Archive for December, 2014

Happy What?

Ice Skating, Dec. 2014.

Ice Skating, Dec. 2014.

There have been so many wonderful things that have happened in my life over the past month. But there have been so many horrible, ugly things too. I feel as if my life is one big oxymoron.

I am overwhelmed. Not just by holiday stresses. Those are actually a few things that pull me away from the normal stresses. Yes, stringing lights on the tree by myself versus the way it has been for the past 18 years sucked. Yes, shopping for everyone (including myself) by myself, sucked. Yes, there have been moments of extreme bitter nostalgia; when you remember how it was and realize it will never be that way again and you just have to keep moving on, but it doesn’t mean you like it and it doesn’t mean you are happy about it. You just do what you have to do.

There are times that I think the kids being so young while dealing with Jim makes it so much harder. And I think how much easier it would be if they were grown and on their own. But, there are more times that I realize them being part of our home right now, in this moment, saves me over and over again. I probably wouldn’t care about a tree or decorating (honestly, I only did about a third of our normal this year) and I probably wouldn’t sing along to songs on the radio quite as much and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t give two cents about watching any Christmas movies or seeing Christmas lights or even worrying about family traditions. Traditions I realize at moments of clarity are dwindling but I steadfastly cling to in the hopes of stabilizing their childhood. Traditions that have become more of a burden than moments of fun and familiarity. I struggled to get the tree from the same tree farm. I struggled to have us all decorate said tree. I struggled to do so many things that have become part of what our family does every year. But this year, I have secretly thought to myself, “Will I do this when Jim is gone? Will it matter and will we all want to do this? What is the point?” It is hard not to picture our life without him when he is still here, yet he really isn’t here, so it makes it somewhat easy to picture a life without him. Again, my life is one big oxymoron. How can he ice skate so beautifully, yet not be able to figure out his seat belt buckle? How can he walk the dog numerous times a day, yet not realize he is still in his pajamas? How can he eat like a horse over and over and never seem full or gain weight? How can he be slipping away from us so steadily and yet so slowly? It is all so confusing. How does anyone manage to live through this for years on end? How can I? How can the kids?

Frances asked for very few things this year for Christmas. Less than five things.(Actually both kids had extremely short lists compared to myself at their age) One of the main things she wanted was to see The Piano Guys in concert. When she first mentioned this, I had no idea who they were. I had never heard of them. So I went online and saw they are  a pianist and a cellist. They play beautifully and their closest concert to us was 4 hours away (with a good day of traffic. For us it would be 5 -6 hours). I contemplated for a very short time before deciding if my thirteen year old daughter wants to see musicians like this as her main gift, well, I am going to make it happen. So, I got tickets for her and I. She would have to miss a day of school, so I didn’t want to add Brad to the mix. About a week out, I realized,” Oh no! I need to have someone watch Jim and Brad!.” That’s right. I hadn’t thought everything through. When I bought the tickets, Jim would have been able to stay the night by himself with Brad just fine. But as time has moved forward, so has his Alzheimer’s. I cannot possibly put into words the sheer heartbreak I felt when I accepted the fact I needed to come up with a solution for that night away. It was no longer just a boys night alone. It was an ordeal and something much bigger than a simple concert. It was a new stage of our game. It was another slap in the face.

So, a friend stepped up to take the two boys. Another friend eagerly watched the dog. It was a lot to plan and organize. In the end, it was worth it. I think Frances and I needed this time away together. It was special in so many ways and I am grateful for being able to do so. We were finally to our hotel when I get a call from Brad. Jim didn’t want to go to our friends’ home (we have been there dozens of times) and he was getting irritated. The friend getting the dog called and reiterated what Brad had told me. The stress that flashed through my body is immeasurable. What could I do? I was 4 hours away and unable to help. Both friends told me to not worry about it, they would handle this and to enjoy the show. But how could I? What if they regretted agreeing to help us? What if this turned into a huge pain for them? What if this is the night that Jim decides to get violent? When I spoke to Jim on the phone, he told me he was fine, never complained a bit about going to stay with someone else and showed no signs of being upset. So weird!! I had wanted to take Frances for a nice meal, but we were running late due to traffic and we ended up getting something quick and heading to the show. We got there after they had started. I could feel myself screwing up the one thing I was trying to do right. I was in a state of panic. Running late and worrying about things back home. It seems that is the normal for me now. I do this on a daily basis as I work and try to keep tabs at home. It is the most stress and the most failure I have ever felt in my life.

The concert was great. I highly recommend them. As we sat and listened to their show, they played a song, Emmanuel, and I listened with such sorrow. It was beautiful and haunting and reminded me of Jim and our love for each other and the fact that I was taking this trip without him because it would have just been too much. As I listened to the sweet sounds, I thought of our plans for the future and past Christmases and how I wondered if he would be with us next Christmas. I looked around at the couples and the families and I hated the fact that our family will never be completely whole again. Yes, Jim is still with us, but in truth, he isn’t. Not the real Jim. Not the Jim that would laugh and participate and want to be part of decisions about what we were doing and what everyone was getting and even acknowledge there is a holiday among us.  I am lonely. I am sad. And I have had a really bad hand dealt to me and to our family. But, I can see the love our friends surround us with. I can see how blessed I am to have my parents to help us. I feel love from perfect strangers. I am forced to re-write our story on a daily basis and I must understand that my attitude and my point of view will determine if that story has a happy ending or not.

I wish you a very Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukkah or Happy Kwanza or just a perfectly peaceful time of year. We all need some peace in our soul and I send it to you and wish it for you. It will be what saves us all.

Frances and I at The Piano Guys concert. Dec. 2014.

Frances and I at The Piano Guys concert. Dec. 2014.

posted by Karen in Early Signs of Alzheimer's,Early Stages of Alzheimer's Disease,Uncategorized,Younger Onset Alzheimer's Disease and have Comments (12)

Three, two, one….breakdown.

Our family Christmas Eve, 2009.

Our family Christmas Eve, 2009.

I knew this day was coming. I knew I would have a day that included tears and sobbing and full body blowbacks. It happens now on a semi-regular basis and it has been a few months, so I knew it was on my radar. I was just thinking it would be in the privacy of my room, alone in the house and without an audience.

I am not sure how it started. I have replayed the whole scenario in my mind numerous times and I think I have narrowed down the trigger, but because it includes one of the kids and it is personal for them, I am going to remain silent. I will take full and complete responsibility. It doesn’t really matter the cause, there were numerous triggers, there was just one that was the tipping point when the others were the building blocks.

I took Jim to get his new military i.d. After calling and making an appointment and explaining he only had a passport and no other forms of identification, I was told that was all that was needed. In my mind, I was questioning the authority on the other end of the line, but what could I do?  You see where this story is going, I am sure…..we show up late; after some of the aforementioned troubles at home, after getting lost on the base, after asking for directions numerous times,  to a woman who promptly tells me she can’t help us because he needs two forms of i.d. I promptly explain to her that I had called and yadda yadda yadda. She told me there was nothing she could do. I was teetering on that breaking point. I could feel myself exploding inside;  I was like a volcano, ready to erupt but quietly releasing smoke signals instead. I explained again to her that he has no other i.d., he has lost his wallet and that he has Alzheimer’s Disease. My voice was getting louder and more direct and this could have gotten ugly, really fast. But I sat there, biting my tongue,  (Jim of course said nothing) and she silently typed away. The next thing I know she is taking his photo and asking him to press his left index finger on the scanner. But he doesn’t know his left from his right anymore. And he doesn’t know his index finger. And I have to help him. And his signature is a stark contrast to the beautiful penmanship he once graced legal documents with. It was too much.

We barely made it to the van before I lost it. Just lost it. I wailed. I cried. I moaned. I had tears, snot and drool all over the place. Jim just sat there. Silent and confused. Normally, I reserve this kind of breakdown to a solitary party, but today it was open entertainment for him and anyone else who walked by. In the back alley of my mind I was trying to get myself to stop. I knew I needed to get a grip and put my big girl panties on. But sometimes those panties don’t fit and there is no controlling the emotional outpouring that seeps through my body. I mean, really? He ended up getting his i.d., what was the big deal? How can I learn to let go of all the past manifestations?  Let go of the shattered handmade pottery bowl a friend who moved overseas gave us. Let go of the indoor plant that was knocked on the floor, complete with broken pot, dirt everywhere and now a dead plant? Let go of the constant lost look on Jim’s face. Let go of the misplaced items and the inside out clothes and the lost conversations, the loneliness and emptiness and the bitter sadness that has become at home in my soul. How do I release the frustrations of each reminder of the Jim that is no longer? How do I appreciate the Jim that still is while longing for the Jim that was?

Eventually I started gagging and convulsing enough it snapped me out of my hysterical state. I had mascara down my face. My nose was red. I had used up half a box of tissues. When I finally grew quiet, the silence was deafening. Deafening in the way that makes you realize how terribly loud you were and how awful you sounded.  Jim was still just sitting there, next to me and saying and doing nothing. Nothing. Which makes all of this even more heartbreaking when I stop to think of how he is/was. Not a person to sit by without trying to comfort. Not a person who wouldn’t try to fix whatever was wrong. Not a person who would look utterly confused and uninterested.

Later, I got to a restroom and looked in the mirror. There I saw I had somehow broken a blood vessel between my nose and lip. There was a thin, red streak right in the middle of my philtrum, connecting my nose to my top lip. I have never seen anything like this and have no clue how I did this during my meltdown.

I suppose it could be related to all of the pressure from holiday expectations. Or it could be the fact Jim is slipping more and more which adds more pressure and more sadness and more reality to the situation. Or it could be me having a normal rough day. Whatever the cause, I have come to realize it happens. It happens, move on.  I feel better (usually) and it lets me know I do care. Sometimes it is hard to see I care because I am too busy being a Mom or worrying about money or trying to fix dinner or driving to some practice or event or working or something other than focusing on our crummy situation. These moments of heartbreak and genuine sorrow and anguish let me know I am still human. I am still full of compassion and love and I am hurting. I don’t always allow that to show, but when it does, it does. Big time.

Then you know what happened?  I worked. I had a friend call and say “hi”. I got two e-mails from friends. I watched Frances play in a band concert. I saw Brad smile and show his wonderful personality to me and others around us. I picked Jim up from respite care and they told me while everyone was listing things they are thankful for, Jim said he was thankful for me. For me. The woman he had just watched sob and turn into a ball of mush.

So, I am good. I am muddling through and working through as best I can. I don’t have a manual on how to emotionally handle this and I am doing what I can, when I can, the best I can. Everything else will have to just be.

December 2013

December 2013

posted by Karen in Early Signs of Alzheimer's,Early Stages of Alzheimer's Disease,Uncategorized,Younger Onset Alzheimer's Disease and have Comments (18)

Help your Caregiving Friends.

Jim carrying the tree to our vehicle at the tree farm. Dec. 2006.

Jim carrying the tree to our vehicle at the tree farm. Dec. 2006.

It’s that time again. You either love it or hate it. Few and far between are the ones with no opinion. The Christmas season brings back so many wonderful memories, it is hard to not become sentimental at the first notes of a favorite carol or feel as if something is missing without eggnog in the fridge or white candles in the windows. While all of this is remarkably picturesque and the stuff movies are made of, there is a lot of pressure and stress that tags along for the merriment.

So, I have decided to try to help all of the friends and family for caregivers of dementia patients. I am sure this list could have quite a few more things added, but this is what I have right now. As soon as I hit “publish” I will think of ten more things.

First of all, if you are taking the time to read this, you care and you are commended for being a supportive and concerned friend. But, (there’s always a but, right?) as much as you want to help and as much as you want to be there for your friend, it is as impossible for you to entirely understand what they are going through as it was for you to do so before you had children (or grandchildren). There is just no way to convey the enormous emotional and mental overload that comes with both. So be patient and let them seem forgetful and let them be late without glancing at your watch and let them forget to thank you for the wonderful dish you dropped off. They are grateful, but they think at the wrong times to mention it. And to those reading this who have “disappeared”…..don’t worry. You will be welcomed back with open arms. Don’t be embarrassed by the amount of time that has gone by; for most caregivers, days run into weeks that run into months and they aren’t really 100% sure how long it has been since you two last chatted anyway.

So here are the beginnings of some tips for friends and neighbors of caregivers. Please feel free to add your own in the comments section.

What a wonderful surprise this holiday decoration was when my friend dropped by to hang it on our front porch. That is the Christmas spirit….

What a wonderful surprise this holiday decoration was when my friend dropped by to hang it on our front porch. Words don’t convey how special this simple item now is to me.

  • Just be there. As their loved one progresses, it is lonely anytime of year. But during festivities and social events and times of sentimentality, life can be bittersweet. Just having a friend to be present is a huge gift. It could be just hanging out together, or it could be watching a tv show or calling or sending an e-mail or dropping by to check in or…..ok, you get the picture. Let them know you are thinking of them. It helps. A lot.
  • Help with decorations. We just went and cut our tree at the same tree farm we have been going to for 6 or 7 years. Love this tradition. It is our tradition. I can’t change that. I don’t want to change that. But this year, I had to come inside, get the scissors, (I had asked Jim to, but he brought them to the backyard first and then brought them back inside because he didn’t see me out there) cut the twine holding the tree to the roof of our van, put on the gloves and lift that tree and carry it to the bucket I got out and filled with water and I set it up and…ok, you get this picture too. Right? You know what? I don’t mind doing all of this. But I did it with Jim standing by watching and I knew it hurt him because he knew he should be doing it and it hurt me because I felt the same way. It was not a moment of triumph but a moment of inner-sadness. While I was trying to hang some lights out front, to keep that tradition alive as well, a wonderful friend popped by with a surprise; a decoration for our front porch. Not only did she bring it by, she hung it up and asked if she could help me hang the lights and garland.
  • If there are children in the home, ask if you can take them shopping for the caregiver. Or, better yet, ask the caregiver if you can borrow their loved one for a short time and take the patient to shop for the caregiver. If they are in a home, could you grab a little something the next time you are at the store, wrap it and drop it by the nursing home with a note it is from “Jim”? Can you imagine the wonderful feeling that would bring and the change in a day and a change in an attitude that could bring?  I no longer really care about opening presents Christmas morning. Yes, it is nice to a have something to unwrap and be surprised about, but really and truly, I know it would mean so much to Jim to do this for me, without me being the one to take him and to help him pick out something. A friend took Jim last year to pick out something for Frances and for Brad. My parents took the kids to pick out something for me. It doesn’t have to be the same person doing everything. Just do what you can to help in a way you are comfortable with. You might have to get creative, there are so many scenarios a family could have, but if you are able, please try to bring some Christmas spirit to the situation.
  • Help them help themselves. I want so badly to bake cookies, decorate, send out cards, visit friends, wrap gifts, sing carols and watch night after night of old holiday classics….but I just can’t seem to be able to figure out what I am doing. I’m not saying bake the cookies for them, but maybe see if you can stop by and help them. Or help them with cards (I am ashamed to admit we haven’t sent any out in years and now we only receive a handful) or ask them if they can sit with you and watch A Christmas Story (trust me, they need a good laugh). Just setting aside the time and making the effort and commitment to do these things will pay off because they will be so glad they did. And having your help will make it even more special.
  • Please do not stop inviting them to your annual party. They know you are still having it. They know they used to go. They know the only reason you haven’ t mentioned anything is because you have no idea what to do. Invite them anyway. Let them tell you “no” or let them find someone to stay with their loved one so they can join the fun. That is how much it means to them….they will pay someone and work hard to find someone to “sit” for them so they can attend. Better yet, be the friend who doesn’t care about going to said party and offer to sit for them so they can go catch up with friends and neighbors. This type of socialization and fun can be the difference between depression and happiness. Can you find a way to include them in your fun? If you are going to view holiday lights, can they tag along?
  • On that note, offer anytime to just come sit with their charge so they can do some holiday cheer. Whether it be dropping off gifts to friends or going to a movie or dinner or out for some holiday shopping ALONE, that is a gift to them all upon itself.
  • Don’t forget, when the New Year comes, think of them and invite them over or out or come by to help ring in 2015. And while you are at it, tell them how much you have missed them in 2014 but that you understand. Make a resolution (and stick to it) to visit them or contact them more regularly because your friendship means so much to you. It means as much to them, but they are just too overwhelmed to share that with you. Honestly, that is the best gift you could give. It doesn’t matter if you are ashamed because you fell off the face of the earth when they became engrossed in caregiving. It is never too late to come around and admit your selfishness and inconsideration and to make amends. They probably feel guilty for not calling you more or trying to reach out to you too. Relationships work two ways, but at some point there is always a person who gives more and a person who takes more. I have learned I am in the stage of taking more and it is a hard, hard, hard thing to admit and to do day after day. If you were previously the one who was usually a giver, you know what I mean. If you are a friend who usually takes, it’s your turn. You have to believe me, they miss your friendship and will most likely welcome you back with open arms. They didn’t stop coming round because they wanted to and it had nothing to do with not wanting to be your friend.
    Jim lifting Frances up for topping off the tree in 2010.

    Jim lifting Frances up for topping off the tree in 2010.

    Just give them a hug and be grateful for another day, another holiday season and another year together!

posted by Karen in Early Signs of Alzheimer's,Early Stages of Alzheimer's Disease,Uncategorized,Younger Onset Alzheimer's Disease and have Comments (3)

Looking for the Easy Life

Jim wearing his Air Force blues with Frances and Brad for Career Day at school. Nov. 2010

Jim wearing his Air Force blues with Frances and Brad for Career Day at school. Nov. 2010

Sometimes in life, nothing seems to go right: lines are long, rain comes with no umbrella in sight, a drink spilled, having to stay on hold so long you miss another important commitment, you start to fix a recipe only to realize you don’t have a key ingredient…. Little things out of synch add up to entire days that feel as if the whole world is against you. It is difficult to look at each tiny annoyance as just that; an insignificant bump in the road of life. They all seem to run together to pull you towards a negative thought process and in return, a negative outlook and eventual sour attitude.

And then something happens. Stars align in a good way and your luck changes: a parking spot opens up in the front row at Costco, you win a drawing, someone you haven’t seen in a while gives you a call or better yet they stop by for a visit, the kids laugh instead of argue at the dinner table, work flows easily, you drop your phone and it doesn’t break…. Things fall into place seemingly with no effort. It is something you could get used to, but you know better. You know it is temporary and to enjoy it while you can. There is always a shadow lurking just out of sight and you are completely aware of its presence.

That is how I feel. I am teetering on an uneven, unstable cliff. At any moment, all of the good things that happen for our family can vanish and we can tumble, freefalling into nothingness, at any second. With me at the helm. Me in charge. Me being blamed if it happens. Me knowing that I am guilty of not stopping the inevitable from happening. Even though it isn’t my fault Jim has this disease, it will be my fault if I don’t keep our family from losing everything and it will be my fault if the kids have long term psychological problems and it will rest squarely on my shoulders if something unexpected happens to Jim.

With all of this weighing so heavily on me at ALL times, it seems a wonder I haven’t had some sort of nervous breakdown. Recently, I have felt like I might. I have felt the tension in my body. I have recognized warning signs and become aware of the pulses in my mind and muscles. I am cognizant enough to understand what is happening and that changes need to take place. I have the personality that lets me believe that I am capable of anything. If I don’t already know how to do something, I can figure it out. I can learn, I can adapt, I can do whatever is necessary. But I can’t. I can’t sustain this life. I can’t work full time hours that are dictated and not flexible, follow up on paperwork and appointments needed for Jim, pay the bills, clean the house, cook the meals, grocery shop, work in the yard, do the laundry, drive to lessons and practices, check homework and sign and duly note whatever slip of paper that is sent home this week from school and, somehow, through all of this manage to look like I am doing ok. I’m not. I’m not ok. I have a husband that will tell me he has taken a shower and washed his hair when I can clearly tell he hasn’t. I have a husband that lost his wallet two months ago (again) and I have to take him (again) to get a new i.d. I have a husband who can’t figure out how to put the covers on himself at night. I have a husband that has the best attitude in the world but can’t stop himself from making comments to the kids that can be hurtful and antagonizing.

So, I was trying to figure out what I should do about work and the kids and Jim and everything when life happened. Jim has slipped just a tiny bit more, but enough that I know I need to be here with him. If I am not, someone needs to. He can perform tasks, but needs guidance and oversight. It is time for a change.

Today, I can’t explain why, but I was upset and in a bad mood. The kids were getting the brunt of my force and Frances calmly told me,” Don’t take it out on us just because you are mad at Dad.”

And it hit me. It hit me like few things have. I wasn’t mad at him. I haven’t been mad at him. All the yelling and frustrations….it isn’t anger. It was recognition and it was sadness and it was being scared and most of all, it was helplessness at witnessing this great man succumb slowly to a death sentence I can’t argue away or buy a solution to or fight hard enough for. It was seeing him lost and confused and unable to perform a simple task that he would have been able to do a few months ago. I wasn’t mad, even though it certainly seemed that way. I was utterly broken and petrified at what I was witnessing.

As I looked at Frances and Brad, I saw the questions on their faces. Why was I upset with them when they really hadn’t done anything wrong? Why was I taking my frustrations out on them? I made the decision to be open and honest and share my realization. As I told them I wasn’t mad, but very, very sad and explained why, the tears came so unexpectedly. I forced myself not to sob, but I couldn’t keep them from my eyes. They seemed to get it. By being open and honest with them, they realized they were witnessing part of my mourning and my personal grief at the loss of their father.

Jim, Frances and Brad. Tagging our Christmas tree, Oct. 2014.

Jim, Frances and Brad. Tagging our Christmas tree, Oct. 2014.

I am not working this week.  I am pursuing options for Jim. I am not sure what will happen with my job. I know I can’t afford to quit and honestly, I don’t want to. I need a job that allows me to focus on something other than my own pity party. I need something that forces me to interact with others and shower and get dressed and put a smile on my face and fake some happiness for a time. I need that. But, I need to be able to answer the phone and attend appointments and have time to organize a family of 4.

I used to feel like I was turning into a single mom. And I kept repeating in my mind, “How do these single moms do it? Why can’t I? There must be something I am missing.”

Then a friend pointed out to me, “Karen, you are not just a single mom of two kids. You also have a third child who is home all day and who isn’t growing up to take on more responsibility, but is becoming more of a responsibility, a liability and a ‘what is going to happen next?’ How many things get broken and lost and half done that you must go behind and fix, find or financially figure out? Most single moms don’t have that extra burden.”

Friends save us. Family save us. Love hurts us and ultimately saves us. Grief rips us apart and time allows us to adjust accordingly. Alzheimer’s Disease forces you to grieve over and over again, relying on those friends and family to reappear as needed to enable us to do the adjusting that will keep us from shattering and unable to be saved.

posted by Karen in Early Signs of Alzheimer's,Early Stages of Alzheimer's Disease,Uncategorized,Younger Onset Alzheimer's Disease and have Comments (20)