A Bump in the Road

Many people use the word “journey” when talking about Alzheimer’s and other dementias. I sometimes hesitate to use the term because it seems trite. On the other hand, it really captures a relevant aspect of “Living with Alzheimer’s.” It connotes something that is long in duration and involves a variety of experiences. How apt that is in our case.

Like so many other aspects of life, there are things we expect and those that surprise us. This past Monday we got a surprise, one that potentially may have lasting consequences. Kate had a mild stroke.

We almost always have good nights. That was true Sunday night. We spent the evening watching YouTube videos. A lot of them were choral favorites like “Danny Boy” and “Shenandoah.”

We had a very nice Monday morning as well. She awoke around 8:00, and I spent almost the entire morning beside her in bed. I turned on an assortment of YouTube videos focusing mostly on Broadway favorites. She wasn’t talkative. That’s normal at that time of day, but it was obvious that she was enjoying the music. Several times she commented that it was “wonderful.” I told her how much I enjoyed being with her. She indicated the same to me. Off and on we held hands. The day was off to a good start.

Not long before the caregiver arrived, she went back to sleep, and I went to Rotary. The caregiver let her sleep until 1:00 when she got her up and gave her something to eat. She said that Kate didn’t finish her meal. She kept chewing but didn’t swallow.

After getting back from Rotary but before reaching our apartment, I received a call from an old college friend. When I walked in, I greeted Kate the way I usually do. She gave me a big smile, and I told her I would finish my call and come back to her. About twenty minutes later, I got down on my knees beside her recliner, enabling me to look directly into her eyes, and told her how glad I was to see her.

She didn’t say much, but she looked pleased that I was there. She smiled. As I continued to talk to her, she closed her eyes, and her breathing slowed down. I had a flashback to being with my father and Kate’s mother when they died. Kate looked the same way. I felt she was drifting away from me. I mentioned that to the caregiver. She had the same thought. I told the caregiver that I didn’t want to lose her, but it would be a beautiful way for her to leave me. The precious moments we had the night before and that morning passed through my mind, and I said, “I love you. I always have. I always will.” To me, it seemed like she was trying to respond, but nothing came out.

I called her doctor. His office is in the building next door, one of the advantages of being in this retirement community. He and his nurse came over. By this time, she was in a deep sleep, but her vitals were normal. He checked her eyes. They appeared all right. He lifted each arm and found that her right arm was completely limp while the left was normal. He said he couldn’t be sure but thought she had a stroke. He asked whether I wanted to take her to the hospital. We talked briefly. He and I agreed that it wouldn’t be good to put her through the hospital routine, so we kept her here.

She slept well except for two events, one around 9:30 when her breathing seemed labored. I called the doctor. I described what was going on and let him listen to her breathing. He didn’t think it was serious and suggested that I continue to let her rest. She fell asleep while we were talking. Around 11:30, she screamed and held her right hand against her stomach and then her chest. I felt her left arm. It was warm. I checked the right arm, and it was cold. I pulled the sheet and bedspread over her arm. I didn’t hear a sound after that until the next morning while I was in the bathroom getting ready for the day. She screamed again, but, whatever the cause, it was over before I got to her bedside.

The next morning the doctor returned to check on her. He didn’t notice anything new except that the muscles in her left arm were twitching. He didn’t say that indicated anything special, but I have since learned that this kind of reaction is not unusual for people who have had a stroke. That occurs when the damage to the brain occurs in the part that controls body movement. That might also explain the limpness in her right arm and the fact that her eyes tend to focus to her left.

I told him I felt this was might be a dramatic change in our lives. He acknowledged the likelihood of that though he stopped short of saying she wouldn’t recover. That’s what I expected him to say. He also said that we might observe periods of improvement mixed with more of what we are seeing now.

Since then, she’s been making a little progress each day. Until yesterday morning, she was asleep most of the time, waking periodically for just a few moments, but she has regained some of the strength in her right arm. For a period of time on Thursday, she was more alert although she didn’t speak. She is also eating and drinking much less than normal.

Yesterday (the fourth day since the stroke) was her best day by far. She was awake an hour at one stretch that morning. That’s the longest she had been awake since the stroke. She smiled more and laughed. She responded to several YouTube music videos, mouthing the words to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. She was especially animated during the chorus, clearly remembering the word “Glory” in “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah.”

She’s coming to life again. I know we may see some permanent damage. My biggest concern is her ability to speak. Aphasia was already a problem, something often experienced by people who have strokes. Still, I am hopeful we may eventually be able to get out for our afternoon ice cream as well as our nightly dinner in the dining room. At any rate, I think that’s a reasonable goal. Time will tell.

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