Yesterday, for the first time, I had an appointment with Kate’s doctor without Kate. It was a direct result of Kate’s recent desire to remain in bed rather than get up for lunch. Coincidentally, yesterday was one of those days. This was the fourth or fifth time in the past two weeks. Like all but the first time, she was relaxed and smiling. She seemed to be in a good humor. She just wanted to stay in bed. That’s what she did. I wasn’t able to get her up until after the sitter left just before 5:00 p.m., and she didn’t want to get up then but agreed after my coaxing. She had been in bed over twenty-one hours except for a brief bathroom break around 8:00 a.m. We did get out for dinner, but she went to bed before 7:30 and went to sleep quickly.
I interpreted the first incident as a case of depression. The others didn’t seem anything like that. She was just tired. On the days when she was willing to get up (ten out of fourteen), she was very tired, unsteady on her feet, and felt very insecure. These signs made me think that it was a part of the natural progression of her Alzheimer’s. When her doctor offered to see me, I was happy to accept.
It was a good visit and reminded me of why we have valued this geriatric practice for over twenty years. It is a partnership between our medical school and our largest hospital system. My mom and dad were the first of our family to go there in 1998. Since then, Kate’s mother, Kate, and my dad’s lady friend have all had physicians in the practice. We have always been pleased. There is virtually no wait time. In addition, the doctors spend a great deal of time with the patient and the patient’s family. They are especially good with dementia patients because the doctors always recognize them as the patient. In a situation like this it would be easy for a doctor to look at and speak directly to the family.
I was only there thirty minutes, but I achieved what I needed. I had sent a note of several pages describing Kate’s symptoms over the past few weeks. She had a variety of follow-up questions. I gave her my thoughts about the likelihood that Kate’s changes were just part of the natural progression of the disease. She agreed and handed me a piece of paper with a set of symptoms characteristic of the various stages of Alzheimer’s. They were expressed more specifically than what I had seen before. We focused on those for Stage 7.
7a. Ability to speak is limited to approximately a half-dozen intelligible different words or fewer in an average day.
7b. Speech ability is limited to the use of a single intelligible word in an average day.
7c. Ambulatory ability is lost (cannot walk without assistance).
7d. Cannot sit up without assistance.
7e. Loss of ability to smile.
7f. Loss of ability to hold head up independently.
Clearly, Kate doesn’t hasn’t reached any of these stages. She is losing her ability to talk as well as her ambulatory ability. Her doctor told me that Medicare eligibility for hospice begins around 7c above. I found that sobering. My impression from personal experiences is that the mention of hospice often catches caregivers off guard. It did when my mom’s doctor suggested it was time. She died a few months later. The same was true with my dad’s lady friend. She died less than a week after the doctor recommended hospice.
I don’t mean to suggest that Kate is that near the end of her life. My mom and Dad’s lady friend were much further into their disease than Kate is now. On the other hand, it is a sign that we are much closer to the end than I have sensed. This makes me think about something that I have mentioned before. I hope that Kate does not linger for long. She and I have shared the desire to die quickly. I don’t think we are unusual in that regard. I would love for her to be spared an extended period of time when she is completely bedridden or resting in a wheelchair.
Over the past few months, Kate has occasionally worried about, or at least been puzzled by, what is happening to her – why she can’t remember important things like her name or mine, being married, having children, or being able to remember how to do so many of the activities dialing of living. I wish she weren’t so self-aware. That is painful for both of us.
Ultimately, what I am concerned about is not within my control. All I can do is make her as comfortable as I can and provide her with as much pleasure as I can. It is almost 10:00 a.m. as I close this post. She is still sleeping. I really hope we will be able to get out today, but that’s another thing I may not be able to control.