It’s very hard for someone who doesn’t live with a person with dementia to grasp how far one has traveled on this journey. I know that was true for me. I am sure my dad noticed signs of my mom’s dementia years before I was aware.
I believe the typical image of a person with Alzheimer’s is heavily influenced by our perceptions of the last stage of the disease. Before that, many people don’t recognize the dementia at all or fail to understand how far the disease has progressed. Kate was diagnosed almost ten years ago, but it is only in the past 2-3 years that it has been more obvious to those who spend little time with her.
That is what prompts me to write this particular post. We have crossed another milestone on Kate’s journey. It is easier now for people to tell that she has Alzheimer’s. That is true even for people who are with her a short time. Having said that, I don’t believe many people would recognize just how far along she is. I see it because I am with her so much. That gives me many opportunities to observe how she functions. Overall, her changes have been very gradual, but they have been much more evident even in the past month or two. It even seems like she has changed a lot in the past two weeks. Let me summarize a few of the things that make me say this.
First, and foremost, she has reached the point at which her rational thought/abilities have almost completely vanished. By that I mean her memory for names, places, events, and processes (how to do things) is at a disturbing low point.
Simultaneously, her intuitive thought/abilities are on high alert. Her experience of joy, sadness, fear, and anxiety are more evident. The fear and anxiety are troublesome to me as well as to her. On the other hand, all the positive emotions related to her to her senses bring intense moments of pleasure as well. Sometimes we experience a mixture of both good and bad.
Two days ago, I helped her up after she had rested. She was confused and uneasy. She knows something is seriously wrong with her, and it was evident. I looked in her eyes and said, “I love you, and I want you to know that I will always be here to help you.” She cried, and we embraced. It wasn’t that the underlying problem was solved, but she was comforted. It was touching moment for us, and we were able to move on.
For a long time, she has been insecure, but that has increased considerably. She has always wanted to do the “right thing.” Now that her memory is gone she doesn’t even know the right thing. When I give her choices like “Would you like to get up now or rest a while longer?” Her typical answer is “I don’t know.” It is evident in the morning when needs instructions on everything she is to do in the bathroom.
She often doesn’t recognize her napkin and wants to know what to do with it. When I tell her she can’t understand what I have said. When we eat out, I generally put the napkin in her lap. Invariably, she removes it. She often wants to use it as a placemat. When that happens, I simply ask the server for another napkin. She never remembers what she is drinking or if the glass is hers.
The most obvious sign of her insecurity is her hesitation when walking or sitting down. She walks as though she is blind, very short shuffle steps without lifting her feet very much. Any change in elevation is a problem. Naturally, that involves stairs, but it also includes small variations like flagstone walkways, or any surface with color variations that she perceives as differences in elevation.
I have long heard that putting a black carpet or doormat in front of a door can prevent wandering outside. It is only recently that I have observed this phenomenon with Kate. She is very cautious about stepping where there are contrasting dark and light surfaces. We have a dark blue rug with a white border in our bedroom. She is now very cautious when we enter the bedroom. She is careful to step over the border.
It is often very difficult to get her to see things I want her to notice. That comes up most frequently when we are eating. I always cut her food for her and usually put a bite on her fork and place it right in front of her on her plate. When I try to tell her where her fork is located, I almost always fail. Even when I pick it up and attempt to put it in her hand, she has a hard time understanding what I want her to do.
At lunch the other day, I noticed that she hadn’t eaten any of her rice, something that she usually likes. I mentioned it to her. She couldn’t see it, and none of my explanations helped. I finally picked up her hand and let her feel it.
It is very difficult to predict what she will be like at any moment. Quite a few times, I have mentioned this in connection with her sleep. Sometimes she sleeps or rests in bed far beyond her wake-up time. Sometimes she gets up very early. In itself, I don’t think of that as a problem except for me to adjust my daily routine. The relevance is that it is another sign of change in her condition.
Along with that, she experiences far more delusions than ever before. Sometimes I feel as though her day is one of delusions, and they are positive and negative. We can have great conversations when she is in a cheerful mood although I often don’t understand much or any of what she says.
Unfortunately, she has more negative delusions now. They usually involve things that seem minor to me but very important for her. The most typical is believing there are people in our home, and we are preparing to go out, or do something, with them. She is very concerned and often relieved when I tell her “it’s just the two of us” except when she doesn’t accept that or forgets moments after I tell her.
Another significant change is in our relationship. She is more likely to experience moments when she doesn’t recognize me at all. In some of those moments, she doesn’t immediately feel comfortable with me although she becomes more at ease in a very short time. There are times when she is experiencing anxiety and wants me but doesn’t recognize me. She will say, “Where is Richard?” or call to me by name as though I am in another room. Another interesting thing is that she sometimes refers to herself as “she” and to me as “he.” This can be confusing. At first, I was quick to ask who she was talking about. She can’t answer that, but I’ve learned through experience that “she” and “he” are “we.”
All of this is to say that our world has changed substantially. “Living with Alzheimer’s” is definitely more challenging these days. I am grateful for the good run we have had and that we continue to share so many “Happy Moments.”