‘Who in the world am I?’ Alice asks.

“You’re not working a puzzle,” I said to Peter one day at lunch. “Have you finished already?” (He always does a Sudoku, Wordy Gurdy, or crossword; I always have my nose in a book.)

“A puzzle?” he asked. “Do you mean you?”

I laughed. “That’s good,” I said. “Haven’t heard that one before.”

Peter laughed too. “Neither have I.”

That little glimmer of the old Peter was a peak in an otherwise down day. Our laughs lately are a bit further between, but we milk the ones that come along.

This 500-piece “Alice in Wonderland” jigsaw puzzle was a family Christmas gift several years ago. Over the past weeks, Peter put it together again, with more than a little help from Samantha, Leslie and Martin. I’ve often thought Peter’s dementia…Alzheimer’s…must make his head feel jumbled like Alice’s: “I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

Indeed.

 

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Nobby didn’t do it!

Peter went with me to get my springtime supply of potting soil. I had to ask a Lowe’s employee to help us get it off the stack and onto a flat cart. Together, we managed to heft it into the car ourselves, but at home Peter insisted he wrestle the monster bag to the backyard himself.

Then, Friday, with only a few more plants to pot, I set myself up under the maple tree with trowel, pots, scoop and…where the heck was the potting soil? I looked in the gardening cupboard, the shed, the basement. Arrgh-h, was it that bag that made the garbage bin so heavy that morning? It had been very difficult to roll to the street and Peter was concerned the weight would be too much for the lifting mechanism on the truck.

“Do you know where the potting soil is?” I asked Peter, knowing he wouldn’t know what I was talking about.

“Potting soil? What’s that?”

“Big green bag, heavy, you lugged it around back for me couple weeks ago. Come help me, I’m probably looking right at it and can’t see it.”

We went to the shed and looked under and behind things. Nope. Storage cupboard? Nope. Basement? Nope. “If it was as heavy as you say I don’t think I could’ve carried it down here,” he said.

I groaned, sure it had been put into the blue bin that had already been collected. Peter often sneaks things into the garbage. We really couldn’t blame that, even jokingly, on Nobby.

I plonked down on the terrace steps, frustrated. In order to finish, I’d have to go get another bag of the stuff. But oh, wait, something bright green beside the steps caught my eye. OH!

“Peter, I found it,” I yelled. I pointed to the bag leaning against the wall. I’d practically stepped on it when I began my search.

He laughed. He hooted. His face turned red.

“I’m sorry! It’s my fault, not yours!” I said, laughing almost as much as he was.

Leslie arrived just then. What’s going on, she wanted to know.  Peter, still laughing, pointed to the very big, very green bag. “Mum tried to blame me…said I threw that away…I can’t even lift it….”

She laughed too, as only she can. Later, she suggested the episode was a post waiting to be written. I, like Peter, always do what Leslie says.

At least Nobby didn’t get the blame.

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Header: Peter weeds the herb garden.

Sort and organize, part two.

Several days ago I posted a list of ideas that could help dementia patients feel as if they had some control in their lives. In the post, I used Peter’s adaptations as examples.

Today, I have a new item to add. This one aimed at those for whom reorganizing the silverware drawer or separating buttons by color aren’t challenging enough.

  • Wrangle grocery carts into types—large, small, ‘kiddy cars’—in the cart corral at the grocery store!

After our shopping trip the other day, Peter unloaded our groceries into the back of the car, then walked off to return the cart. I started the engine, adjusted the mirrors, lowered the radio’s volume, checked my hair, and waited and waited and waited. Where was he?  The cart corral was only three spaces away.

I reversed slowly out of my slot and, whoa, there he was, sorting carts and fitting them together as if they were the high school band waiting to parade.

I tapped the horn. He looked up and waved to let me know he knew I was waiting. Really, the only thing I could do was laugh.

This is Peter’s idea of Organization. Photo, Eroha trollies, 26/6/11

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Header photo: Kroger’s on a Sunday morning

 

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.

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‘This high’ with no caffeine.

This morning, Peter and I had our annual back-to-back wellness check-ups, fasting check-ups, no caffeine, nothing to eat. Our stomachs growled menacingly.

For the first time in his life my husband has a “spare tire.” He weighed in at 145.5 pounds, up from a low of 128 a few years ago. (I’d have my other knee replaced if I were guaranteed another miraculous thirty-pound loss like the one, post surgery, in 2013.)

When the nurse asked my height, I answered 5′8″, but I think I’ve shrunk to less than that. When she asked Peter, he put his hand on top of his head and said, “This high.” She laughed and so did I. Then she listed three words for him to remember — “apple, penny, watch” — but he forgot all of them. I only remembered two!

When Doctor T bustled in, he asked Peter, first thing, if he was still walking his dog. “Oh yes, he walks me, twice a day,” he said, as he always does. I explained that they still visit nursing homes once a week. “Good, that’s good,” the doctor said. “Those old fellows must love you.”

“The old ladies love Peter and Nobby,” I said. “They both get their share of hugs and pats.”

“See, if you’d known that years ago, Mr. Clarke, you’d have had women swooning at your feet.” Peter has always had women swooning at his feet.

After our labs were finished, Peter asked where we were going next. “Home,” I said, although I was already plotting where to go for coffee and pastries. He started nudging me to the left like a Border Collie herding sheep. “What are you doing?” I asked, pushing towards my car on the right.

He laughed. “Silly me! I looked at that one and thought it was yours.” He pointed to the sleek black car next to my boxy blue one. Its license plate read C-L-A-R-K, while my plate describes my stern personality.

Later, Peter sipped his coffee and stared at the scrawl on the door across the alley. “I’m trying to figure out what that says.”

“Good luck.”

“Good luck?”

“No, I mean ‘good luck’ figuring out what it says!”

If the doctor had written a prescription for laughs prn, it would’ve already been filled by eleven this morning.

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Salt and pepper to taste.

“What do I eat here?” Peter asked over and over. I told him his usual Cuban pork wasn’t on the menu any longer, but he could have fish and chips. He was happy.

When our meals were served, Peter doused his three separate times with enough salt and pepper to fill all the shakers in our house. He has always used way too much of each, but lately, his habit seems even more excessive. Dementia, I’ve learned, can destroy the sense of taste, hence so much salt and pepper. In addition to over-salting, Peter has developed a sweet tooth that could make him a poster boy for the American Dentists’ Association dire warnings about sugar.

After watching salt avalanche off his mountain of fish, I pointed to the malt vinegar. “What is that?” Peter asked. I told him. “What’s it for?” he wanted to know. I raised my left eyebrow. “This is what you’ve always used, not all that salt and pepper,” I said. Malt vinegar on fish and chips is what one does, he told me early on when he introduced me to the English staple!

A sudden seismic change in my husband’s behavior has made the past few weeks troubling. I called it his “new normal” in a recent post. Not recognizing malt vinegar, nor knowing what it was for, was further sign of the change I’d noticed.

When the waiter asked if we were ready for the bill, I surprised both him and Peter. “No. I’d like coconut cake, please, and coffee. Two coffees.”

“Well, I’m having dessert then,” Peter said. The dessert menu was all photographs so it didn’t take him long to zero in on a chocolate cream puff.

Our coffees came first, each with tiny cups of half-and-half. “What are these?” Peter asked.

“Coffee creamer…you stopped using it years ago.”

He pulled a lid off. “Can I drink it?”

“No-o, you’re not five-years-old.”

He grinned and pretended he was going to drink it, then started to pour it into his beer. “Aren’t you going to finish your beer?” I squealed. I could not believe he’d leave a couple swallows of beer, much less pour cream into it. In the end, he put it in his coffee rather than waste it.

When his cream puff came we laughed. It was cantaloupe sized. Even he couldn’t eat it all. I ate every last bite of my coconut cake.

This hint for my husband to fill the S&P shakers didn’t work.

Header photo: Shakers waiting for me to fill them.

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Better to laugh

They came into the house chortling like twelve-year-old schoolboys. Peter’s laugh lines were working overtime and Bill, his longtime companion, could barely talk he was chuckling so.

“Good grief, what’s going on?” I asked.

Peter tried to answer, but gave up. He said Bill would have to tell me. “Show her your elbow,” Bill said, pulling at Peter’s sweatered left sleeve.

“No, tell her first,” Peter said, “then I’ll show her.” I couldn’t imagine what was coming.

They’d gone to one of Peter’s favorite restaurants for lunch. At the time, our area was under warning for damaging wind and hail. Schools had closed. Just as Peter opened the door, the wind grabbed it and smashed it into him. His elbow, when I finally got a look at it, had born the brunt — skin peeled back like paint on an old house and blood, lots of blood. The restaurant’s management was upset, of course, and offered to cover any medical expenses and pay for a new shirt. The bright blue butterfly bandage Bill applied to stop the bleeding was the only treatment necessary. Mother Nature should get the bill for a new shirt!

When Bill said he figured I wouldn’t let him take Peter out anymore, we all started laughing. The previous Wednesday, when he took Peter and Nobby for their weekly nursing home visit, through no fault of Bill’s, a resident threw a cup of tomato juice on Peter, thus ending the life of another shirt. And the week before that, another episode occurred that…well, um…will be the subject of another post, another time.

Of course the story of the murderous door wasn’t funny — it could have been way worse — but we laughed and laughed.

After Bill left, I cleaned the fairly large wound, about 3″ x 3″, applied a large dollop of antibiotic cream and a fresh bandage. Peter asked what had happened to his elbow.

For all the laughter and hubbub minutes before, I was gobsmacked that he didn’t remember. “A door tried to take you out,” I said. Later on, I asked if his elbow hurt. “No, why do you ask?” he said.

Laughter is often the only answer.
unknownHeader quote: Erma Bombeck

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A down day turned up.

Early morning and already there were signs that it was going to be a down day. The salt and pepper shakers were in the butter compartment of the fridge, mustard, in the silverware drawer, and we were nearly out of bread. Nothing gets my day off to a worse start than having to do without toast. Lately, Peter has been eating almost a loaf a day — two pieces of toast, three sandwiches for lunch, and at least three slices with jam at various times during the evening.

Down.

But I eked out two slices from the end of the loaf.

Up.

When Peter came downstairs, he turned the television on first thing, as usual, but the growling that followed was not on “Today.” I ignored him for a few minutes hoping he’d figure out that if he stopped pushing all the buttons the remote would “catch up” to his impatient demands.

Down.

But I gave in. He looked up with a silly smile and continued jabbing buttons. “Um, were you actually going to call somebody? That’s the phone!”

He shook his head and laughed and so did I. Might as well.

Up.

Later I asked if he wanted to go shopping. He was waiting by the door before I changed into my best jeans. My husband is always ready to “go to the shops.” No sooner did I back out the drive than he started asking, “Any news from upstate?” Even though I’d said no, he continued, “Do they have snow?” The same questions six times in seven  miles. I counted.

Down.

I parked midway between TJMaxx and Barnes & Noble. A way to get in my morning walk and finish Christmas shopping in one. I found what I wanted quickly and checked out. We headed in the general direction of the car to stow my purchases. Ah, but where had I parked? Peter really enjoyed that laugh — up — as we sloshed and searched — down.

Version 2At the bookstore, I found what I wanted so fast that Peter was disappointed. He loves to wander at Barnes & Noble. “How about a coffee?” I asked to make up for my quick trip. I ordered a java chip frappacino — up — and asked if he wanted his usual cappuccino? “Yes, whatever that is,” he said. For the twenty minutes we sat over coffee he asked, four more times, “Any news from upstate?”

Down.

When we got home, Peter looked at the clock and yelped, “It’s gone one! Have I had lunch?”

Down.

“No, just coffee, nothing to eat. Make a sandwich.” He liked that idea. I went to the basement to wrap Christmas presents. When I came up, he had his Santa hat on and was working on a 500-piece puzzle. He’d marked out its one-by-three foot dimensions carefully, correctly.

Up.

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2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

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Puzzling.

A lot of puzzling memory and behavior problems cluster under the dementia umbrella. So far, science knows too little about most of the variations and nothing that can cure any of them.

img_4436On a day-to-day living-with-it level, my husband’s memory issues are baffling to both of us. He’s always liked to do crosswords, and still brags about the time 50 years ago when he won the London Times Sunday crossword challenge. He does the daily crosswords still, but I’m not sure how well. He enjoys jigsaws too, and recently resurrected a 3D castle puzzle.

So I got out several Christmas puzzles we’ve worked many times over the years. Among them, a tiny one depicting a mouse dressed as Santa. I sorted the edge pieces from the rest. and laid out the one small section that was still stuck together. The whole thing is quite small. He got into it quickly. Ten minutes later I went back to see how he was doing. There were a lot more white background pieces than before.

img_4440“Where did these come from?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders and muttered something about “needing more.” I picked up a piece that had green pine needles as part of the design. “Oh, these don’t go with this puzzle,” I said, “they go with this one.” I showed him the larger puzzle I’d set aside. It pictures wild birds on a feeder that hangs from a pine bough. It was partially put together in the box.

img_4437Peter doubled over laughing at himself. “Well, when I couldn’t find the pieces I needed, I thought they might be in that box,” he explained. He realized how silly that sounded.

“We’ll do that one separately,” I said. “Finish this little one first.”

“There aren’t enough pieces,” he said, grabbing for the bigger box again. He’d instantly forgotten we’d had that conversation, that he’d laughed at himself.

As often happens, I tried to make sense of how he can work on an intricate 3-D 620-piece jigsaw one minute and the next try to fit a 500-piece 12″ x 36″ puzzle into a 100-piece 7.5″ square frame.

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2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.

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Remember? November.

Lately, my husband’s downhill run has gotten steeper, faster. When we used to bicycle together, we both preferred climbing hills to zooming down them. The  inherent thrill of a downhill scared both of us. That’s still true, though neither of us bikes anymore, and we don’t really talk about his descent. I can’t imagine how difficult it is for him although he still uses his “braking” mechanism: corny jokes and silly laughs.

We eked out a chuckle the other day. The doorbell rang. As usual Peter wouldn’t answer it though he made sure I’d heard it. A young man stood on the step holding a gorgeous bouquet. A bright beautiful cheery surprise after a trying few weeks.

img_4348Peter was working on the daily sudoku. I walked in holding the flowers. When he looked up his eyes popped, his mouth fell open, and the ruddy color drained from his cheeks. He glanced quickly at the date at the top of the newspaper page. “November,” he said. “That’s not you…is it?”

“Not me what? My birthday? No.”

“Are they for me?”

“No-o,” I laughed, “for me, from Carolynn and Robin. November is ‘Caregivers’ Month,'” I said. He didn’t question that. He doesn’t recognize that I’m his caregiver, and insists he doesn’t need one.

I put the flowers on the kitchen table. At dinner that evening he studied them. “Have those been there all along? You know, for months and months?”

“No, they came this morning.”

“Did I know that.”

I nodded.

Minutes later he asked again, then again, and again.

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2016 National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ contest, second place, blog category.