supplies for my most recent to-do list. Peter was out the door before the question mark arrived at the end of the sentence. He returned laughing and John was amazed he’d talked about such a variety of subjects — WWII, soccer, cars, “Generous” Electric— common topics for my husband who had a new audience in John. Peter’s short-term memory is long gone, but he remembers the good old days.

That evening I told him I was surprised he’d been willing to go to Lowe’s spur-of-moment. “I don’t get to go everyday like I used to,” he said, a nod to when he could still drive himself wherever he wanted to go.

My to-do list for John grows daily, and I’m thrilled he’s “on call.” I think I’ll pass these fixes on to him. Might come in handy sometime!

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Great pumpkin drop.

Q. How do you fix a broken mallard?
A. Duct tape.

Q. How do you fix broken dentures?        
A. Toothpaste.

Q. How do you fix a stolen rifle?
A. Hot glue gun.

Q. How do you fix a broken pumpkin?        
A. Pumpkin patch.

“How do you fix…?” glue jokes. Trevor, the Games Man.
Header photo: Restful space, Montreal Botanical Gardens, 2010
2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Gone bananas.

Recently, I’ve had to resort to writing our names on some foods in the pantry and fridge the way I did when Carolynn and Leslie were young.

Bananas, for instance.

Last week I bought seven green bananas at the grocery — we like them green-tinged rather than brown. The next morning I saw that five ofScreen shot 2014-09-24 at 10.57.31 AM them were gone. Oh, I knew what had happened: Peter had eaten them one-by-one, but each time he pulled off another one, he forgot he’d already eaten one, or two, or three, or four.

He caught me printing my name on the remaining two. “What did I do?” he asked, wary.

“You ate five bananas since I went to the store yesterday. They are good for you, but I like them too, y’know,” I said. As  expected he denied eating them.

“I couldn’t eat five bananas!” he argued.

“OK, maybe you put them on your desk,” I said, “or hid them.”

“If I did, I forget,” he said.

And we laughed.


2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Therapy goes both ways.

Several years ago, in attempt to keep Peter out and doing things with people other than me, I came up with a plan for him to take Nobby to visit local nursing homes. Therapy for patients and dog owner alike.  Win-win.

Bill, Peter’s companion, takes them and though Peter grumbles before he goes, he always comes home smiling. He loves showing off his dog. The residents he visits ask the same questions every time, so it doesn’t matter that he gives the same answers and tells the same stories week after week. He always comes back saying he’s picked his room, or that he likes one facility better than another one.

After one visit, a nurse followed them down the hall, gave Nobby an extra pat and wrapped her arm around Peter’s shoulders. “I just love y’all,” she gushed.

Peter, never one for hugs, looked sideways at Bill and whispered, “Is she talking to you or me?”

Later, Bill was still laughing when he told me the story.

 Talking points.

Martin & Anna

A couple years ago, friends in England suggested we Skype with them every few weeks. I give Peter a list of things he can talk about in case he gets stuck, which he often does, but Martin and Anna do most of the talking anyway. After the four of us chat for a few minutes, Anna and I leave the two old pals to reminisce, and I use the time, usually about forty-five minutes, to read or work outside or just sit — my therapy!

After one Skype session, Peter was extremely downcast, and that time he wanted a hug! “I can’t even talk anymore,” he said.  He shook his head and sighed. “What would I do without you?”

I struggled to think of something to make him laugh, or at least smile. “Well, you’ve never been a talker, and remember, ‘someone has to listen,’” I said, reminding him of my dad’s family-famous saying. I fixed him a cup of tea, an Englishman’s cure-all, then asked, “Well, ‘without me,’ if I weren’t around any more, which home would you choose to live in?”

He wondered what I meant.

“Which nursing home,” I said. “You often tell me you like one better than another.”

“Oh, this one!” he said.  “I’d stay right here.” He chuckled.


Nobby and his favorite squeaky toy.

Header photo: Nobby ready for therapy dog duty.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist. 

Keep calm and (try) to carry on.

My husband was diagnosed with dementia five years ago. He still knows the family, he remembers friends’ faces but not their names necessarily, he no longer knows what the garbage disposal is for, and although fiercely independent when we met forty years ago, he couldn’t live on his own now. As long as I can carry on caregiving, he won’t end up in a nursing home, in spite of his occasional jokes that he’s picked one he likes.

I’ve done a lot of research on-line to find helpful tips.  Here are some:

1. Be complimentary. Especially in the early stages individuals may realize something is wrong. Compliments make them feel better. Peter can be helpful around the house, and one thing he’ll do willingly is run the vacuum cleaner for me. It’s hard for me to do the stairs, but he does that well. Just a few days ago I told him what a good job he’d done.

“What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing! You did a very good job,” I said.
“Oh, I thought you were going to make me do it over.”
“No-o, you did an excellent job. I’ve been letting my jobs slide,” I said.

2. Focus on abilities the person still has, rather than the ones he’s lost. This one has been so difficult for me. He used to do so many little tasks, fix big things, work on the cars, sort out my computer, unravel problems, logically think things through. I was lost without that support. Slowly I’ve built my own ways to cope, and have found people to help out.

3. Help the memory-challenged person communicate. He may have trouble finding the right words. Fill in the blanks. For the longest time, if Peter was stuck trying to say something I tried to will him to think of the word. I figured it would help him.  But filling in the blanks is the way to go. If he’s lost the word, it’s gone, erased from his lexicon. But he, like most people with these kinds of memory issues, comes up with other words that work.  I recently found a scrap of paper with his writing on it: Face shaver, it said. I figured he needed a new razor so I bought one my next trip out.  If he wondered how I knew, he didn’t ask.

4. Establish a daily routine but be flexible, allow plenty of time to get ready, have something to do if you have extra time, never argue, enter their reality. This has been darn near impossible for me. Peter has always been late getting ready for anything, and I’m always ready way ahead of time.  His reality has always been, I’ll get ready when I’m bloody well ready to get ready. Over the years, I’ve yelled, stomped, raged, even left without him. But now that he truly can’t manage — he often forgets why he went upstairs and ends up working on his model ship instead of getting showered and dressed — I’m trying extra hard to be patient. I grit my teeth ’til they hurt and seethe until my ears are inflamed.

5. Nip agitated behavior in the bud. Divert and redirect. His agitated behavior used to cause me to storm like a child, but now I make him a cup of tea — divert and redirect. Works nearly every the time. The English and their cuppas!

6. Use “therapeutic fiblets” as needed. I am not a fibber, and lying to my husband really upsets me. I always expect a big ugly wart to appear on the end of my nose. Still, sometimes, the only way around a problem is to pad it with fiblets.

7. Ask the person to smile. Smiles are contagious. Give a smile, get one. Simple.

8. Ditto laughs. Remember, “Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.”

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Header photo: Peter, on the beach, Tybee Island, Georgia.

2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest finalist.