It’s the little things that I think and dream about now that Mama is gone. Some of them are real and some, those in my dreamworld, are reconfigured to how I wished or hoped they had turned out.
As time passes between my parents’ deaths, I find more and more Daddy and Mama are together, the two of them and sometimes with my sisters and and sometimes just with me, but we all seem to be younger, when our lives were more together than they are now and we shared the little things that glued us together. Continue reading →
My mama, Muriel June Foster Ross, was born March 2, 1929 in Erwin, Tennessee, a small town in the hollows of the Smokey Mountains in northeast Tennessee.
From the get-go, Mama had a life full of tragedy and triumph, successes and failures, bad times and good times, love and hate, deep-down sadness and uplifted-heart happiness and forgiving and forgetting, which I chronicled in the first book I wrote after her death, a memoir about my parents and us kids and our life together titledFields of Gold: A Love Story.
My mama was a most remarkable woman in so many ways, because no matter what came her way in life, she persevered, she overcame, and she prevailed.
Mama left me with an incredible legacy and some pretty big footsteps – ironically, because Mama was a lady whose physical foot size was 4.5W while my own foot size was almost twice that big and even wider – to follow in and I see continually how far I fall short of the example she left me.
However, even in my failures, I see Mama’s legacy of prevailing and not quitting. I’ve finally been able to see that even trying and failing is doing something and that beats not failing because I’m not trying to do something any day of the week.
It’s still hard for me to fail over and over, but I find myself rehearsing Mama’s life and all the places where it looked like failure and she could’ve quit but she didn’t. And, in the end, not quitting brought incredible meaning and blessings to Mama’s life.
My mama was intelligent, curious, active, humorous, whimsical, outgoing, and loving. She had a lifelong love affair with learning anything and everything. Mama was a decent writer – she got her second Bachelor’s degree in English at the age of 54 – but she was an even better oral storyteller.
Mama’s twinkling blue eyes and her mischievous smile could light up even the darkest room. She had her dark moments, her fears, and her insecurities as well, but she reserved those for the people she loved and trusted the most: my daddy and us kids.
Mama’s journey with dementias (vascular and Lewy Body) and Azheimer’s Disease probably began in 2005. The real nuts and bolts of these neurological diseases didn’t really appear in full force and persistently until 2009. And the downhill slide was pretty precipitous from that point forward until her death (related to congestive heart failure) on August 14, 2012.
But I had the blessing of being beside Mama throughout the journey and through the end. That’s priceless. I also had the blessing that Mama didn’t live long enough to become completely uncommunicative and bed-ridden. That would have killed both of us. The journey was no picnic, but the blessing was that we shared it, and I am thankful for that.
It seems that each Mother’s Day since Mama’s death has made me miss her more than the one before. On the one hand, I’m glad Mama’s not suffering anymore. But, on the other hand, I miss her.
And not just the Mama I remember before these neurological diseases, but the Mama I remember after they appeared. There were moments interspersed with the chaos, the uncertainty, and the tough stuff that were some of the softest and gentlest and most loving moments Mama and I ever shared and those are etched just as deeply in my heart, in my soul, and in my mind.
This is the last installment in a series that Going Gentle Into That Good Night has presented to discuss, in clear, practical, and informative language, the on-going health care options in the home that are available for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
In this post, we will discuss the hospice care option. I will talk about the requirements to be admitted to hospice care and what it means for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease in terms of the kind of care they can receive.
I will also discuss how hospice care works in a home setting (there is a hospital hospice option, but we will not discuss that in this post which is geared toward caregiving for our loved ones at home).
I will also walk you through the end-of-life process and how hospice is designed to support our loved ones and provide assistance to caregivers in the immediate aftermath of the death of our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
And, finally, I will frankly and honestly talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly that the hospice experience can be and I will provide you guidance on how to handle that at a time when mentally and emotionally this can be the toughest decision we make in caring for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Hospice care, in general, is available to our loved ones only when they are in the terminal (six months or less until death) stage of an illness.
The difference between hospice care and home health or palliative care is that while home health and palliative care are curative (treatment to stabilize and/or improve to extend life), hospice care is comfort (treatment to provide physical comfort while the terminal disease takes its natural course to death without intervention).
The requirements for admission to hospice care under a dementias/Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis are essentially that our loved ones have already knocked on death’s door and the door is slightly ajar:
Must exhibit two of the following:
Ability to speak is limited to 6 words or fewer
Ambulatory ability is lost
Cannot sit up without assistance
Loss of ability to smile
Cannot hold up head
Must exhibit all of the following:
Inability to ambulate independently
Inability to dress unassisted
Inability to bathe properly
Incontinence of urine and stool
Inability to speak or communicate meaningfully
Failure to thrive in the following areas:
Progression of disease documented by symptoms or test results
Progressive stage 3-4 pressure ulcers in spite of care
Because of the prevalence of comorbid diseases – such as heart disease, unmanageable high blood pressure/strokes, diabetes, and organ failure (kidney failure is quite common in these three diseases because they affect the kidneys directly either in the disease itself or in the treatment of the disease) – that exist, especially in our elderly loved ones, alongside of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, it is very likely that admission to hospice care will be for one of the comorbid diseases instead of because of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
In my mom’s case, we transitioned to hospice care under heart disease when Mama was having chest pain regularly. The palliative care nurse suggested that we go to the emergency room one morning when the pain was particularly acute and Mama said “No,” and I backed her up (Mama and I had, a few months earlier, according to her wishes, agreed on no more hospitals). Mama had the major heart attack that would, 12 days later, result in her death the following night of the day after she was admitted to hospice.
When our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease are admitted to hospice care at home, several things are supposed to happen (I will talk later about researching and deciding on hospice care before you need it since you do not have to use the hospice care of the care agency providing home health and palliative care).
The first thing is that a comfort kit is overnighted to the home for administration when needed (and if a hospice nurse is not immediately available to provide the care). Included in the comfort kit are basics like liquid morphine (hospice will provide more if needed), mouth swabs (keeps saliva from collecting mouth and throat), and Atropine drops or Levsin (minimizes wet respiration).
Hospice also has a two-week supply of all medications that our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease are taking specifically for the disease they are admitted under overnighted to the home.
A care team consisting of nurses, a social worker, a chaplain, volunteers to sit with our loved ones if we need to get groceries, and certified nurse assistants (CNAs) to help with daily hygiene care is also put in place to assist in supporting our loved ones and their families along the journey to death.
Our loved ones and we can chose which of these non-medical care team members to utilize. In Mama’s case, for example, we had a spiritual inner circle of longtime friends-who-were-family who provided, along with God, our sole spiritual support. We also took care of daily hygiene on our own.
Our experience was less than optimal in the other areas (including nursing until a home health nurse happened to fill in for the hospice nurse the last few days of Mama’s life).
In fact, our experience was so bad that I had decided to switch to another hospice care agency two days before Mama went into her death sleep (for my readers in the Tri-Cities, Tennessee, area, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details on the various hospice providers in the area and which one I was going to change to on the recommendation of home health nurses I trusted).
Nursing visits should be frequent, but will increase to daily as death for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease draws closer.
After death, the hospice nurse will be our first contact. They will notify the funeral home, clean up and dress (you can choose to assist or not in this process – I assisted with Mama because it was a way that I could show her respect and maintain her dignity) our loved ones, and take care of the paperwork for the death certificate.
After the funeral home picks up our loved ones, the hospice nurse will, with our assistance, document, dispose of and destroy all the medications provided by hospice, including any remaining comfort care medications.
Logic would seem to indicate that hospice care team members are sensitive, gentle, and supportive. However, in many cases, none of those things are true.
I did my homework on hospices before Mama needed hospice care. I asked friends of mine who were nurses involved in elderly care for their recommendations since they dealt with all the hospice agencies in the area.
However, one of the caveats I found is that hospice agencies can deal differently with medical professionals (i.e., better) than with family members of loved ones who are in need of hospice.
When I talked to the first hospice agency that had been recommended to me, the first words out of the director’s mouth, before I’d said much more than my name, were “We’re not a babysitting service!”
The nastiness in her tone and what she said took me totally aback. Even looking into hospice care as an option is emotionally and mentally tough because it means we realize that time for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease is short and finite and we’ve accepted the reality of rapidly-approaching death.
Even though there’s a rational, logical, objective component in that realization, the emotional and mental component of wrapping our heads around it isn’t so cut and dry, and a little empathy, compassion, and gentleness in the recognition by a hospice care agency is not unreasonable to expect.
The reason is that the first contact we as caregivers and advocates for our loved ones make to a hospice care agency leaves an impression on us as to the kind of care that agency will provide for our loved ones. If they treat us badly, then it’s safe to assume that is the quality of care that our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease will receive.
I crossed the first hospice care agency off my list simply because of those first words out of the director’s mouth to me.
The hospice care agency that Mama and I ended up with was not the one I wanted because I’d had a similar bad first contact with its director. However, the hospice care unit was in the same provider that we had received home health care and were receiving palliative care from and the hospice care director showed up with the palliative care nurse on the day that Mama was having acute chest pains.
The director of hospice care said it was time to admit Mama to hospice for heart disease and I knew at that point that I didn’t have the luxury of time to get another hospice care agency lined up and on board, so I did what we needed to do for Mama, despite my strongly negative impression from my first meeting with the hospice care director.
For the first eight days Mama was under hospice care, she and I were pretty much on our own. The only real support we got was through a couple of phone calls to the 24/7 medical line.
It was not until a home health care nurse (I knew he was a home health care nurse and he confirmed it when I asked him – the night and day difference in care for Mama and support for me was that obvious) from the agency filled in for the hospice nurse who was finally supposed to visit Mama showed up four days before Mama died that I had any confidence that I had made the right decision by switching Mama to hospice care.
I share this personal experience because it’s not as unusual as you might think. I’ve heard similar stories from other people with other hospice care agencies in other parts of the United States and the world.
That’s why you need to know that, if our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease have a longer time frame to death than my mom had, you have the ability and the choice to fire a hospice agency that is not working, whatever the reason(s).
Hospice care is designed to be comfort care – and that includes good support for caregivers and the family – and if that is not the outcome for our loved ones and us, then that is unacceptable and we have the freedom to switch to an agency who does provide what a hospice care agency is supposed to.
Today is the second anniversary of my mama’s death.
I miss her. But my love, care, and concern for her well-being outweighs my own pain and loss. Because her journey through vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, and congestive heart failure is over and she sleeps peacefully, awaiting the promise of total healing in the resurrection.
This is a remembrance of Mama (written at the blog I created for the memoir I wrote about our family), who would have been 85 today. She fought with strength, dignity, and bravely in all the journeys of her life – including vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, and congestive heart failure – and left an example showing us, her kids and grandkids, how to walk and endure our own journeys. Miss my mama and love her dearly. ♥
Kay Bransford and I seem to be on the same page a lot these days, but I see that we seem to be the only ones willing to tackle these subjects, so I guess we will keep sounding the drums that all of us need to be preparing in advance for the possibility that something – whether it’s Alzheimer’s Disease, dementias, other life-threatening illnesses, or simply time and chance – could suddenly and dramatically or slowly and insidiously render us incapable of taking care of our own affairs.
It seems to me that the very thing we try most to avoid thinking about, talking about, planning for is the very thing that will eventually happen to us all. And that is death.
Denial is, in my opinion, stronger and more pervasive in this area of life than in any other. “If I don’t think about it, then it isn’t real” seems to be the underlying thinking of this denial. I’m here to tell you that all the denial in the world won’t take away its inevitability of happening.
None of us, except those who chose to usurp God’s will and end their own lives, know how or when we’re going to die.
I believe most of us assume it will be quick and instantaneously, but the reality is that, in all likelihood, most of us will probably have a period of decline in which we will need help handling our financial, legal, and medical affairs before we take our last breaths.
And, after we take our last breaths, someone will have to take care of getting us buried and ending our financial, legal, and medical status among the living.
Who would that be for you? Yes, you, the one who is reading this post. Do you know? Does that person know? If that person knows, have you made this as easy as possible for him or her by doing your part and making sure he or she has everything he or she needs to do what needs to be done?
Or, because you don’t want to think about it or talk about, will that person have the burdensome responsibility of trying to figure it out all on his or her own?
We say we don’t want to be burdens to our loved ones. By taking care of this, you and I – we – have taken a big step toward easing the magnitude of that burden that, if we live long enough, will be shouldered by our loved ones.
I did my first will and living will shortly after I turned 21. I had just graduated from college, but not before having a very serious car accident (one that I miraculously survived with some significant injuries, but nothing like what I should have suffered) just before I graduated.
I’d never been that close to being face-to-face with death before, but it made me realize that I needed to make sure that my affairs – and they were paltry in those days but even then I had life insurance – were in order for the ones I’d leave behind.
From that point on, I have been meticulous about keeping my will up-to-date, the beneficiaries on my insurance policies up-to-date, and all the information my executor will need to take care of things up-to-date. I added a DNR to my medical wishes about 20 years ago, I got my cemetery plot 15 years ago, and I wrote out my funeral service and burial wishes about 10 years ago.
Additionally, my executor has updated access and account information to everything online and offline to finish up my earthly affairs when I’m gone.
This, in my opinion, is the last act of kindness I can do in this physical life. It is also one of the greatest.
Mama used to worry that something would happen to me (i.e., that I would die before she did) and then about what would happen to her. There were times in our lives together that could have been a possibility, but I always reassured her that I’d be there with her to the end. And I was by the grace of God.
Of my parents, Daddy was a paradox when it came to this subject. On the one hand, he had life insurance that would take care of Mama after his death and he insisted, in the year before his death, that Mama get her own checking and savings accounts and get credit cards in her name only.
On the other hand, there were other areas in which he had great difficulty facing his mortality. I remember Mama suggesting that they start getting rid of clothes and other things they weren’t wearing or using anymore and Daddy’s response: “the girls can take care of that.”
The will that Daddy had in effect, until shortly before his death, was the one that he had drawn up just after he and Mama adopted us. None of the information was pertinent or relevant anymore.
After much and extended (I’m talking a couple of years) discussion between Mama and him, they finally went to a lawyer, about six weeks before he died, to have a current will drawn up.
Mama was just the opposite. Somehow, I think all the deaths of close and beloved relatives in her early years made the inevitability of death more real to her. She, primarily, during our growing up years, talked on a regular basis about what would happen to us if she and Daddy died and how we needed to take care of each other and be good kids so the road without them would be easier for us.
Not long after Daddy died, she and I sat down together (I was now checking in daily and helping her navigate through some of the things that Daddy had done and offering advice and assistance as she needed it) and she told me what she wanted – and didn’t want – as far as end-of-life wishes.
We went to an attorney together and she did a will (which she later changed to a revocable living trust), living will, and all the POA paperwork. I had copies, she had copies, and she put copies in a safety deposit box at the bank.
At that time, I didn’t need or want knowledge or access to her financial accounts, but as time went on, she needed more of my help in dealing with them, so she gave me access to get into the accounts and help her (we always sat down and did this together until she wasn’t able to anymore) keep up with bills and what she had.
By doing this with me, Mama made things much easier for me when the time came that I had to step in because she couldn’t do it.
I can’t thank Mama enough for her foresight with this gift. Instead of having to focus on everything brand new coming at me at once, I could focus on what was most important, and that was Mama: loving her, caring for her, being there for her.
The last couple of months Mama was alive, we’d be sitting close, holding hands, and talking and suddenly she’d say “I don’t want be a burden on you,” with tears rolling down her cheeks. I’d squeeze her hands and pull her closer in a hug, kissing the tears away from her cheeks, saying, “Mama, you’re not a burden to me. I love you unconditionally. I wouldn’t be anywhere else doing anything else but right here doing this with you.”
Mama would relax in my embrace and I would hold her tighter as I said these words because they were true and we both recognized that they were true, but most of all, I recognized how easy Mama had made things for me by equipping me with what I needed to step in easily and take care of the routine things so that I could save my energy, my focus, and my love for taking care of her.
In Nick Norton’s blog post, “10 Things Caregiving Taught Me in 2013,” he lists some of the things he learned from caregiving, along with his mom, for his grandfather who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease (his grandfather died in June 2013).
Several of Nick’s lessons resonated with me from my own experiences caregiving for Mama the last several years of her life as she suffered with congestive heart failure, vascular dementia, Lewy Body dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease. The lessons I learned were ones that I could not have learned any other way or through any other of life’s experiences.
That makes them priceless, although I would not have ever wanted Mama to have to go through what she went through so that I could learn them. However, I consider these lessons that I learned as Mama’s last and lasting gifts to me, giving to and helping me, as she wanted to and did with so many other people throughout her time on this earth.
One of the lessons Nick and I both learned is that until you’ve been a caregiver for a loved one with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, you will never be able to fully understand what it entails.
In the caregiving realm, it is a unique experience. Not only are you dealing with normal aging issues and health concerns, but you are also actively losing a family member – a mentor, a matriarch, a patriarch, a counselor, a beloved friend – while he or she is still alive (in these neurological diseases, we actually lose them twice).
Unlike caring for and raising children, our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease regress instead of progress. Their communication issues increase instead of decreasing. Their complete dependence grows instead of declining. Their vulnerabilities, fears, and anxieties of a lifetime on this planet come back around in full force as their worlds get smaller instead of the dissipation a child experiences as his or her world gets bigger. Their suffering will never get better. Instead, it will increasingly get worse. There’s no way to fix it, no hope for improvement, no expectation of positive changes.
It is truly a 24/7 responsibility. There is no down time. And each journey is unique, so as caregivers we are constantly responding to and adapting to surprises, to the unexpected, to the unknown. It can be both extremely mentally and physically exhausting.
The whole experience can be a very difficult thing to actually wrap your mind around, to alter your thinking to adapt to, to, in short, accept and roll with on an even keel. In my experience, this is next to impossible for many people to do, deal with, and stay with for the duration.
That ability is one of the many things that makes caregiving for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease unique. And it makes those of us who choose to do this unique.
Another of the lessons that Nick learned was to pray regularly. Although I’ve always prayed regularly, it was through caregiving for Mama that I really began to understand and practice Paul’s exhortation to pray without ceasing and Peter’s reminder to cast all my cares on Him.
My prayers became more continual, more deeply personal, and my relationship with God more intimate and more strong, as it remains and continues to grow in to this day and I intend for it to remain and grow in for the remainder of my life.
And looking for the joy in life was another lesson that, like Nick, I learned while caregiving for Mama. There were moments that we had the privilege of sharing together during those years that brought both of us joy and still make me smile when I think of them.
However, I find it much more difficult to find the joy in life in general now that Mama’s gone because it seems that life has gotten a lot harder for me since Mama’s death.
These days,I frequently ask God that if I don’t have any more value in this life if He will just mercifully end it and give me the peace of death until the next phase He has planned for me (so far, His answer has been “no” and I have to accept that until He says “yes”).
But I still try to remind myself to look for joy, even if seems elusive and gone for good, at least in this phase of life for me.
There are life lessons each of us as caregivers for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease will learn. Let’s remember not to get so caught up in the day-to-day, some of which will be sad, trying, frustrating, and full of epic fails, that we miss the bigger picture of what we’re being given the unique opportunities to learn and grow from.
This post will talk about how physical health – both preexisting conditions and and conditions that arise concurrently with or as a result of cognitive impairment and neurological damage – can be one of the most continuous and more serious sources of stress for both us as caregivers and for our loved ones who are suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementias.
All disruptions in physical health cause stress for all of us. Even a simple cold in those of us who are physically and mentally healthy causes stress because it interrupts our lives, slows down our lives, and may negatively impact our lives.
A common example for a lot of people is that if you don’t get paid medical leave at work and you can’t be at work because you’re sick, then you don’t get paid, so you have less income that paycheck. Quite frankly, that’s why so many of us just suck it up and go to work anyway unless we’re on the precipice of dying (and that’s a bit of humor, so please take it that way!) and why the entire office ends up getting colds.
The weaker immune systems in the office may end with upper respiratory infections and even pneumonia because we couldn’t afford the stress of having less money in our paycheck. That’s the current reality in the United States in a lot of companies.
So if we realize how much stress illnesses and health problems cause in us, then we understand how the stressor of physical health problems in our loved ones suffering with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease is exacerbated by the neurological impairment and decline.
Except for early onset dementia or early onset Alzheimer’s Disease (younger than 65 years of age when symptoms start), most of our loved ones are well on their way in the physical aging of their bodies and their bodies are wearing out.
High blood pressure is an interesting health stressor to look at because it can be a contributor to vascular dementia developing, yet high blood pressure is related to stress (it is actually the result of constricted arteries, so the heart has to pump harder to keep blood flow going), so this stressor is really a two-edged sword for our loved ones suffering with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. Stress causes blood pressure to rise and high blood pressure causes stress – and damage – to the heart and to the brain.
However, high blood pressure poses a third risk – and stressor – healthwise. As our loved ones age, high blood pressure becomes more difficult to manage medically, so often multiple types of medications are used, including statins, beta blockers, and diuretics, and some of these – especially long-term use of diuretics to pull fluid off the heart and extremities – have detrimental effects on kidney function and can lead to kidney failure.
Atrial fibrillation can be corrected in its early stages with some medications (with a lot of risks) and later with a pacemaker. However, when looking at a surgical option for our loved ones suffering from dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, we must always consider that going under general anesthesia will always result in further cognitive decline and impairment. And that will be a post-surgical source of more stress for our loved ones.
Defective heart valves and blocked or constricted arteries will create stress for our loved ones in many ways. First, there is physical pain associated with these conditions and pain is a stressor. There is also a decreased flow of oxygen, so breathing will become more difficult. If you’ve ever had a hard time catching your breath (or suffered from respiratory problems like asthma), you know how stressful not being able to breathe can be.
But the decreased flow of oxygen also means less oxygen to the brain, which can make cognitive impairment even more pronounced, no matter where our loved ones suffering with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease are in the course of their journeys, which is another source of stress.
I would strongly urge caregivers of loved ones who also suffer from heart problems to get their loved ones’ oxygen saturation levels tested. A continuous oxygen saturation level below 90 means that the body and the brain is not getting enough oxygen (you will find that these levels go extremely low during sleep).
Oxygen is available for home (or care facility) use and will help dramatically. A doctor has to prescribe it, but the saturation test results will make that easy. And a home health equipment company will deliver the equipment.
We used a non-tank oxygen concentrator for Mama at home and I had a portable version with a battery pack to take with us when we went out. I kept the portable oxygen concentrator charged all the time in case we lost power because I didn’t want oxygen tanks in our house (true confession: the oxygen tanks really made me nervous and I was terrified they were going to explode and kill us both and that was the only other no-electricity alternative).
Whether to surgically treat defective heart valves and blocked or constricted arteries is again a matter of weighing the overall risks with the overall benefits.
Although I strongly advise against general anesthesia with our loved ones with neurological damage and cognitive impairment, there are other surgical options that may be available to treat some of these conditions that do not require putting our loved ones all the way under anesthesia.
For example, my mom had congestive heart failure the last three years of her life, so we were both always on high alert for signs of it reaching an acute (full) stage and I got very good at knowing when we needed to do something, medication-wise, to get the fluid off her heart to prevent possible pneumonia and heart failure.
Five and a half months before Mama died, on a Friday afternoon in March (her birthday), Mama started sweating profusely and complaining of pain and nausea. I immediately started doing a medical inventory with her and trying to ascertain where the pain was and what, if anything, we could do at home to alleviate it.
When Mama vomited the first time, I asked if she wanted to go to the hospital, and she said she didn’t, but asked if I could help her over to the couch to lie down and sleep because she thought that might make her feel better.
Mama slept for about an hour with me hovering, wiping the beads of sweat off her forehead, wondering if I was doing the right thing by letting her decide to go the hospital or stay home. We’d already made the decision that she would not go back to the hospital for her heart problems, but instead would treat those at home under her doctor’s guidance.
I don’t know how I knew, but I knew this wasn’t a heart issue, but I didn’t know what else it could be. When Mama awoke from her nap, she groaned with pain and I managed to get a trash can over to her before she vomited again.
I put my hand over her heart and asked if that hurt there and Mama shook her head. I put my hand on her stomach and asked if it hurt there. Mama shook her head again. I knew she’d had her appendix out when she was 19 or 20, so I didn’t bother with her left lower side. I put my hand on her right side just below her ribs and she cried out and vomited again.
I told Mama we needed to go to the hospital and she agreed with me that time. After several hours in the ER, with pain and anti-nausea medication helping Mama with the physical symptoms, the tests the doctor had run showed that Mama had a gall bladder infection. We had to transfer at about 2 am that Saturday morning to a surgical hospital to deal with that.
The gastrointestinal (GI) doctor who came in around 6:30 am that Saturday morning told us that Mama needed her gallbladder removed. Without even worrying about the cognitive effects of general anesthesia, I knew Mama’s heart wasn’t strong enough to survive it.
I told the GI doctor that wasn’t an option because of her heart and I could visibly see the “whatever” look on his face when he very disdainfully told both of us that he could put a drain into to remove the infection under twilight anesthesia, and I’d have to take care of it for six weeks, but it wouldn’t remove the problem and we’d have to do it again within a year.
I knew the odds of us having to do it again before Mama died were slim to none, so Mama and I talked about it and we agreed to the drain. The procedure was scheduled for Sunday morning.
On Sunday morning, a nurse brought surgery paperwork into Mama’s room early for me to sign. I told her “no surgery” and I refused to sign the paperwork until the GI doctor changed it to the procedure for putting in the drain.
And even though we chose the least affecting method for Mama to do something that had to be done, it caused a lot of stress for Mama (both the procedure and the six weeks the drain was in) and it negatively affected her cognition dramatically for several weeks (she finally stabilized with a little improvement by the third week in April).
When we got home, I immediately revised Mama’s diet to include foods that would help her gallbladder and remove foods that might lead to another infection. I tried to keep a lot of fat out of our diets anyway, but I also knew that Mama had a limited amount of life left, so I indulged her love for ice cream every evening for dessert after dinner and when she told me one day she wanted “a hamburger at that place we used to go to,” I let her splurge on a Five Guys burger with the works and french fries.
But the stress of Mama’s physical health problems never fully went away after that. Even though she recovered beautifully from the gallbladder infection, the congestive heart failure was gaining ground and she was in pain with her heart frequently.
And that would increase her levels of stress, alternately making her worried – about me and the “burden” she thought she was to me (I always reassured her that she was not a burden to me and I wouldn’t be anywhere else doing anything else because I loved her) – and agitated about things.
My struggle – and our struggle as caregivers for our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Diseases along with other physical health problems – was not to let Mama’s stress get me stressed out.
Most of the time, I did pretty well managing my own stress in front of her.
But there were plenty of times where, even though Mama didn’t know it, my own stress levels from wanting to make sure she was comfortable and not in pain and that I was doing everything right and my own knowledge that the end was close even though I didn’t know what that would look like were extremely high and sustained.
Truth be told, I don’t really think even now, a year and a half after her death, my sustained stress levels have gone down. It’s seems as though I just traded one kind of stress for other – and, in my opinion, worse – kinds of stress.
(I often wonder if this is just the new normal for me. And how the effects, if I live long enough – although I hope I don’t because I don’t want to be a burden to anyone – will play out for me. I plead with God every day to end my life before I outlive my body and my brain.)
One other type of physical health stressors that are common to our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease are the cognitive impairment-related health issues. The two most common are pneumonia and urinary tract infections.
Pneumonia is many times listed as the cause of death in our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. This is because as neurological damage increases, having trouble chewing and swallowing (automatic reflexes controlled by the brain) causes choking (a stress mechanism) and food gets aspirated into the lungs, causing infection.
Urinary tract infections can be very common in our loved ones as well. A lack of hydration can be one cause, while improper hygiene can be another cause. However, both can, at the same time, be causes. Urinary tract infections are treatable with antibiotics, so it’s imperative to start those as soon as symptoms appears.
One of the most common symptoms of a urinary tract infection in our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease is a sudden and sharp cognitive decline marked by profound confusion, extreme agitation, and sometimes physically aggressive behavior (a stress mechanism) where there was none before.
So, if we as caregivers observe this in our loved ones, we need to seek immediate medical treatment for them, either by home health nurses or by going to the ER.
This concludes this series on stressors and how they affect our loved ones with cognitive impairment and neurological damage. I hope it’s been informative.
I plan on doing another series in the future on some of the ways we – who are still healthy mentally and physically – can reduce or eliminate the potential stressors others might face if we get terminally ill (these are terminal illnesses) or we die.
While this article gives brief explanations of what and why you shouldn’t say certain things to caregivers of loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease (and any other chronic age-related illness), I would like to focus on being mindful of what we say to caregivers who are taking care of loved ones suffering from dementias, Alzheimer’s Disease, and/or other age-related illnesses. The human proclivity is to talk without thinking and my hope is that, with this post, we’ll all slow down, take a deep breath, and think before we speak.
As difficult as it may be to comprehend in our multitasking, “have-it-all, do-it-all,” split-second world, once we chose to become caregivers, our lives stop in many ways and we have a single focus: taking care of the loved one(s) entrusted to our care.
This has become an anomaly in our 24/7 digital, connected, always-on society. Personally, I believe it is why caregivers often find themselves alone in taking care of their loved ones. Siblings, friends, and other family just can’t slow down, disconnect, and, yes, sometimes, can’t be bothered with the labor and time-intensive task of caring for a loved one.
I always add caveats to these black-and-white statements, so please know that I understand there are many circumstances, sometimes way beyond our control, to be an interactive part of the caregiving process.
What I am talking about here are the able, the capable, but the unwilling and unrelenting people within the circle of our lives who could, but won’t step up to the plate, but who often are our most vocal critics.
But this post isn’t a diatribe against these people. There are a lot of reasons for why, some of which I and all the other caregivers out there will never understand, and accepting that is part of building character. It is what it is. Anger, resentment, and bitterness don’t hurt anyone but us and our loved ones, so please don’t let any of these take root and let them become who we, as caregivers, are.
This post is about what we all should be mindful of not saying to caregivers of loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, dementias, and/or other age-related illnesses. It is about thinking before we speak and putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It is about sensitivity, care, concern, and love.
Most of the people who say some of these things listed in “11 Things You Should Never Say To a Caregiver,” have never been caregivers for loved ones and would never consider being caregivers because it would mean they would have to sacrifice their lives, give up what they want to do, put their own goals and ambitions aside – and risk losing their place and relevance in their careers, their social networks, their lives as they define them (and when a person makes the choice to be a caregiver to a loved one first and foremost, it dramatically, and not always positively, changes his or her life in all these areas both on a short-term and long-term basis).
I get that. Once upon a time in my own life, I was all about me, about my career, my success, my move up the corporate ladder. Every career move I made was a step forward, carefully planned (and blessed and allowed by God, much like Jacob in his life [reading through Genesis in the last week or so has made me realize how similar my view of myself is to Jacob’s view of himself until he hit critical mass and realized that he was the beneficiary of God’s blessings, much the same position I find myself in now]) even in spite of, many times, my arrogance and belief that it was all me – my talent and ability moving me ahead.
But always, and this was perhaps the thing that somehow, in spite of me, kept me grounded, I was deeply connected to love, responsibility, and obligation to my family, especially to my parents. Daddy and Mama sacrificed a lot to adopt us kids. They, in their own ways, both gave up more lucrative careers to build a family with us.
I bonded with these two people who chose me when they could have chosen anyone, and in spite of our rocky places, our mutual lack of understanding at times, our frustration with each other because we couldn’t find common middle ground at times, in the end, we loved each other unconditionally, and it was that unconditional love that tied us together no matter what.
So, when my time came around to complete the circle of life, I failed Daddy more than I failed Mama. I still, when Daddy was so sick, had not quite gotten beyond what I wanted and the idea that my life was all about me.
I will regret that the rest of my life and I will regret that I didn’t know what I didn’t know about what Mama was going through after Daddy died. But I didn’t know. Some lessons take time and they take longer to effect the changes that I wish could have happened sooner.
It didn’t then. It has now.
I’ve had to make a lot of peace with myself and with God (and, at times, still find myself making peace with myself and God as I realize where I let both Daddy and Mama down, unknowingly along the way) that I was younger and just didn’t get it the way it was back then. I did the best I could, although I wish I’d done better and more, in spite of the limitations of understanding, of experience, of knowledge I had then.
Time is both a curse and a blessing. In the middle of time, we don’t have a clue. We move through it blindly, occasionally having flashes of light and inspiration and understanding, but never really grasping it fully. After that time has passed, we have time to think, to reflect, to dissect, to analyze, and it is there that we gain wisdom, understanding, and often times, change for the better. It is never an easy process in either circumstance, but if we learn from it, then it brings about permanent and positive changes.
A few months before Daddy died, he and I sat down, face-to-face, at the kitchen table that had been the gathering place for our family from my earliest memories. We held hands. He asked me to promise him that I would take care of Mama when he was gone. I promised him that I would.
I knew that day that Daddy didn’t have much time left. His heart function was very low and there were no options left for him to change that. It was the last time I would see him alive. He died about three and a half months after we had that conversation.
Daddy’s death was probably the beginning point of my stepping up to the caregiving role for Mama. There was a protectiveness for both of them that I’d had since I had graduated from college, gotten a job, and was in a position to help them through the rest of their lives, no matter how or where they needed the help.
After Daddy died, that protectiveness took hold much more deeply with regard to Mama. Something in me changed and I realized I was willing to do whatever it took to make sure Mama was okay, safe, secure, and comfortable. Although it took time for me to be willing to give up everything and make Mama the physical priority in my life (and I did), the root of that decision took hold the day Daddy died.
Along the way, after Daddy’s death and as Mama progressed with vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Lewy Body dementia, I heard many of the eleven things you should never say to caregivers.
Fortunately, by the time I heard them on a regular basis, my commitment, my focus, my life, on a physical level, was completely dedicated to Mama being where she wanted to be (and where I wanted her to be), which was at home with me, and I actually, once I got over the initial “how could you even say that?!?” reaction I always had, learned to just let it go.
In the end, when we come to these decisions and choices with our loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease and/or dementias, we have to get thick skins and realize that most of the things that people who have never been through this say are not malicious, not unkind, and not critical, but are simply a product of inexperience, ignorance (and I don’t mean that in a bad way – no one can know what they don’t know), and a lack of understanding.
This, for me, was where I really learned about not being easily offended, about forgiveness, about compassion, and about mercy. Good lessons. I still have a lot to learn, but I’ve made progress.
So the list of what not to say is provided here as a guide, an educational tool, an effort on my part to offer experience to those who don’t have experience, to teach those who don’t know, to provide understanding those who may not understand.
It is not a criticism. It is not a condemnation. It is simply another step to bridge the gap, which this blog, in part, was created to do, so that we all know a little more, understand a little more, and can help a little more as we interact with those caregivers of loved ones with Alzheimer’s Disease, dementias, and other age-related illnesses among our friends and our family.