After coming home from dinner last night, Kate and I spent almost an hour in our family room relaxing. As usual, she worked on her iPad. I took the time to play a variety of music to see how she would react to a broader variety of music than I usually play for her. I (we) were having great success. That was followed by a very nice phone conversation with our son, Kevin. I think we may have talked almost an hour. When the call ended, Kate said, “Aren’t you proud of him?” I said, “Very proud.”
Shortly after Kevin’s call, we decided to get ready for bed. As I got up from my chair, Kate asked, “Where do we keep our clothes?” I said, “Let me show you.” This was the first time she has ever asked that, but it was consistent with other signs of confusion that I’ve observed recently. I took her back to the room where she keeps her clothes and helped her get a night gown. Then I went to take my shower, and she came back to the bedroom where she got into bed with her iPad.
Just before I got to get into bed, she looked up at me and asked, “What is your name?” She started to repeat it and then asked again. After I repeated my name, she said it. Then she asked, “What is my name?” I told her, and she said, “I don’t know why I am so confused.” This was the third time in the past few weeks that she has said this. The first time I told her she had Alzheimer’s. She told me she had forgotten she had it. The next time was during her first anxiety attack when she couldn’t remember who she is or where she was. That time I skirted the issue of Alzheimer’s and focused on calming her. At the time, I didn’t think there was anything to be gained by bringing up her diagnosis. I felt the immediate need was comfort.
Last night, I chose not to say anything about Alzheimer’s and seek to comfort her. This time, however, I was really torn between telling her about her diagnosis and not telling her. I said, “It is very common for us to have memory problems as we age. I think that is what you are experiencing. Whatever, I want you to know that I love you and will help you every step of the way.” She said, “That makes me feel better. I know I’ll get better.” I tried to avoid telling her she would get better and saying that whatever happened I would be with her. She said, “They say you shouldn’t rush it. If we just take it a little at a time.” We talked another 15-30 minutes. I lost track of the time. She repeatedly said she felt better knowing that I would help her. “I know it won’t happen right away. The doctor says we shouldn’t rush.”
Of all the things that might bother me in connection with caring for Kate, there is no question that seeing her suffer is far and away the most painful thing I can experience. I found this excruciating. Here she is 7 years and 8 months since her diagnosis and 12 years since we saw the first signs of her Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t know it is Alzheimer’s, but she truly knows that something is wrong with her, and it’s painful for her. I hate seeing this. Even recently, I had thought we might escape this part of the journey.
This experience and the earlier ones have caused me to reflect on the best way for me to handle them in the future. One thing is clear. I have been successful in addressing her immediate concern. In each case, I have been able to console her and make her feel better. I am still torn between being more honest with her about her Alzheimer’s and not. She is not the kind of person who wants to be deceived. She is the one who wanted to get the diagnosis in the first place. She even said that she was relieved with the doctor gave her the news because it helped her understand what was happening to her. Over the course of her illness, we have periodically talked about death. Both of us accept death as a part of life and don’t fear it or try to avoid conversations about it. In other words, she is not one to avoid the realities of life.
On the other hand, I believe in the importance of hope. I hear her, say things like, “I feel better now. I know you will help me. I’ll get my memory back. It just takes time.” Then I feel she has a hopeful approach that is healthy. I don’t want to risk destroying that sense of hope by telling her she has Alzheimer’s.
I’ve wrestled with this dilemma a good bit this morning. At this moment, I am leaning toward telling her but in a gentle way. In fact, I am thinking about utilizing what I have learned from Cornish’s book, The Dementia Handbook. Her main point is that we should accept the fact that the rational abilities of people with dementia no longer work the way they used to do. Instead, we should emphasize all of the things that they are able to do. Those are all things from which we derive direct pleasure through the experience of our senses. We have done just that throughout our journey, and I hope that we will continue for a good while longer.
Thus, I am thinking of telling Kate that her memory problem is a result of Alzheimer’s but that the good news is that we can continue to enjoy life the same way that we have done in the past – spending time with friends, attending musical events, theater and movies. In addition, I will be her helper when it comes to things that she needs to remember.
The counter argument is that we have been successful by emphasizing Kate’s intuitive abilities. It seems like trying to give a rational explanation runs counter to what she may need most, the knowledge that I will comfort her whatever happens.
I don’t intend to say anything until (unless) she has another episode like last night. Right now, she is up and seems not to have any memory of last night. I would have been very surprised if she had. Waiting to say anything will give me additional time to reflect on my decision. I don’t believe there is any way to determine in advance which is the right way to go. To tell or not to tell. That is the question.