Feeling Joyful This Holiday Season

The Christmas season has always been special for Kate and me. Our first date was sixty-one years ago on December 19, 1961. We celebrate that day every year. Some years we have taken trips to New York City and several places in Europe. Mostly, our celebrations have been simple. For us, that is usually going out to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants.

For the past three years, it’s been impossible for us to get away from our home without the assistance of an ambulance or wheelchair-accessible van, but that hasn’t kept us from experiencing “Happy Moments.” This year those moments have seemed especially rewarding. That’s because they have become more frequent during the past few months. We celebrated the 61st anniversary quietly as we do every day. We had ice cream in the afternoon and dinner in the dining room chatting with residents and staff in both locations. Recently, however, we have experienced several other happy moments. Here are a couple of examples that occurred in the past few days.

I returned home from lunch on Saturday and entered our apartment with my customary greeting, “Hello, I’m home.” As I approached Kate in her recliner, I could see that she was smiling. She doesn’t always respond that way when I come home, but it does occur frequently.

I walked over to her, got down on my knees, and told her how happy I was to see her and her beautiful smile. Her caregiver said she had been talking. Very quickly, I got to hear that for myself. We spent the next forty-five minutes in an animated conversation. As usual, I couldn’t understand most of what she said, but there were bits of clarity sprinkled among the gibberish.

Things were going well, and I asked Kate if she would like me to read something to her. She did, and I picked up a resolution our church had given to her when she retired after nineteen years as our volunteer librarian. She used to love listening as I read it. In the past couple of years, she’s been less interested. This time she was engaged from the first sentence to the last.

After that, she looked like she was getting tired. I thought I might perk her up if I showed her some photos I had taken on our 50th anniversary trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. We used to look at our photo books regularly, but she lost interest a few years ago. Because she was in such a good mood, I thought I might have some success. I was wrong. She wasn’t interested at all. Our happy moment had ended.

Not long after that, it was time for our afternoon trip for ice cream. She hadn’t warmed up at all when we reached the café. Several people spoke to her, but she didn’t respond. Then another resident stopped for a few minutes. As she was about to leave, she said something to Kate who responded with a smile. That was the first sign of cheerfulness we had seen since she had lost interest in the photos I had shown her.

We soon went to dinner. As usual, we were the first ones in the dining room, and several of the dining room staff dropped by to say hello. She returned to her cheerful self and remained that way until she drifted off to sleep that night.

This experience is a good example of our quickly Kate’s mood can change. It’s also an example of how Kate’s mood can be affected by the way other people relate to her. I am thinking specifically about the “kindness” and “respect” that she receives from our residents and staff. We are fortunate to live in such a supportive environment.

Yesterday was another day of cheerfulness and conversation. Once again, it began when I returned home after lunch. This time she was more animated than she had been on Saturday. We had another extended conversation.

As we left for our afternoon ice cream, we ran into a resident and a friend who was with her. After a brief conversation, the friend told Kate it was nice to see her. I don’t remember what Kate said, but she made an appropriate response to which the resident said, “That’s the first time I’ve heard her talk.”

When we reached the café, we found that a resident was playing his clarinet with a small audience of other residents who had gathered around him. Kate enjoyed the music and responded by nodding her head in rhythm with the music.

Shortly after he packed up his clarinet, a group of children arrived from a local church to sing a few Christmas carols. Kate joined right in with the singing. She loved every minute of it.

At dinner, Kate talked with her caregiver off and on during the entire meal.

Kate and I closed the day watching a Christmas special with Andrea Bocelli and his family. She remained cheerful until after I turned out the lights for the evening.

Life at this late stage of Alzheimer’s is quite different than it was in the earlier years after Kate’s diagnosis, but Kate and I still enjoy happy moments like these. They are especially welcome during this season of the year, and I am grateful.

Kate’s Aphasia

As I have noted in previous posts, Kate has made a good recovery from her stroke ten months ago. On the other hand, the stroke has had a lasting effect on her speech. Her aphasia is worse than before. That means I can’t understand most of what she says. My initial response was sadness for both of us. I felt it must be frustrating not to be able to communicate things she wanted to say, and I missed the kinds of conversations we used to have.

She began to experience aphasia a year or two before the stroke. At that time, she could tell that some things she said didn’t come out the way they should. She didn’t appear to feel frustrated, but she clearly knew that what she said wasn’t correct. Gradually, that disappeared. Now, she doesn’t display any sign of awareness that what she says doesn’t coincide with what she intends to say.

I never correct her. Instead, I act as though I understand every word and try to give her an appropriate response. Thus far, I can’t detect that she ever feels that I have misunderstood her. From the perspective of people watching us talk, I think we look like an ordinary couple having a conversation. If they could hear us, they might think both of us have mental problems.

In the last few months, Kate has grown more at ease with her surroundings and other people. That led to her talking more. Along with that, she sometimes says things that are very clear. They are always short reflexive comments to things that are said to her. During the past few days, she has made more clear comments than she has in the past couple of years.

I regret that I can’t remember many of the things Kate says, but I do sometimes jot them down right after they occur. Here are a few recent examples.

Yesterday (when we were having ice cream)

Resident (who saw me trying to help another resident with her phone): “What would we do without Richard to fix all our phones?”

Kate: “Yeah” and laughed.

At Home after Dinner

Caregiver (who had given Kate something to drink): “Did you have enough?”

Kate: “I suppose so.”

Few Minutes Later

Richard (after a comment by caregiver): “You’re giving (the caregiver) ideas.”

Kate: “I know it.”

Day Before Yesterday (Right after Finishing Ice Cream)

Kate to Caregiver: “Thank you for the party.”

Later at Dinner (Caregiver didn’t understand something Kate said)

Caregiver: “I don’t know.”

Kate: “She doesn’t even know.”

After Dinner

Caregiver: “I can’t go down my back doorsteps.”

Kate: “I can’t either.”

The caregiver and I laughed.

Kate to us: “You’re funny.”

Last Week (while having ice cream)

Richard to Kate: If you don’t like that, I’ll eat it.

Kate to Caregiver: “He would say that.”

Short Time Later (Caregiver had stepped away to get something for herself)

Caregiver: “I’m back.”

Kate: “I’m always glad to see you.”

Last Week

Richard to Kate: “I spilled some water on the floor.”

Kate: “We’ll see about that.”

These things may seem trivial to some people, but at this point in Kate’s Alzheimer’s, they are treasures to me. They are signs that the girl I married is still with me. She hears what is said in her presence and reacts accordingly. Along with that, she is happy. Me, too.

“It’s a Wonderful Life”

I often run into people who ask how Kate is doing. Frequently, that is followed by asking me how I’m doing. I’m on a high right now. As many other caregivers say about their loved ones, “When Kate is happy, I’m happy,” and she’s been happy much more over the past few months. She’s been unusually happy and talkative for at least three of the past five days.

Not every moment in a day is a “Happy Moment.” That doesn’t mean that the rest of the moments are sad. In fact, she never has a sad day. When she is not happy, she seems intimidated or unsure about how she should act or what she should say. Other times, her emotional expressions are quite neutral.

Her Happy Moments are often related to the people around her and what is going on, but it is common for her to sit quietly and just smile as she looks around the room. It makes me wonder what she sees or what she is thinking that makes her so happy. When I ask, I never get an answer, but it’s good to see her happy.

It’s not just her feeling happy that affects me. It’s also what she says or does when she is happy. She has been talking more with her caregiver. I love observing their conversations. This caregiver is the only one she has responded to in this way during the entire five years we have had in-home care. As noted in earlier posts, I believe one reason for this is Kate’s general adaption to our new home in a retirement community as well as recovering from her stroke; however, I give this particular caregiver equal credit. She has made a difference in both of our lives.

The success she has had with Kate is her personality. She is kind and caring. She’s a bit “low-key” but talkative and gets along well with other residents and staff. She is not intimidating, and that makes it easy for Kate to connect with her.

Although Kate is more cheerful and talkative, there is one general pattern that remains. She is quietest in the morning. She still rarely says anything before lunch. It can be as late as 3:30 in the afternoon when we go for ice cream and sometimes as late as dinner before she is ready for any social engagement. Kate occasionally breaks this pattern and is awake and smiling early in the morning and maintains her good spirits the entire day and evening.

My being upbeat relates to the fact that, recently, she has been cheerful almost every afternoon and evening. The only difference is when the cheerfulness begins.

Our evenings continue to be our best time together. I wouldn’t describe them as “cheerful.” They are simply times when each of us is completely at ease. Once in a while, she is quite talkative. Most of the time, she is not. She is just winding down as she gets ready to go to sleep. It’s the same way for me. It is clearly the most relaxing time of our day, and it’s made even better by sharing this quiet time together – always with music. At this time of the year, it seems appropriate to say, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”