This post will include an excerpt from chapter 1, which thorough covers the first step in the journey through dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease, which is mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
The title of the book, as well each chapter title, may, depending on your age and musical tastes (mine run toward eclectic, alternative, and indie) sound familiar.
That was intentional on my part for two reasons.
One reason is because music is a universal language, and music can often be comforting to our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
The other reason – one that caregivers do continually – was to look at something familiar in an entirely different context that broadens our relationship to and with it. If you’re familiar with these lines (a list of the song titles and artists for each song line/chapter title is included at the end of the book), you will never listen to these songs the same way again after reading this book.
And that’s the point: life is never the same after our loved ones and we have gone through the journey of dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease. Everything changes, including us.
Most of the changes are personal, internal, and deep. They should be positive in terms of growth in love, compassion, empathy, care, concern, gentleness, kindness, patience, and self-control.
But they will also reflect a greater recognition and understanding of a hostile world that needs change (we have faith that change will come) and a greater awareness – and peace with – our own frailty and mortality as mere humans who only dance on this earth for a short while.
And, on the other side of the journey, we often find ourselves mostly alone, except for a few along the way that we know or befriend who have or are sharing the same journey, in the changes to who we are and how we view the world and how we view life.
That’s not a criticism to those who haven’t been through this journey – and we pray they don’t have to go through it, but we know the odds are not in their favor – but simply a statement of fact.
It’s sad at times and painful at times, but it’s the reality that, for now, we have to live with and move forward in spite of.
Excerpt “Chapter 1: ‘I Don’t Remember, I Don’t Recall'”
“Because it affects short-term memory, mild cognitive impairment affects the recent past and the present.
What does this look like in practical terms?
Repeating things in conversations, stories, and writing
This manifests itself in telling the same things over and over, and with each retelling, it’s as though it’s the first time telling it. It is very similar to the effect of a scratch in an old vinyl record, where that point in the track gets replayed over and over until someone goes over and physically lifts the needle up and moves it beyond the scratch. However, with our loved ones, it’s rarely that easy or that simple.
Frequently losing and misplacing things
We all, from time to time, pick things up, get derailed in going from point A to point B, laying the things down somewhere in between, and then having no idea where we put them when we finally get to point B. However, with mild cognitive impairment, this becomes normal.”
It’s a finalist in the SeniorHomes.com Best Senior Living Awards 2014 books categories.
A panel of judges will determine the SeniorHomes.com expert winner, but your votes will determine the People’s Choice winner. Voting is open until May 12, 2014. So, if you haven’t had a chance to vote yet, I’d certainly appreciate you doing some research into my book and giving me a vote if you think it’s a good offering in this category.
Early on in Mama’s dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease – as I was grappling with understanding and accepting what was happening to her mind – it occurred to me that all humans go through an initial incline, a longer period of plateau, and then a final decline.
The decline mimics childhood in reverse, until if we live long enough we end up being like a newborn, totally helpless, totally dependent, unable to express ourselves except through the most primal language we humans have: laughter and tears.
I always told Mama that I’d do everything possible to make sure her second childhood was better than her first one. I did my best, making mistakes along the way (just like there are no instruction manuals for the day-in, day-out parenting of a child, there are no instruction manuals for becoming a parent to your parent, so you learn as you go), but assured that the one place I did not fail Mama was in making sure she knew she was loved, she was wanted, and I wasn’t going to leave her.
My hope is that in our simultaneous and shared journey of her taking two steps back and one step up and me taking two steps up and one step back that, in the end, my love, my care, my concern, my devotion, and my commitment was enough to make up for all the things I didn’t know, didn’t understand, and sometimes screwed up because of my own ignorance and ineptness.
This is not a journey for the faint-hearted. Once committed, even though no one ever really knows what they’re getting into, it requires a lot of tenacity and a lot of prayer. But it also requires unconditional love, abundant mercy, infinite patience, persistent gentleness, and unfailing kindness.
These are the life and character lessons parents learn from raising their kids. For those of us fortunate enough to complete the circle of life for our parents as they go gentle into that good night, we get the opportunity to learn these same life and character lessons.
It is a priceless gift and one I’m thankful to have received.
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.
In this post, we will look at three common areas that can be stressors for our loved ones with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease and what we as caregivers can do to reduce or eliminate these sources of stress.
A source of stress for all human beings is not having our needs met. These include physical needs, spiritual needs, emotional needs, and psychological needs. Even for those of us who have no cognitive impairment, these needs are difficult, at times, to quantify and to verbalize.
For our loved ones with cognitive impairment, where thought and verbiage are tangibly disconnecting from each other, expressing needs that need to be met is even harder, if even possible. Therefore, the responsibility lies with us as caregivers to examine whether there may be needs that aren’t being met.
I strongly urge each of us as caregivers to call to conscious memory who our loved ones were before dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease took center stage. This exercise is vital in determining what needs our loved ones may have that are not being met and then finding ways to meet those needs.
So, let’s ask some questions. Was your loved one a social person who enjoyed being around people? Were faith and spiritual sustenance an important part of your loved one’s life? Was your loved one hot or cold-natured? What were your loved one’s food preferences, meal schedules, and general diet look like? Did your loved one like to exercise or not? Did your loved one like being outdoors or indoors? Did your loved one prefer a lot of light coming into the house or did your loved one prefer less light?
While this list is not exhaustive, we should be able to to see areas in which our loved ones with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease may have unmet needs. If our loved one was always cold-natured, for example, and we keep the temperature in our homes low, then the need that needs to be met is ensuring that our loved one is warm at all times, whether that means dressing them in layers or turning up the thermostat.
Another example would be that, if our loved one was a social person who loved to be around other people a lot, he or she may be lonely or experiencing isolation as their social network disappears (this happens frequently, I believe, because of the discomfort that a lot of people experience around dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease and because communication can be difficult, so most people don’t make the effort). An easy remedy to this can be something as simple as going to sit in a bookstore, a library, or even the mall on a regular basis. Even though our loved ones may not be making one-on-one contact with all those people, we can talk with them and they can be surrounded by people and it gives the same effect.
I offer these to hopefully stimulate our creativity in safely and successfully eliminating, as far as we are able as caregivers, the unmet needs of our loved ones with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease. As needs get met, there will be less depression and less apathy, which is often the result of unmet needs.
Another stressor can be the physical environment. As cognition declines, the ability to sort through complex situations to have a sense of where to go, what to do, and how to do it becomes increasingly difficult.
So let’s look at some ways that physical environment can make this even more stressful for our loved ones suffering with dementias and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Let’s take clothing (which for me, personally, has always been a challenge because of a rare aspect of color-blindness I suffer from, so I have a very limited and basic wardrobe to eliminate this as a stressor from my life). For our loved ones suffering with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease, opening a closet full of clothes and shoes is a stressor. Often times, when you see someone wearing the same clothes several days in a row, it’s because the physical environment component of trying to pick clothes out of a closet is too stressful.
There are several ways to eliminate this as a stressor. One is to pare down the clothing to a few outfits and to put clothes that are meant to be worn with each other together on the same hanger. Another way to address this is to lay the day’s clothing out where it needs to be put on (for example, a daytime outfit hangs on the closet door – don’t forget the shoes! – and pajamas are on the pillow on the bed).
Why does this help? Beyond the obvious reason that it reduces stress and confusion, it can often also help our loved ones be more independent in personal grooming and dressing. Most dependence comes from simply not knowing what to do. If we as caregivers can eliminate the stressor of having to make complex choices, then we can also give the gift of more independence to our loved ones.
In many ways, this is no different from what parents do with children as they grow up to make the children more independent in taking care of their own needs as much as they are able. It reduces the stress for everyone involved, and our loved ones are no different in that respect.
Other physical environment components that can be huge stressors are clutter and a lack of organization. Remember that our loved ones with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease are also experiencing visuoperceptual changes. Therefore, the more clutter and lack of organization that is in our loved ones’ physical environments, the more stress from visuoperceptual issues will affect our loved ones negatively.
Practical ways to eliminate this stressor are to get rid of the clutter and get organized. Pathways need to be clear. Get rid of unnecessary and distracting knick-knacks and other items that are just taking up space (often having too many things to look at is overstimulating and creates stress). Have all living areas organized.
For example, Mama spent a lot of time in the recliner in the living room where she could read, look outside, and we could do activities together. The end table next to the chair was organized with her hearing aids (in a case), her glasses (in a case), her Bible, and a coaster with a fresh glass of water on it at all times. Everything went in the same place every time, so Mama knew exactly where to find what she wanted or needed.
The last stressor that we’ll discuss in this post is daily routines for our loved ones with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease. Unstructured or erratic routines are huge source of stress for our loved ones, in part, because they’re losing or have lost their internal clocks of knowing when to do what and they’re depending on us as caregivers to help them, and when we don’t seem to have an internal clock and schedule of when to do what, it’s frightening.
The unpredictability of something as simple as mealtimes can be very, very scary (think about when we were kids and didn’t know how to tell time and if our parents had eaten whenever the mood struck them, there would’ve been a real concern about if we’d ever eat again).
If bedtime’s at a different time every night, then our loved ones suffering with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s Disease don’t know when they’re supposed to sleep and when they’re supposed to be awake. And if our daytime routines are different every day, there is absolutely no sense of a firm foundation that our loved ones can count on and expect to happen in sequence each day.
All of these create a huge amount of stress for our loved ones. And it’s unnecessary stress that can easily be eliminated. However, it means that we, as caregivers, need to put ourselves on a schedule and adhere to it without deviation (and that can be inconvenient, at times, for us, but it’s not about us, but about our loved ones, so we just have to have the discipline to make it happen).
Once a predictable routine is established and followed, this stressor will be eliminated from the many possible stressors that our loved ones suffering with dementias and/or Alzheimer’s may have be dealing with.
A lot of this is just common sense, but sometimes we have to be reminded to use common sense because life can be quite chaotic and crazy to the point that we, as caregivers, forget to stop, step back, and ascertain what we can do to help our loved ones out. It takes time and it takes patience and it takes slowing down to their paces, but they are worth it!
This is a very personal and interesting article. I know my strengthening faith and God’s intervention, profound and miraculous at just the right time, guided me through this journey with Mama and I also know that Mama’s very strong faith guided her in the journey as well.
There wasn’t a day when the 5th commandment, which I call the “bridge” commandment because it applies to both our physical parents and to our Father in heaven, didn’t present itself prominently in my mind. I have always told God that I don’t want a long life (the promise of the 5th commandment obeyed), because a long life is no guarantee of a quality life, but that I want a life that eventually reflects Him completely.
Although I made my mistakes, had my shortcomings, and let Mama down at times along the course of her time and my time together as mother and daughter, just as I’ve made and make my mistakes, have my shortcomings, and have and do let God down at times as He and I have walked and walk together on our journey as Father and daughter, my hope is that the sum total of the balance sheet shows that I took (and still take) the 5th commandment seriously and there’s a positive balance at the end of my time on this earth.