I’ve read that one of the first questions most people ask after hearing their diagnosis is “How long do I have?” That was true for Kate. I think the best answer is “It’s hard to be sure.” Kate’s doctor said, “I’ve had patients who lived for another twelve years, but it can vary a lot.” I’ve heard the same figure other places and also 8-10 years.
I was among those who wanted to know “how long?” However, having learned that we had less time than I expected before her diagnosis, I found it more helpful to focus on the present. Kate and I wanted to make the most of that time. On a continuing basis, I have felt knowledge of the various stages of Alzheimer’s is useful.
There are at least two widely accepted models that identify the symptoms that are characteristic of each stage. One has three stages. The other has seven. If I use the 3-Stage model, I believe Kate is in the latter part of Stage 2. The Alzheimer’s Association says that is the longest stage and can last many years. That seems to fit with Kate’s experience.
I have paid more attention to the 7-Stage model. Perhaps that is because it seems somewhat more precise. I know that’s a bit strange to say in that both models describe general characteristics. Not everyone exhibits exactly the same symptoms. I would say that Kate has been in Stage 6 for more than a year. Her recent changes suggest that she is nearing Stage 7. Here is how WebMD describes the symptoms for these stages.
Stage 6: Severe Decline
As Alzheimer’s progresses, your loved one might recognize faces but forget names. He might also mistake a person for someone else, for instance, thinking his wife is his mother. Delusions might a set in, such as thinking he needs to go to work even though he no longer has a job.
You might need to help him go to the bathroom.
It might be hard to talk, but you can still connect with him through the senses. Many people with Alzheimer’s love hearing music, being read to, or looking over old photos.
Stage 7: Very Severe Decline
Many basic abilities in a person with Alzheimer’s, such as eating, walking, and sitting up, fade during this period.
To get an idea of where Kate fits in these models, I think it is better to consider the kinds of behaviors that are now becoming commonplace. Here are a few things that have occurred in the past few days.
Confusion about Where She is
I don’t think she ever is quite sure of where she is with respect to the city of Knoxville. Increasingly, she doesn’t recognize that she is in her own house. She seems to ask where she is less frequently and assume that she is in Fort Worth. Leaving the restaurant the other night, she asked where her childhood home was located. I told her Fort Worth. She asked if I could drive by her house. I told her we would and planned to drive by one of our former houses in Knoxville. It turned out she forgot rather quickly. I just drove home. She never realized what happened. When we arrived home, we looked around the yard. Then I led her into the house. She asked if we were spending the night. I said yes. She wanted to know if I had everything we would need. I told her we did. She didn’t know it was our house. This is not a new experience. It is just more common now.
Having Milder, But More Frequent Moments of Anxiety
It’s been about ten months since Kate’s first attack of anxiety. It occurs when she seems to be aware that she doesn’t know where she is, who she is, or “what is going on.” Altogether she has had only five or six of them. Three occurred in the past week. One was yesterday morning.
She looked sad and/or slightly frightened when I woke her at 11:00. I asked if I could help her. She nodded. I asked her to tell me what was wrong. She didn’t say anything. She closed her eyes and looked so sad. I said, “I think I am your best friend. I would love for you to tell me what’s troubling you so that I can help.” She started to cry but didn’t. She didn’t say anything. I said, “I wonder if you might feel better if you got up and let me take you to lunch.” She nodded agreement. I proceeded to pull the covers back and help her out of bed. I walked her to the bathroom where she used the toilet and then brushed her teeth. Then we walked back to the bed where she sat down to get ready to dress. She said, “I am so glad you’re here.” I said, “You know that I will always be with you. We’re a team. We have been for almost 56 years. We always will be.” She said, “I know. We just clicked.” I said, “Yes, from our first date.” She again said, “I’m so glad I have you.” Then she said, “What is your name?” I told her, and she asked, “What is my name?”
When she had almost finished dressing, she said, “I’m feeling better now.” I said, “I think it was good for you to get up and dressed.” She said, “Yes, but I think it was also talking with you and knowing that you are always with me.” That was one of the many times that I was fighting back tears. We went on to have a nice day.
Recognizing Our Relationship
My guess is that she can’t remember my name or hers most of the time. About six months ago, I would have said she remembers that I am her husband about half the time. I would say that has dropped to 25% of the time. The good news is that she still responds to me as someone she “knows and trusts.”
As she has lost almost all her rational abilities, her intuitive ones have become much more apparent. Her feelings for the beauty of nature, especially trees, are much more noticeable. I had someone refill the pots on our patio and front porch with new flowering plants. She loves them. I did the same thing last year and hardly got a reaction.
She has stronger feelings about normal items in our environment and wants to take them with her when we go out. The other night she picked up one of the decorative pillows from our bed and took it to the car with us. When we got in the car, she asked what to do with it. I told her I would put it in the back seat. Last night, she wrapped her nightgown around her arm as though it were an injured arm. She was planning to take it to dinner with us.
There are numerous other examples of her emotional attachment and feelings about things. She has developed a ritual of looking at her ceramic cat and a photo of her father each time we are about to leave the house. On only a few occasions has she recognized him as her father.
She has been sensitive to sudden noises for a long time. Now she is frightened even by noises that are not loud. She is bothered by music in restaurants much more than in the past. It seems like almost anything can frighten her.
Music is even more important. She likes for us to sing together. Yesterday, we went to lunch at Applebee’s. It’s just a short drive from our house. I told her I was going to play some music she would like and turned on “Edelweiss.” It hadn’t finished when we arrived at the restaurant. As we walked to the entrance, I started singing it for her. She joined in. We didn’t get far before we stopped. The fellow serving as host opened the door for us. Once we had ordered, Kate wanted us to sing again. I hesitated for a moment. We were early, and there was no one seated around us. I started singing “Edelweiss.” She sang along, carefully following the words as I sang them. It was another touching moment.
She responds with sadness to the news or any other information that involves people who experience some kind of trauma. At Casa Bella this past Thursday, the woman sitting next to her told us about a fire that occurred in the restaurant years ago. Kate didn’t grasp that this was an old incident. She immediately took the woman’s hand with her own hands. She had such a sad look on her face. It looked like she was about to cry. I explained that this was something in the distant past. Then she was all right.
She also responds with a sad look and tears in her eyes when good things happen. Her response to her Mother’s Day cards is a good example. Another would be her response when I tell her I love her.
The heightened intuitive abilities have also been accompanied by changes in her aesthetic tastes. As we go through the laundry room to our garage, she often stops and looks at the items on the counter and admires the arrangement of things. Sometimes she moves some of them to other places she likes better. At restaurant, she sometimes uses her napkin as a place mat and carefully places her flatware on it.
Feeling More Dependence on Me
She asks me for directions on many things she would not have had to do before. For example, last night she asked me where to put her iPad after she had finished using it. Normally, she would just leave it wherever she was at the time. She has a greater sense of not knowing what is the right thing to do. She sometimes asks if she should take all the pills I put out for her. In restaurant, she sometimes asks me where to put her napkin. Over the past month or two, I have started cutting her meat for her. She likes that and has shown no effort to retain her independence.
At the same time I see her adapting well with the sitters, I also see signs of greater dependence. When we arrived home after lunch yesterday, the sitter was waiting for us. Kate said, “Who is that?” I said, “That’s Mary. This is my day to go to the Y. Mary is the one who will be staying with you while I am gone.” She looked disappointed and said, “How long will you be gone?” I said, “A couple of hours.” It’s nearly four hours that I am gone, but I know that she can’t tell how much time has passed. I think “a couple of hours” sounds better than “four.” When she heard that, she shrugged, and we got out of the car. Mary had gotten out of her car and greeted us. Kate responded like she was a longtime friend. Naturally, I felt good about that.
Once inside, Kate followed me to the bathroom where I was brushing my teeth. While she brushed her teeth, I went to the family room where Mary had taken a seat. Before I could say anything, Kate walked in and with a smile on her face said, “Richard said I could go with him.” I hated to tell her I was leaving, but that was the only thing to do. Fortunately, she accepted without protest though she looked disappointed.
There are two other things I should add. One is that she didn’t have as good a time at Casa Bella the other night. We were seated at a larger table with three other couples. That is just too much for her. At first, she seemed to try to be a part of the conversation. She ultimately sat back quietly. I hope that we will be at our regular table in the future.
The other thing is that she has seemed much more childlike in the past few weeks. That’s a little hard to describe, but it is evident in the way she expresses herself.
The rapidity with which the changes are occurring suggests to me that it won’t be much longer before she will be in the late stages regardless of whether I use the 3-Stage or the 7-Stage model. We have gotten along “remarkably well” during the earlier ones. I am hopeful that will be true as we go forward, but it is the stage everyone wishes would never come. I am no exception.