The Struggle for Independence

Kate has never liked being dependent on others, not even before Alzheimer’s. Of course, none of us is ever completely independent. All of us depend on others in one way or another. We generally pick and choose those things we will do for ourselves and those we would prefer for others to take car of for us.

The first big blow to her independence came when she stopped driving. That was four years ago this past December after an accident in which she totaled her car. You might think that she would be used to being without a car by now. Not so. She still occasionally says, “How would you feel if you had to depend on me to take you everywhere?” That happened just today.

I am reminded that her initial desire to keep her diagnosis private was largely motivated by her not wanting to be treated as a patient. She wanted to be treated like anyone else. In a way, that was an expression of her desire not to be dependent on others.

There are areas where she has worked hard to assert her independence. Among those, the one that is most noteworthy involves her clothes. Within two or three years of her diagnosis she was not selecting clothes that she would have worn before her Alzheimer’s. At that point, I was new to dealing with such things and would let her know that what she was wearing was either soiled or inappropriate for a particular occasion. She often resisted my suggestions. I have learned to be more accepting, but I still intervene depending on just how soiled or inappropriate her attire. Over time we have both done some accommodating, but she has done more. That means she has become more dependent on me.

This dependence has evolved and has often been her own choice and not mine. There are now times she specifically asks me to get her something to wear. This seems to occur when she has looked for something but hasn’t found anything she thought was right. It is almost as if she has been overwhelmed by the choices. There are a lot of clothes in her closet. Although I have gotten rid of many things that no longer fit, I have also added many new clothes. Whatever the cause, it is clear that she sometimes wants my help.

The same thing is true about dressing. I would never have thought about helping her dress until she has struggled with getting them on. I generally ask if she needs help. Often she says she doesn’t. Other times she says she does.
One other area in which she asserts her independence involves my taking her hand when we go up or down stairs or curbs. Sometimes she wants my hand. Many times she does not, and she often refuses sternly. I always do what she wants, but I try to watch her closely in these situations to see if she needs help.

I see other signs that she may be working hard to maintain a sense of independence. For example, she is more careful now than three or four years ago when it comes to maintaining a measure of order with her clothes. She no longer lets her clothes accumulate on the furniture and floor of the bedrooms. In addition, she is trying to make up our bed each morning. It’s not done quite the way she would have done it before her Alzheimer’s, but it is immeasurably better than in the past few years.

As time has passed, she has become increasingly unsure of what she should do and depends on me to guide her. This almost never involves what she should wear. It does involve things like “Should I get ready for bed?” “Should I go to bed now?” or “Should I take my cup into the restaurant?” It also includes some things for which I would never think she needs my guidance or permission. These include things like “May I use my iPad?” and “May I take my shoes off?” All of these questions are usually asked via hand signals rather than spoken words. The latter two questions occurred just a few minutes ago.

Forty-five Minutes Later

I took a break to take a shower. Before I did, Kate said she was going to bed. Then she said, “What should I wear?” I said, “Would you like me to get you something?” She said yes. In this particular case, I know she is tired and believes it is simply easier for me to get something for her than to do it herself. In other words, this is a time when she would rather be dependent. She is working hard to retain independence related to things which she believes she can do and wants to do. This is not really any different than what each one of us does. We pick and choose, but we don’t want to feel dependent.

That raises a related question. How we feel about these changes? I must confess that I really don’t know how she feels. Since she doesn’t like to discuss her Alzheimer’s and its consequences, I can only infer from what I observe. That said, I believe the change to greater dependency is more difficult for her than for me. I say that for two reasons. First, she reacts so strongly when I attempt to help her with something that she feels she can and wants to do for herself. Second, I imagine that if I were the one giving up my independence in the same way, I would hate it.

As for me, her becoming more dependent actually makes it easier for me to take care of her. There is less hassle when I am in control. On the other hand, I don’t like seeing her becoming more dependent. It makes me sad each time I recognize that she has crossed another marker on her journey. I would much rather deal with the stresses of caregiving than experience the sadness that accompanies Alzheimer’s. Losing one’s spouse is really losing a part of oneself. Next month we will celebrate our 55th wedding anniversary. We were so innocent as we faced the future together. Like other couples we were wildly enthusiastic about the future; however, we couldn’t begin to imagine the abundance of joy and good fortune that lay ahead. I am satisfied that we have invested wisely in the time we have had together and confident that, together, we will weather the storm that awaits us.