I have come to appreciate the experiences of other caregivers who report the unpredictability of people with dementia. After seven or eight years of a rather steady daily routine, I don’t claim to be able to predict what Kate will be like from one moment to the next. There is one pattern, however, that seems to have emerged. Mornings are the most challenging times. The biggest problem is Kate’s waking and being confused or frightened. Thankfully, this doesn’t occur often, but it is strikingly different and more unpleasant than the way she has been in the past.
My way of making sense out of these experiences is to think how I would feel if I woke up and didn’t know where I was, who I was, or what I should do. Fright seems a natural reaction. It also makes sense to me that after being asleep all night, Kate hasn’t had any external stimulation that would give her a sense of comfort. Once she gets up and is exposed to the house, to me, and our routine, she feels more at ease. This usually occurs before we leave for lunch.
Some days I have to work harder, but very gently, to get her up and oriented. For example, yesterday morning I awoke about 5:00 and quickly decided to sleep another hour before getting up. At 5:45, Kate said, “Who is here?” I said, “I am.” She said, “Who are you?” I said, “Richard.” She didn’t say anything. I asked what I could do for her. She said, “I’m scared.” I asked if she could tell me what had scared her. She said, “I don’t know.” If it were not for our previous experiences and what I have learned about dementia, I might have probed to see if I could identify the problem. As it was, I know that when she says, “I don’t know,” I’m not likely to learn anything by asking questions.
I told her I wanted to help her. She asked my name again. Knowing that this might be a day when she sleeps later than usual, I asked if she wanted to go to the bathroom. She said she did and asked where it was. I told her I would show her. She was unsteady and confused.
When I got her back to bed, I asked if she wanted me to stay with her. She did. I got my laptop and took a chair beside the bed. I also played some relaxing music while she went back to sleep. Then I went back to the kitchen. It was over an hour before I went to the bedroom. I told her I wanted to invite her to lunch and asked if she would like to go with me. She did and got up and dressed rather easily. I think the key was not pushing her. It might not have been as easy for me if she hadn’t gotten up so early in the first place. We had plenty of time. We were the first people to arrive at the restaurant. That was a first.
She is generally all right in the afternoon, but in the past few months, she has experienced more delusions and/or hallucinations. This typically happens after she has been resting a while. I think that while resting she is drifting in and out of sleep and appears to have had a dream. She often talks to someone who is “not there” or to say something to me that suggests I have experienced whatever she has just experienced. The good thing is that she isn’t disturbed at all. Sometimes she is especially happy. That often happens when she believes she has an hallucination involving someone she apparently hasn’t seen in a long time. I say that because of the look on her face and the sound of the voice.
We had an experience yesterday afternoon that is a good example. She had been resting for more than two hours, and I walked into the kitchen for a few minutes. When I walked back into the family room, she got a big smile on her face and pointed to me. I said, “Well, I guess you recognize me?” She said, “Who are you?” I said, “Me.” She asked my name, and I told her and asked if it rang a bell. She wasn’t sure. I said, “I bet I know your name?” She said, “What?” When I told her, she said, “How did you know?”
I walked over to her and told her I knew a lot about her and her family. I don’t recall exactly what she said after that, but she conveyed that she didn’t know the words or how to say what she wanted to express but wanted to learn. She hoped I would be able to stay around so that she could learn from me. I told her I would be happy to teach her. I also said that she had a number of photo books with lots of information about her father’s and mother’s families as well as one her brother had given to her.
By then, it was time for dinner. I told her we could look at some of the books after we got home. As it turned out, she was tired and wanted to get ready for bed. She had forgotten about the books, but we will soon look at them as we do so often.
My explanation for this experience is similar to what I said about her morning fright. She isn’t frightened, but she has gone through a period of time (as long as two hours) when we have had minimal interaction. It’s not quite like the lengthy overnight absence of external stimulation, but it results in a sense of confusion. It’s as though the circuits of the brain have been asleep and need time to wake up.
Our evenings between returning home from dinner and going to sleep are clearly the most predictably happy and relaxed times of the day for both of us. By the time I get in bed, she has been there at least an hour. Except on the few occasions when she is sound asleep, she is always glad to see me. We often comment on having a nice day and express our love for each other. Then we peacefully drift off to sleep.
I believe the predictability relates to the fact that we have no commitments after dinner. It is simply a time to relax. I do try to keep to a routine bedtime for both of us, but that seems to occur without having to work. For at least an hour, I play YouTube music videos on the TV. Then I put on even more relaxing music on our audio system. It’s a peaceful time of the day.
Looking to the future, I suspect there will be a time when we start having lunch at home and, perhaps, separately. Doing so would prevent rushing her. Right now, I believe it is more important for us to maintain our active lives outside the home. In the meantime, I will continue to make the mornings as free of stress for Kate as I can. That means waking her gently and offering her comfort when she needs it.