We’re Always Learning and Adapting.

LIVING WITH DEMENTIA: Please quit trying to make me remember something that I don’t. You see no matter how you keep trying to twist it to make me remember, I only get more & more frustrated & still don’t remember it.  (Written by a person with dementia)

After breakfast and my walk this morning, I went to my computer. I found the message above when I checked in on Twitter. It was timely for me. With the progression of Kate’s Alzheimer’s, I have to be much more careful how I respond to her. Things that have worked in the past don’t anymore. Being a caregiver requires greater attention to more things than most of us imagine at the point of diagnosis. That brings me to what is really on my mind today – Kate and her iPad.

As I have conveyed for years, working jigsaw puzzles on the iPad has been her primary self-initiated activity since she stopped her yard work and use of her computer. I have also pointed to the increased difficulty she has with her puzzles. With my help, she has been able to continue, but we have reached the point at which she can’t follow my guidance. For a while, the primary problem was getting into the store. Once that happened, she couldn’t do anything. It was easy for me to fix but impossible for her.

More recently, the problem has been her ability to locate the pieces she needs and to figure out where to put them. For as long as I can remember, she hasn’t wanted to ask for my help. I would simply notice that she was sitting with her iPad but not doing anything. Then I would help her. My first step was to drop the number of puzzle pieces from sixteen to nine although I go back and forth. My next step was to tell her about the edge pieces. In a nine-piece puzzle there are eight of these including the corners. That leaves only one piece that goes in the center. I discovered that it was hard for her to see the flat sides that identify an edge piece. Sometimes she seemed to get it, but most of the time she seems to have completed puzzles by trial-and-error.

The past couple of days her own approach has failed her. She wanted my help yesterday, and I tried again. This is tough for me because I do know that her lack of rational thought makes it impossible for her to understand, but she wasn’t ready to give up. She still wanted me to help her. I began by trying to get her to identify the four corner pieces. She was unable to recognize them. I put them in place. Then I spread the four edge pieces so that each one was beside the empty spot where it should go. I even put my finger on the piece and then on the space immediately adjacent to it. That was also too much for her. I put them in their places.

Now there was only one empty space directly in the center of the puzzle and one piece left. First, I put my finger on the space where it should go and said, “Can you see that this is an empty space?” She couldn’t. I asked if she could see that it was green. She could. Then I showed her that the whole screen background was green and that it was covered up when she put each piece in place. She was unable to comprehend what I was telling her. Then I asked her to give me her hand. I used her index finger to touch the space. I told her she wouldn’t see the green if she put the piece in that spot. I showed her the piece and asked her to put it in the space. She couldn’t do it.

All the while, I was thinking, “You’ve been doing some variation of this same lesson off and on for weeks. Isn’t it obvious that it’s not working?” That’s why the tweet at the top of this post caught my attention. In addition, I remember and old aphorism. “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”

I decided to do what I should have done earlier. I redirected her attention, something that is often recommended for caregivers. I reminded her that we had talked earlier about looking at one of her photo books and suggested we do that. She was ready. We looked one of the books for about fifteen minutes before she said she really wanted to look more but was tired. We stopped, and she lay down on the sofa for about thirty minutes before going to dinner. When we got home, she asked what she could do. I said, “How about working on your coloring book?” She liked the idea but had a hard time knowing what to do. She gave up after fifteen minutes and wanted to get ready for bed

So what am I going to do next time? The truth is I’m not sure although I know what approach I will take. Like everything else, losing an ability to do something occurs over a period of time. It comes and goes but gradually fades away. I believe there is still more time for her to enjoy the iPad. I want her to keep trying, but I am not going to be as persistent in trying to teach her what to do. I will look more and more to other options that will be easier for her. I’ll continue to try the coloring book. She has had some minor success with it. Maybe she will catch on to it. I told her there are no rules. She can color any way she wants.

As I have noted before, we are always learning and adapting. There will be more of that in our future.

Cards, Anyone?

At 4:00 this morning, I got out of bed for a bathroom break. As sometimes happens, I didn’t go back to sleep immediately. Shortly after 5:00, we had the following conversation.

Kate: “Hey. <pause> Hey, where are the tards?”
Richard: “The what?”
Kate: “The tards.”
Richard: I took a guess. “The cards?”
Kate: “Yes.”
Richard: “They’re in the living room.”
Kate: “Well, get them.”

I went to the living room, located them in a drawer of the secretary and brought them back to bed. I handed them to her. In the dimness of the nightlight from the bathroom, she amazed me by easily opening the box and removing the deck of cards. Then she took the top card, placed it on the bed between us and said, “Your turn.” I said, “I don’t have any cards.” She took about half the deck of cards and handed them to me. I placed a card on top of hers. Then she said, “Something’s wrong.” She didn’t say or do anything else. She had closed her eyes. I said, “Well, I think it’s time to go back to sleep.” She was already gone. Our conversation and our card game were over.

Art Appreciation and Kate

Many times I have given examples of Kate’s interest in “things of beauty.” Most often, this has involved all the “green” (principally trees, but also shrubs) she sees wherever we are, at home or on the road. It also includes the paper doilies she occasionally brings home from one of the restaurants we frequent. She keeps them in several places in the house. About half a dozen are on her bedside table where she enjoys them when she wakes up in the morning.

I have been able to appreciate what she sees in each of these things, but once in a while she surprises me. She did that just before the sitter came yesterday. I was seated across the room from her when I heard her say, “This is beautiful.” I thought she might be talking about the orchid plant on the table next to her. When I looked, I discovered that she was entranced by the remote control for the TV.

For years, I have had a periodic discussion about art with my two email friends from college, Tom Robinson and Bruce Morton. Tom is a retired philosophy professor, and Bruce started on his PhD in philosophy before developing other interests, one of which is photography. Our discussions revolve around the same question. “What is art?” I have always held the position that art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I know mine is a pretty loose definition, but it seems to work for me given the variety of creations that are officially called art and displayed in the world’s finest museums.

The beauty Kate saw in the cable TV remote was something of a stretch even for me, but I hold to my position. In fact, I think it’s an excellent example. Most, if not all art, seems to possess qualities that involve color, shape, texture, and subject matter. When I took a more careful look at the remote, I began to consider these qualities. I could see how she looked at it as a thing of beauty. It has forty-four individual buttons of different shapes, sizes, and colors and organized around different functions. The mount on which these buttons are located is a reasonably attractive shape and presents a contrasting color for the buttons themselves.

Yes, I think the remote is, or could be called, a work of art. I am sure that it’s designers would agree. They no doubt spent a long time working to make it both functional and attractive . It’s really an iconic symbol of our time. If someone like an Andy Warhol were to have painted a “portrait” of one in much the same way he painted the Campbell soup can, surely many would see if as art. I know I’ve seen stranger things at museums like MOMA in New York.

Of course, I am just playing fun and games with this topic, but there is a serious side to it. That involves the ability of people with dementia to see and appreciate things that most of us overlook. Kate’s life is filled with those. Wherever we go, she sees things that catch her attention. It is usually for something more understandable than a remote control, but also something that I was about to walk by without appreciating. Increasingly, I have come to believe that in the absence of her rational abilities, her ability to sense the world around her has increased to compensate for that loss. There may be a lesson in this for all of us without dementia. It’s a wonderful world, especially when we stop and consider the little things we take for granted. They may be of greater value than we thought.

Kate’s Aphasia

I am not sure why, but among all the things that I’ve thought about, aphasia has been low on my list. I was well aware that if Kate lives long enough she would not communicate, but I didn’t think that she would begin this process now.

She has had some minor difficulty with her speech for about a year. The problem is progressing more rapidly now. Everyday words like pizza, olives, and hamburger are beginning to drop out of her vocabulary. Sometimes I joke about being her butler. She no longer knows what a butler is. Yesterday, I pointed to a fence that is being installed around a nearby hospital. She said, “What’s a fence?” At lunch, she saw her napkin and said, “What’s this?” I told her it was her napkin. She said, “What do I do with it?”

Some things are understandable. The other night we had dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant. She wanted a dessert and asked what they had. I told her they had baklava. She had no idea what that was even after I brought a piece to her. That is not something that is an everyday part of her vocabulary, so I’m not surprised that word is lost.

Quite often she knows what she wants to say but says the wrong word. A couple of days ago, she said, “I don’t want to swim.” She meant “I don’t want to sing.” While working on her iPad last week, she said, “I got two boys. She meant two puzzle pieces. Another time, she was joking with me and said, “I’m going to put it on your bed.” She meant my head. Another time, she said, “I want to yell you something” instead of tell you something. If I could remember, the list would go on and on.

It goes beyond her vocabulary. She is also beginning to struggle putting words together to communicate what she wants to say. She often starts to tell me something but stops because she doesn’t know how to express it. She looks to me to know. Sometimes I do, but often, I don’t.

So, how do I feel about this change? As you would expect, I am disturbed. Alzheimer’s began to affect our conversation very early. That was related to her memory loss. Since she could not remember things, she was left with little to say. For a good while now, she has talked more, but the conversation always revolves around a set of familiar things. We recite these over and over. Despite the repetition, I enjoy being able to converse with her no matter what we talk about. I especially enjoy seeing the pleasure she gets out of it as well. The thought about her losing this ability is one I don’t want to face.

Having said that, I stop and think about how well we have gotten along so far. It really is possible to enjoy ourselves without her having a memory. It would have been quite different if she had also lost her sight, hearing, and feelings for people and the world around her. That has carried us a long way. To adapt a phrase from “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” I hope it will “carry us home.”

Kate’s Latest Insurance Evaluation Interview

Tuesday afternoon, we had an appointment with a nurse representing the insurance company that provides our long term-care insurance. They send a nurse out every six months to conduct an evaluation interview with us. It is part of their due diligence effort to prevent fraudulent claims. I understand why they do it, but these are often uncomfortable interviews for Kate. They ask many questions that she simply can’t answer. In addition, she thinks many of the questions related to activities of daily living are silly. They include things like “Can you turn the shower on and off?” “Can you dress yourself?” “Can you touch your toes?” And “Do you have any problem walking?” Although Kate recognizes her dependence on me, she still thinks of herself as “normal.” A lot of the questions call that into question. To say the least, they annoy her. It is also awkward for me since I want to give them accurate information and don’t like to say that Kate can’t do things that she tells the nurse she is able to do. Most of the time the nurse looked to me, and I was able to shake my head or silently mouth to confirm or deny what Kate told her.

Coincidentally, I read a section of A Most Meaningful Life: My Dad and Alzheimer’s by Trish Laub that very morning. She and her dad had a problem with these interviews as well. Her father suffered depression afterward. She contacted the insurance company and told them they would not accept such evaluations in the future. I had this in my mind when the nurse arrived at our house.

This was the second visit for this particular nurse. I had spoken with her in advance of her visit and explained that Kate is now at Stage 7. She wasn’t familiar with the stages and didn’t remember having seen Kate before or that she has Alzheimer’s. I found that disappointing. As a nurse doing evaluation of someone with Alzheimer’s, it seemed to me that would be a given. On the phone she agreed not to go through the routine dementia test questions (“What day is it?” Who is the President?” etc.), but it became clear that this would have been a better interview if I had been answering the questions without Kate’s presence. Late in the interview, I asked if she and I could talk privately. Fortunately, she wanted to see our bathroom to check it out for handicap accessibility. We left Kate in the family room, and I was able to respond more openly to her remaining questions. She closed the interview after that. I will make sure that I exercise more control over the next interview.

Although Kate was quite annoyed at many of the questions, she didn’t immediately give any signs that it had a negative impact on her. She started to work on her iPad. Then she said she was tired and got in her new recliner to rest. It wasn’t long before she asked if we couldn’t go out to get something to eat. It was only 3:30, but we hadn’t been to Barnes & Noble in several weeks. I took her there. She didn’t say anything more about eating, so I only got her something to drink. In a short time, she wanted something to eat. I got her a cookie. As soon as she finished it, she wanted to go home. She had been working on her iPad and was frustrated, but it also seemed like she was restless and needed a change. I don’t ever recall her being this way before. Coming off the interview, I couldn’t help but wonder if the experience might have affected her mood. There is really no way to know, so I am withholding judgment; however, the change did occur after the interview was over even if it wasn’t immediate.

We were home about forty-five minutes before going to dinner. She enjoyed the dinner but wasn’t as cheerful as usual. When we got home, she worked on her iPad for a while but got frustrated and quit. She decided to go to bed. While brushing her teeth, she said, “Maybe I’ll be all right in two or three days.” I said, “You’ve had a rough day.” She agreed.

I am still left wondering how much, if any, the interview influenced her. I know that she has trouble working her puzzles anyway, but she was especially discouraged. The good thing is that she still felt optimistic that, perhaps, she would get better. This is not unusual. Many times, when she is trying to remember things, she mentions improving in the future.

Once again, I take note of the fact that even at this stage of her disease, she knows something is wrong with her and is still bothered by it.

Another Morning of Confusion

At 7:25 this morning, I was taking my morning walk inside the house while listening to All the Light We Cannot See when I heard Kate call my name. When I reached her, I found that she was having a different kind of confusing experience than she had yesterday. It was, however, like several other experiences she has had in the past. She said, “What should I be doing?” Her past experiences were somewhat different in that she has had a sense that she was supposed to be someplace or had specific obligation she had to meet. This time she didn’t mention anything that would suggest that. It was more like waking up and simply not knowing what she should do.

I explained that it was still early, and she had no obligations until lunch. I told her she could go back to sleep if she wanted to. She looked relieved and indicated she would like that. I also mentioned that sometimes she liked to go to the bathroom, but she wasn’t interested. She repeated her question several times, and I gave her the same answer. Then I asked if she would like me to sit with her while she rested. She did, and that is where I am right now.

There was one way in which today’s confusion was similar to that of yesterday. Both days she was bothered more than most days when she is confused, but she was not as disturbed as she can be when she is having an anxiety or panic attack. I am glad neither experience was as severe as it can be; however, it does bother me when she seems at all disturbed. So far, I have been able to comfort her by what I say and the way I say it. Of course, just being present for her seems to make a difference as well. At least for the time being, I am optimistic that I will be able to put her at ease. I hope I don’t have to eat those words sometime in the future.

This Morning

I woke up at 4:30 this morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. At 5:10, I decided to get up. I like to get up at 6:00 or shortly thereafter, but I got up at 5:00 or 5:30 most of my working life, so it’s not such a bad thing.

After I was dressed for the day, I put a load of clothes (mostly towels) in the washer and was about to fix my breakfast when I realized I had forgotten to bring Kate’s iPad from the bedroom to charge it. When I walked into the bedroom, I saw that she was awake. I walked over to her and could tell she was having one of her moments of confusion. It fell short of what I would call an anxiety attack but more serious than her usual confusion.

I said, “Good morning. Could I help you?” She said, “I don’t know. Where am I?” I told her I had good news, that she was in her own home where we live. She said, “Huh.” I told her again. She said, “Who are you?” I said, “My name is Richard, and I can help you with anything you need.” She said, “What am I doing here?” I said, “This is your home. You live here.” She said, “What do I do now?” I said, “It’s early in the morning. I think you should go back to sleep.” Once again, she asked my name, where she was, and what she should do. After telling her I thought she should go back to sleep, I asked if she would like me to stay with her. She was relieved to hear me say that and said, “Oh, yes.”

I went back to the kitchen where I poured myself a glass of V8, and a cup of granola, picked up my laptop, and iPad and took a seat beside her side of the bed. I put on some soft music. She was asleep in less than fifteen minutes. I was just beginning to think about going back to the kitchen when Kate said something. I didn’t understand and got up and stepped closer to her.  She pointed to my shirt and said, “Do you want to take that with you?” I told her I did and sat back down. I have no idea what prompted her to ask me that, but she seemed very much at ease. I felt relieved. I stayed a little longer to make sure she was asleep again. Then I moved back to the kitchen. I finished the granola and V8. That will be my breakfast instead of the eggs I usually fix.

At 7:20, I heard Kate’s voice on the video cam. She said, “I wanna get out of here.” I rushed to her bedside. She was smiling. I told her I loved her and she said, “I love you too.” I asked if she was all right. She said she was. Then I mentioned the time and asked if she wanted to rest a little more. She said she did. I told her I would be in the kitchen if she needed me, and I left. It was a dramatic change from just over an hour before, but a change I like to see. Her saying “I wanna get out of here.” didn’t match the way she seemed when I got to her, but it isn’t unusual for her to say that. In fact, just yesterday, she expressed it rather emphatically. I’ll save that for a later post.

Kate’s New Chair

About a month ago, I mentioned Kate’s increasing difficulty getting up from a seated position. I don’t have any control over the seating when we go out, but I did think about what I could do at home. She spends far more time in our family room than any other room in the house except for the bedroom. That led me to think about getting a lift chair.

We went to the La-Z-Boy show room four weeks ago and ordered one. It arrived Saturday afternoon. She tried it out while the delivery men were still here and didn’t get out until time for dinner. That was almost three hours. I demonstrated how it would recline if she wanted to rest, but she preferred to work on her iPad in a seated position. When it came time to leave, I showed her how to raise herself up to a standing position. She was surprised but not overwhelmed by the way it worked. I was the one who was impressed. Much easier than my lifting her.

Yesterday we got a chance to see how it works in the reclined position. She was ready to rest as soon as we returned from lunch. Ordinarily, she would use the sofa. This time I suggested she try the recliner. I adjusted it so that she was practically lying flat. She was comfortable and remained there for three hours. I don’t know that she likes it any more than the sofa, but I believe she is going to enjoy being able to get out of it more easily. Of course, she probably won’t learn how to work the control that has only two buttons – up and down. That shouldn’t be a problem since either the sitter or I will be there to do the job.  I know it will become more useful as her ability to get up becomes more difficult.

It’s easy to look at this as a minor thing, but it represents our moving to a stage when her mobility restricts her more than it does today. I see it as another marker on our journey. In that respect, it is like my discontinuing my morning walk in the neighborhood for one inside the house, bringing in a sitter because I didn’t believe she should be left alone, or getting a handicap placard for the car. It’s another example of the changes we experience. Thankfully, we have adapted to changes in the past. I hope we will do the same as we approach the more challenging ones that lie ahead.

Caregivers Forget Too

Rick Phelps was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s in 2010 at the age of 57. He is a active advocate for dementia awareness and has written at least two books. He started a Facebook group called “Memory People” on which he wrote an interesting post a few days ago. In his message he expressed his frustration with people who can’t remember that he can’t remember. He says this happens even among his own family members.

He makes an interesting point. Caregivers often get frustrated when their loved ones don’t remember what we just told them. Just this morning I read another Facebook post from a caregiver that was pulling her hair out because her mother keeps asking to go somewhere. When she asks where she wants to go, her mother says, “I don’t know.” The caregiver herself didn’t seem recognize the problem is a direct result of her mother’s Alzheimer’s. I heard about another caregiver who wrote down a set of instructions for his wife who had dementia. That can be helpful for someone who can remember there is a written set of instructions and where it is located, but that’s asking a lot of someone with dementia. That is especially true as the disease progresses.

I like to think that I am more sensitive to this issue than many caregivers, but I, too, recognize that I sometimes (often?) say, “But I just told you.” I suspect that most caregivers know it doesn’t make sense to say things like that, but it can be hard to avoid.

It makes me think about my graduate school days in social psychology. During my doctoral program, I was influenced by an advisor who was a vocal exponent of behavioral conditioning. While I have drifted away from that somewhat, I do believe much of our behavior is a function of conditioning. Of course, it is far more complex than what happens in laboratory experiments with pigeons, but I believe we develop many behaviors that are so routine that they can be difficult for us to change. The best illustration I think of is the way we respond when the power goes out. We do silly things like turning on a light switch or the TV only to realize they need power too. We can all think about our own habits that are so hard to change.

So it is when caring for someone with dementia. It calls on us to rethink everything. To make it even more difficult, people with dementia generally appear to be quite normal in most ways until very late in the disease. That fact alone leads us to treat them normally as well.

But all of this is an effort to explain what some would call caregiver “mistakes.” Even though it is hard, caregiving calls on us to change as our loved ones change. One of those changes is how we communicate. Kate is more sensitive now. I have to be very careful what I say and my whole demeanor. The first thing I do when I walk into the bedroom to wake her is to get a sense of her mood. I try to respond in a way that is most helpful. I have found that what I say and the tone of my voice can greatly influence how she responds. She doesn’t want to be pushed. She is not ready for me to be too jovial though she often responds to a gentler expression of humor. She is a little slow to get up. That requires that I try to get in sync with her and not the other way around. When I get it right, it is easier for me to get her up, dressed, and ready for the day and, to top it off, in a good humor.

I feel I have learned a lot since Kate’s diagnosis, but different things are required at every stage of the disease. That means I am always adapting and admit that I have been far from perfect. Kate is good about letting me know when I fail to do the right things. I appreciate that. When I rush her, she frequently says, “Stop. You’re going too fast. Just give me one thing at a time.” I also benefit from her own sensitivity about what she says to me. For example, yesterday morning I started to help her put her slacks on. She stopped me and said, “I can do that myself.” I said, “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t have acted so quickly. I wanted to be helpful.” She said, apologetically, “I know you meant well.” Working together like this is a good reason we have been able to get along as well as we have.

I continue to believe Kate and I have been fortunate, and I am cautious about passing along advice to other caregivers except at a general level. What I have done is tailored very specifically to Kate’s personality, her symptoms, and the nature of our relationship. I believe other caregivers should examine their own situations and respond in ways that address their particular, and often, unique situations.

In some ways, I think this last stage that Kate is entering is most critical because she is so sensitive. I try to retain my focus on keeping her happy and safe. I find that when I do that, everything else seems to fall in place. So far, that seems to be working.