Why It’s Okay to be a Proud Caregiver: A Story About My Grandma

This is a story about caregiving.

And it’s a story about my grandmother, Betty Catherine Terry Vickers Mohesky.

She was a caregiver, and she rocked it.

Let me acknowledge that loss is undeniably linked to caregiving.

My grandpa had multiple chronic illnesses. He had cancer. He had diabetes. He eventually had his leg amputated. For ten or so years, we watched his functionality and independence decline. He passed away when I was in grad school.

It is not my intent here to focus on that loss. It’s my intent here to focus on what I saw as a gain.

My grandmother didn’t finish school. Throughout her life, she was a hard worker, but she never had what I’d call a career. It was rare to see her dressed up. She loved fishing, and you’d often see her in stained jean cutoffs or what she called her “highwaters.” When capri pants came back around 2000, she joked that she’d been wearing them all along.

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She wasn’t sophisticated, fancy, or educated, but she was fierce.

My uncles were in an motor vehicle accident that she attributed (and rightly so) to a poor designed bridge. She pestered the state legislators to modify the bridge. After a young woman died on the bridge, they finally made the changes. After my grandma died, they named the bridge after her. If you are ever driving near Cuba, Missouri, keep your eyes open for the Betty Vickers Memorial Bridge.

But here’s what I want you to know about her…

Caregiving made her better. She learned about blood sugar and the pancreas and blood thinners and kidneys and dialysis. She drove my grandpa an hour each way several times a week for kidney dialysis. She kept up communication with several specialists. She got him to every medical test and procedure and appointment.

When I visited their house, I would scope out this calendar by the house phone (which was just known as “the phone” at the time). There was no Google calendar, just this free calendar that the bank distributed yearly.

It was stacked with medical appointments–sometimes more than one in a day. The wall by the phone was also plastered with business cards of medical offices and services. She kept everything straight. In fact, she made it look easy. I’d hire her as my personal assistant anytime.

When it was time for my grandpa to do home dialysis, she became the master of the equipment and procedure. She would proudly explain to us the steps she had to take to make sure it was sterile. And I’d think it was weird that this tube ran straight from my grandpa’s bladder into the house toilet at night.

Over her years of caregiving, she was forced to learn about a multiple of health conditions. But forced isn’t really the word I’m looking for…she didn’t go looking for these challenges but she embraced them.

She obviously didn’t want my grandpa to have increased medical needs, but she took pride in how she’d learn the ins and outs from his doctors and share info with us. Caregiving threw her into this new world, and she was pretty damn good at navigating this new world.

At the doctor’s office, they called her “Nurse Betty.” And she loved it. She gained a sense of confidence about her knowledge and ability in the area of health care.

It’s only years later that I can see the irony of this…My grandpa’s increased health needs led to a sense of accomplishment for my grandma.

Maybe it’s bittersweet, but when I think of my grandma during this time, I smile with pride.

She took on the challenge. It wasn’t one she was prepared for. She didn’t have the knowledge or education to read medical records, but she figured it out. She asked questions. She advocated for my grandpa. Through the process, she made friends with nurses and the families of fellow patients.

She left the hospital at one point to run to Walmart. A nurse had just complimented a pair of sandals she was wearing. It was important that my grandma proceed to Walmart immediately to buy her an identical pair.

I know she didn’t enjoy my grandpa’s health struggles, but she excelled in the environment she was put in as a result of them. She was a rock star in the caregiver world. She developed new skills. She met new people. In fact, she saw her role as to take care of not only my grandpa but also every other patient, family member, and nurse in that hospital. She’d never call it caregiving. She was just being herself.

My grandma died in 2012. When told she had cancer and had limited time, she responded, “But what will people do without me?”

Then she asked about someone she knew who had recently been admitted across the hall on the palliative care floor.

“That’s just terrible. I hope they are going to be okay,” she said. This was about 72 hours before she passed away.

She taught me a lot of things…but what stands out to me is that she thrived in a world she never asked to be a part of and would have exited in a minute given the opportunity.

She never wanted to provide care for my grandpa. She never wanted him to be chronically ill in the first place. But she didn’t have a choice.

And she was amazing.

She had every right to be proud.

And, those of you who are carers, you have every right to be proud as well. I know you may not feel like you’re rocking it every single day, but you’ve developed skills. You’ve solved problems. You’ve advocated.

Maybe you thought you could never give a shot to a loved one, and now it’s second nature. Maybe you didn’t cook before your wife had Alzheimer’s, and now you can cook a pretty decent meal for two. Maybe you’re a shy person who doesn’t want to bother anyone, and now you’ve learned to tell the nurses when they need to pay more attention to your mom.

Perhaps you feel like a different person than when you started. Maybe you’re more tired and stressed. But maybe, just maybe, you find a sense of accomplishment when you do something as a caregiver that you didn’t think you could do. And you shouldn’t apologize for that.

Caregiving is tough. Don’t feel bad about claiming a reward when you get one.

You got your dad an appointment in neurology when the receptionists originally said they were full. You learned to read that MRI by Googling “how to read an MRI.” You drove to Mayo Clinic and figured out where to park and what building your appointment was in. You convinced your insurance company your wife needed that CT when they originally wouldn’t pay for it. You talked Mom into taking a shower when she hadn’t done so in a week. Yes, those are accomplishments.

Caregiving is full of small–and large–accomplishments.

I give you permission to feel that sense of accomplishment as a caregiver. I know you didn’t want to be here….I know you would prefer if you didn’t need to be a caregiver.

But now that you are here—feel free to admit that you are pretty dang awesome.

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Dementia and Mental Energy: How Do You Choose to Spend Your Limited and Precious Mental Energy?

Mental energy. Why are we not talking more about mental energy in relation to dementia?

A few days ago I listened to an insightful and unexpectedly funny panel of individuals living with dementia talk about their experiences. The entire conference was great, but no other speakers could really compete with the panelists.

As they sat on a stage in front of a decent-sized audience, they talked about the importance of their advocacy on behalf of people living with dementia. A few mentioned that their advocacy work gave them purpose. All of them described events that they had taken part in and, in many cases, organized. They talked about the public speaking that they do. One man described how he and his wife put together a fundraiser on the fly…and it was overwhelming successful.

Then one of the panelists mentioned that it comes with a cost.

It’s tiring.

Individuals with dementia have limited mental energy (which leads to limited physical energy, by the way).

Let’s say I have 100 units of mental energy. (Actually, I know of no metric of mental energy and I’m making this up as I go.) I can put a lot of mental energy into a few things, or I can put a little mental energy into a lot of things. It’s my choice.

But when my mental energy is gone, it’s gone. And you’ve all been there. A long day at work. The day you took your SATs or GREs or LSATs or had to do a test or evaluation for your job. Just a day when nothing went quite right and you had to spend your whole day fixing stuff.

You’re irritable. You’re frustrated. Maybe you have an outburst. Maybe you withdraw. Maybe you just close your eyes are go to sleep at 7:30pm.

As dementia progresses, those units (you know, the ones I made up) decrease. If a person with dementia used to get 100 units a day, they may get 90, 80, 70….but it’s not consistent by the day. One day you may have more units, and the next day your units are depleted.

Oh, and you can often roll over those units. You can rest one day to have a high energy day the next day because maybe your grandkids are coming over. You can also try to steal from the next day. Maybe today’s the 4th of July and you are committed to going to four cookouts and then the fireworks. If you can’t move tomorrow, you don’t care. We have to be careful with that strategy because sometimes we intend to steal a tiny bit from the next day but end up decimating the whole week’s energy units. (These energy units are starting to sound a bit like Weight Watcher points, aren’t they?)

There are other principles for these energy units. You may know some vampires who steal your mental energy. Maybe a co-worker. Or a family member. Or a really disagreeable checker at your local Target. When you try to steal your energy back from the vampires, you end up wasting additional mental energy. You can and should do your best to protect your mental energy from these vampires.

I will add that I am a work in progress when it comes to not spending mental energy on vampires. Today I let a disagreeable Delta gate agent steal about 27 of my mental energy units in the process of getting a seat assignment.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the panelists living with dementia and their commitment to educating us. And I was grateful to them for using their limited energy in this way. When your energy units become limited for any reason, how you use them needs to become even more intentional. And these individuals chose to spend their mental energy educating folks like me.

One of the principles I cling to in this field is that people living with dementia and their care partners have the right to navigate this disease however they choose.

If you want to spend your precious and limited energy on a cross country camping trip, it’s yours to spend. If you want to spend your precious and limited energy on continuing to work at your job, it’s yours to spend. If you want to spend your precious and limited energy on cooking and keeping your house clean, it’s yours to spend.

Just be intentional. And when you find you’re running out of mental energy too often, it’s time to prioritize.

I realize that I’m not just talking about people living with dementia. I’m looking at everyone….including family care partners who often forget that they can’t do everything, be everywhere, and fix everything.

We all have precious and limited energy. When we can’t increase that energy, our only option is to be wise in how we spend it.

I have a challenge for you this week. When you realize something is taking up too much of your mental energy….when you realize that the cost is too high…just walk away. Or maybe run.

Yesterday I considered buying a sweatshirt at SoulCycle. I looked at the price tag. It was almost $200.

I walked away. It was too high of a price to pay. It wasn’t worth it. It just wasn’t in the budget.

If only I could be so intentional with how I spend my mental energy….

When Dementia Knocks: Update

Hi friends! Just a bit of a blog update. You can now find me online at WhenDementiaKnocks.com. Tell your friends.

In addition, I started a Facebook page with the title When Dementia Knocks. This is a place to post my blog as well as provide some other dementia resources. If you’re a Facebook person and you feel compelled to “like” the page, you can find it here: https://business.facebook.com/DementiaKnocks/

If you aren’t a Facebook person because you think it’s catty and are sick of seeing your relatives argue about Trump, I get that. Good for you.

It appears in the “business” section of Facebook but don’t worry–I’m not selling you anything (except some bad humor). As you may have realized, I’m seriously opposed to pushing products and services or even recommending them.

AND (man, I’ve been busy) I know have a Twitter handle (@dementiaknocks) for the blog. You can find that here: https://twitter.com/DementiaKnocks

I am hoping that being more involved in social media will reach some individuals I am currently not reaching. I guess this is how the youngsters do it nowadays.

In other blog news, I have a new favorite coffee shop to write. It has a latte called the Optimist–which is blackberry mocha flavored. I feel like I’m getting more optimistic just by drinking it.


When Dementialand meets CFland (A Guest Blog from a Friend)

Today we take a break from Q’s and their corresponding A’s for a special guest blog post from my thoughtful friend, Drew Dotson. You might remember Drew as the woman who teaches improv classes and helped me see that some of the same skills and perspectives that can be used in improv theater can also be used with individuals who have dementia.

She was also one of my cheerleaders in the early stages of this blog when I was wondering if anyone would even be interested in reading what I had to say. I was surprised when she could relate to some of my blog posts on the basis of her own diagnosis, which is very different from Alzheimer’s and related dementias. 

You see, Drew lives with cystic fibrosis, a disease that now has a median survival rate of about 40 years. My chats with her have made me realize she has a similar challenge to some of my friends living with dementia. How do you enjoy today when you know tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after that, could mean a progression of your disease? How do you live, really live, when you know your “good days” might be limited? How do you appreciate what you’ve got right in front of you when (as Drew puts it) it’s a one-way street heading in the less-than-fortunate direction?

So here is the adorable and incredibly insightful Drew on her thoughts on living in the moment without fear of the future….

I was 8 years old. I went to the doctor for a routine appointment, and I left there a changed person. I guess, by most standards, having cystic fibrosis isn’t routine, but this appointment wasn’t out of the ordinary. CF is a genetic disease primarily affecting the lungs and digestive system due to an excess of thick mucus. I knew I had CF, did breathing treatments every day, took pills to aid in digestion, etc. However, I didn’t realize that CF was anything more than a part of my day-to-day routine.

Then, as my mom stood at the front desk to schedule my next appointment, I browsed the bulletin boards hanging in the clinic. I glanced at a feel-good article about a man who had run a long-distance race, which was “remarkable considering he was 31 years old, which is beyond the life expectancy for someone with cystic fibrosis.” I froze. I reread the line: “beyond the life expectancy for someone with cystic fibrosis.” I began to process. Beyond the life expectancy? At 31 years old? But 31 is so young. And, if 31 is beyond the life expectancy, what is the life expectancy?

Sometimes, in our lives, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when things change. Some changes happen gradually and, before you know it, things are different. Other times, there is a specific event – a diagnosis, an important loss, surprising news – when you can say, in that moment, “This changes everything.”

Having simply considered CF to be something I handled every day, learning its fatality was heartbreaking. I felt so sad. I felt so hopeless. The third grade should be a happy, carefree time, with homework being the only thing to slow a child down. But I’d learned devastating news that would impact the rest of my life. There was no turning back; there was no undoing it.

From this distinct moment on, I began living a life centered on fear. It may not have always shown outwardly, but it was always there, lingering. I remember crying a lot, particularly at nights, knowing that I would never get to grow old. I had a lot of career aspirations, like most kids, but the future suddenly became a source of anxiety. I should have been looking forward to things, but instead began living with an awful feeling of dread.

This future was always weighing heavily on my heart. The fact of the matter is that CF is progressive. CF is irreversible. CF is fatal. Knowing this information, it’s unrealistic to think, ‘Well, maybe things will get better!’ As blunt as it sounds, it’s a one-way street heading in the less-than-fortunate direction. There may be medical advancements – maybe even a cure one day – but those are the maybes; they aren’t the current reality.

Growing older was always a struggle for me because it brought me closer and closer to the inevitable.  I realized I was more afraid of dying than I was afraid of not living. Yes, I will repeat that. I was more afraid to die than to not live. I was more afraid of the time I wouldn’t have than failing to use the time I did have. I was concerned about being robbed of life instead of appreciating the opportunities right before me.

Yes, CF is progressive. It is irreversible. It is fatal. I couldn’t change any of these things, but I could work to change my perspective. If I focused on the darkest parts – the struggle, the decline, the end – I might miss the sources of light – feeling loved, sharing a laugh, experiencing joy. Although the future carried with it a lot of uncertainty, I could no longer allow myself to overlook the precious moment that is today.

This wasn’t easy. It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, starting tomorrow, I’m going to be grateful. Done.’ It has been a process, and it will continue to be. Each day is different. On days when CF is front and center – like when I’m sick, when I see doctor after doctor, etc. – it can be especially challenging. However, I realized that the end could truly only interfere with the now if I let it. The present is this moment alone. If I can be in a moment without spiraling into thoughts of what used to be or what will come, I can find peace.

Although dementia and CF are not scientifically similar, there are many parallels. We have unpredictable lives due to our conditions. We know we can’t undo the damage that has already been done, but we can hope that things progress slowly and that we’re one of the best-case scenarios. Likewise, we longingly wish for a cure, knowing that we may not benefit from it, but maybe, one day, nobody will go through this.

In Dementialand and CFland alike, the future is a source of anxiety. While we don’t know the exact timeline, we know that there will be a decline. We redefine what “normal” means based on the current situation. We reminisce about how things used to be, and we worry about what things will come to be. The progression, for the most part, is beyond our control. However, we can do our best to keep “the end” from completely overshadowing the beauty in “the now.”

It can be hard to maintain a positive perspective when dealing with so much uncertainty. It takes conscious work, but it can be done. With so many factors beyond our control, the best way we can take charge is by being present. Imagine seeing your loved one with dementia smile and feeling joy rush into your heart. It may not be the smile it used to be. You may have fears of that smile going away. But that smile is still a smile, and it is joyous. When those moments of anxiety begin to creep in, remember that the feelings are only there because you care so deeply about someone. If that thought can be cycled back into something positive – love for someone – then you can resume your time in “the now.”

We may not be able to change the prognosis, but we can keep our focus on the present. By honing in on moments of delight, we can continue to live in the light.

Drew Dotson
To help Drew cure CF, visit: http://fightcf.cff.org/goto/drewdotson.

When You Are Accused of Being a Diva in Dementialand

Today is my third (of a still undetermined number) of Q & A’s in Dementialand. Today’s question is from an individual who has been diagnosed with Frontotemporal Dementia.

Dx bvFTD in 2007 (right after I did a kidney donation to a guy in Los Angeles, so it was my last legally sane act…I am so damned blessed).

I’ve been trying to find some information about sensory overload/flooding in FTD but have only found it on sites for autism and TBI. My family, in which there is no discernment between mental illness and organic disease, doesn’t actually believe in FTD and, therefore, I don’t have it, I’m just a diva. I cannot be with them or anyone else for any reason because the effects on my ‘self’ are devastating and sometimes takes days to recover. I didn’t even go to my dad’s funeral. I cannot tolerate someone else’s noise or loud talking; if a child cries I go into a rage. A kid at a museum display knocked into me to get in front and I pushed him right back and told him to STOP. The mother was livid and threatened me; I just looked her in the eye and told her to teach her damn kid about personal space.

All of the above are normal symptoms, I guess, but for the next time I’m told “Why won’t you come? It’s just the family” an article based on science would go a long way in an attempt to explain. I can no longer explain anything anymore (my caregiver is writing this for me based on my babblings).
Thanks so much for any information you can provide.


Dear D,

Let me start with this…I did a series of posts on dementia and the senses. Here you go:

Sight: What You See in Dementialand

Hearing: What You Hear in Dementialand

Taste: What You Taste in Dementialand

Touch: What You Touch in Dementialand

Smell: What You Smell in Dementialand

You can email these to your friends and family.  You can send them text links. You can print them out and mail them. You can even read them aloud or deliver them on a silver platter while wearing a tuxedo or ballgown. If I’m being honest, my friend, I don’t think this is going to make a bit of difference.

You see, these people have not yet been responsive to your diagnosis and the changes occurring in your life. They could have googled to learn more about Frontotemporal Dementia. They could have asked you or your caregiver questions. They could have shown an interest in learning how to support you. And they haven’t.

I wish I could tell you the words to say when they are disrespectful and doubtful of your diagnosis to make them understand. I regret to tell you that these words don’t exist.

You are not a diva. You have a disease. It is a real disease; you can “see” the disease at autopsy–and many times on various scans during life. And while most people associate dementia with memory loss, it’s about total brain failure. And sensory overload is a large part of this. In fact, I believe the anxiety caused by sensory overload is one of the least talked about–but most debilitating–aspects of various types of dementia.

The dementia brain works very hard to interpret its surroundings. When it gets tired (which doesn’t take long), the individual with dementia is no longer able to control their emotions and impulses. At this point, the person who has dementia may become irritable and difficult to be around. Or they may shut down completely. We sometimes say they are giving us a hard time, but they are really having a hard time.

You can tell your loved ones this, but I am not convinced it’s going to make a bit of difference. In fact, explaining the symptoms of a disease that they believe doesn’t exist in the first place probably won’t get you too far.

You see, I’m not concerned about them. I’m concerned about you. They may never understand your diagnosis. And I don’t want their ignorance to negatively impact your quality of life. You’ve got enough challenges to navigate. It is not your job to explain your symptoms to them. You have nothing to prove to them. You and your care partner must make choices in your own best interest. If they don’t get it, then they don’t get it. If they call you a diva behind your back (or even to your face), let them. You have limited time and energy. Do not spend it explaining yourself to them.

So why can’t you come when it’s just family? Because you’re not feeling up to it. Because you’re feeling overwhelmed. Because you need a break. Because spending your precious mental energy on being around people who don’t make an effort to understand you just isn’t worth it. I don’t care what you tell them. There’s never going to an explanation that’s good enough–so tell them what you want. And leave it at that.

You have a reason (and a valid one) for not attending your father’s funeral. If people ask, explain it once. If they don’t get it, stop. Just stop explaining yourself. It’s not worth your time, and it’s not worth your limited energy. Walk away, figuratively and literally, from people who question whether you really have a disease. In the best of circumstances, arguing with family is energy-zapping and frustrating as heck. To you, it’s positively toxic.

You ain’t got time for this.


Why Does My Mom Hum in Dementialand?

This morning I present to you the second in my series of an as-of-yet undetermined number of Q & As. Today’s question is to the point:

Why does my mom hum?

I’m not much of a musician. In fact, I lipsynced my way through middle school chorus because when I actually sang on the first day the director said, “Someone over there in the front sounds really off.” After deducing that someone was me, I became skilled at looking like I was singing when I actually was not. I was so skilled that the next year I won third place in a lipsync contest at a school fundraiser. If I remember correctly, I got a gift certificate to Pizza Hut.

When I was in high school, I joined in singing the national anthem at an event. Apparently I was so bad that someone thought I was mocking America and being disrespectful to the flag. Now I stand proudly with my hand across my heart–and my lips tightly shut. It’s my gift to America.

That being said, I love music. It’s just that I’m more of a connoisseur than a performer. The perfect song at the perfect time can change my day for the better. I’ve spent hours creating the ideal playlist for a party to give it the right “vibe.” And sometimes a song comes on my Pandora playlist that reminds me a of a moment twenty years ago that makes me smile. Music can be a powerful ally in changing your mood.

My work with those who have dementia has only reinforced my belief in the power of music. While the impact of music might seem like magic, it’s based in science. You see, rhythm comes from a part of the brain that isn’t generally affected by dementia until late in the disease process. When language is gone…when logical reasoning is gone…when motor control is gone…when memory is gone…song and prayer often remain present because they are based in rhythm. If you’re interested in seeing the impact of music on those with dementia, do yourself a favor and watch the documentary, Alive Inside.

Call it a miracle or a scientific fact. Either way, it’s a gift in the midst of what can be a cruel disease process. Dementia can be pretty stingy with presents. When you get one, accept it.

So why does your mom hum? Your mom hums because she may not be able to find the words to express herself. She may feel a frustrating inability to control the world around her. Yet her brain can still identify and express rhythm.

It’s what she’s got left.

We want to focus on what people who have dementia have left rather than what they have lost. If your mom’s got rhythm (which is common), use it. Make music a part of her everyday life. If you want her to walk, turn on a tune and make it feel like a dance. Rhythm might be your connection to her after other connections have failed. Use it.

If you’re unsure how to use music as a tool for those with dementia, check out this video by occupational therapist, Teepa Snow:


And while you’re at it, check out some of the other videos on the site.

P.S. I’ve written about music and dementia at length before. If you’re interested, check it out: 




Delivering Bad News in Dementialand (Or Do I Tell Mom Her Sister Died?)

As promised, I am starting my series of Q & A today. Wading through your emails and comments has made me realize how many important topics I have not yet written about in my blog.

Today I address one of these issues. I can tell you exactly why I haven’t discussed it before–because it’s a hard topic. And my response on this one tends to make some people uncomfortable. I’m gonna tell you that it’s not always best to tell the truth.

Dear Elaine,

I love your posts! So many of them have been so helpful for me. My mom is 85 and has moderate dementia. She is in an assisted living and has adapted pretty well. Her biggest issue is short term memory. She will literally reboot every 10 to 15 minutes and ask the same question. We have struggled with the question of “Where is all my stuff” and have simply told her it’s all in storage.

A few months ago her last remaining sibling passed away and I was given the job of telling her. So I took the 2 hour drive to go see her and let her know.  And as expected, 15 minutes after I got there and told her about her sister, she forgot. I told her one more time and then she forgot.

I talked with my brothers and said that I didn’t think she should go to the service for her sister. My feelings were that there was no point in having her grieve over and over again. She was not close with her sister anyway. Did I screw up? Should I have taken her? 

Thanks again for the great blog!



Dear Karen,

Well, I’m actually a bit embarrassed here. This is my 136th blog post, and I’ve never discussed this before. So here goes…

I want you to take a moment to think about what it felt like when you were told a loved one had passed away. I remember being in high school when I was at a friend’s house. I got a call from my mom who told me that my grandfather had died of a heart attack. He wasn’t a young man, but it was a surprise.

Everyone has a unique response to devastating news. You might feel like you were punched in the stomach. You may become sick to your stomach or start sweating. Maybe you get short of breath or begin trembling. My go-to response when I get bad news is a sensation that a racquetball is lodged in my throat.

I want you to remember that when you give someone bad news, you are inflicting on them this type of response. And, sometimes, it is necessary to do this. In life, we are sometimes charged with the task of delivering terrible news to people we love. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun.

I know pain is a part of life, and pain is unfortunately often present in Dementialand. Giving someone news that a loved one has passed causes them pain. (I should add that it causes no less pain when someone is told that their loved one died ten years ago than when you tell them they died yesterday. If you work in a nursing home, please keep this in mind when a widow asks where her husband went.)

What we want to avoid is inflicting pain unnecessarily. If a person will not be able to process and remember that a loved one has died, giving them this information causes them unnecessary pain. If you must tell them repeatedly because they are not able to store the information, you are causing pain with no purpose. It’s like poking someone with a needle but not giving a shot.

I am not a big fan of the stages of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages  of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance) because they are a far too simplistic conceptualization of the grief process, but most of us do work through a variety of difficult emotions and eventually–or hopefully–come to something that resembles acceptance or peace.

However, that’s not a possibility for someone who has short-term memory issues. When we tell someone who cannot store information that loved one is dead, they experience those negative emotions that all of us experience upon hearing this type of news. Yet they cannot remember the information long enough to come out on the other side and find peace. Their peace comes from forgetting what we have told them…and unfortunately that is the point at which we tell them again.

The trick, of course, is figuring out when someone moves from a place where they have the ability to process the information of a loved one’s death to where they cannot. People in the early stages of dementia must suffer through bad news just like the rest of us. As the disease progresses, we must ask ourselves whether or not they are capable of holding on to this information. If they aren’t, we shouldn’t dole it out repeatedly.

A friend once told me how she went to the nursing home to tell her grandpa that her grandma had passed away. Her grandpa had Alzheimer’s, and she wasn’t sure how he would respond to the news. She told him how his wife had passed away peacefully at the hospital surrounded by family.

He teared up, but soon got distracted. About five minutes later, he asked where his wife was. My friend told him again that his wife had passed away. He once again got teary, but in a few minutes he was talking about the weather. Then he circled around and asked where his wife was. My friend took a different approach this time.

“She’s at Hobby Lobby,” she told her grandpa.

“That woman could spend the whole damn day at Hobby Lobby. I’m gonna need another job if I can’t win the Powerball,” he responded with an eye roll.

From that moment forward, Hobby Lobby became the stock response when he would ask where his wife was. Not only was he spared the repeated (and purposeless) pain of being told his wife had passed away, he was given an opportunity to make snide remarks about her shopping.

The short answer, Karen, is that you did not screw up.










Playing Dear Abby in Dementialand (And My Overdue Apology to My Muscatine High School Peers)

Today’s blog post is a little different. I am here asking for your help. Yes, you.

I am talking to you.

I am asking you to submit a question. Obviously, the question should be limited in scope because I don’t know everything–or so I am often reminded by my husband. I can answer questions about Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Heck, I can even answer questions about The Bachelor, which you know I am keeping in my closet if you read last week’s post.

However, that’s about where my knowledge ends. I would avoid questions about remodeling kitchens, how to avoid backing into your garage door frame, and general cooking. Those are topics I am have shown that I am not qualified to advise on.

In future weeks, I will focus on answering questions. Maybe I’ll answer one in a post. Maybe I’ll answer six in a post. I haven’t decided on a format yet. However, find that box below where it says “LEAVE A REPLY” and write me a question. If you would rather send me something anonymously, you can email me at elaine.eshbaugh@uni.edu. Sometimes I find reader emails in my spam folder months later, so put “Dementialand” in the subject line and I promise I won’t miss your email. I’ll be like Dear Abby with a slightly more modern haircut and without the bright red lipstick.

This Dear Abby thing isn’t new to me. I wrote an advice column in my high school newspaper. In four years of high school, only one person wrote me for advice. (And I remember the letter vividly. It was from an anonymous kid who thought he might be gay. My friend Lory who is a counselor helped me write a response. I still think about that guy and hope he’s doing okay. If you’re out there, please tell me you’re okay.)

Full disclosure to my high school peers….I made up the rest of the letters. Yep, I asked myself for advice and then responded. And this is the very first time I’ve fessed up to this. I thought I’d go to my grave with that weighing on my heart, but it feels good to get it out there.

Sorry, Muscatine High School. I deceived you. But really, it was sort of your fault for not writing me any letters!

Readers, do not make me repeat this behavior. Shoot me some questions!

Shrinking and Cluttered Closets in Dementialand

I don’t often get the opportunity to chat with people in the very early stages of dementia. The nature of what I do more typically puts me in the presence of caregivers and–when I am with people who have dementia–those who are in need of extensive care. However, sometimes I get the opportunity to chat with an individual who I certainly would not have identified as having dementia had they not told me of their diagnosis.

Jackie (not her real name) was such a person. A petite woman who looked to be in her early 50’s with a blonde bob haircut and funky glasses, she struck up a conversation with me at a senior fair where I had earlier presented on family dynamics and caregiving. I expected her to tell me that she was a caregiver for a parent, but she told me that she had recently been diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s. I asked how she had been adjusting to her diagnosis, not knowing if this was the appropriate way to phrase the question.

She shrugged and told me she wasn’t okay but that her life wasn’t over either. She said she was working on adjusting to this disease rather than fighting it. She believed working with it rather than against it would work best. I liked her perspective, so I asked her to tell me more.

“I had to give up some stuff, so I gave up taking care of things others can take care of themselves,” she said.

She gave me an example.

She used to pack a suitcase for her husband when he traveled for work. Before her diagnosis, she was feeling increasingly tired and frazzled. Her husband was headed out of town, and she decided she wasn’t up to packing for him.

“You know what he said?” she asked me. “He said, ‘No problem.'”

And I guess it wasn’t a problem.

“So he’s perfectly capable of packing his own suitcase?” I inquired. She laughed.

She explained that he often forgot his toothbrush…his deodorant…his razor…(which he could easily buy at his destination). And that he didn’t know how to fold his clothes so they didn’t wrinkle.

“But,” she told me, “The world didn’t end. Wrinkled clothes don’t kill a man.”

(The next time my husband walks out of the bedroom headed to work in wrinkled clothes and I debate whether to say something, I’ll remember that phrase. Wrinkled clothes don’t kill a man.)

She also explained that she no longer gets up early when her kids and grandkids visit to make them breakfast. She knew she would have a limited amount of mental and physical energy, and she felt like getting up a little later made for a more pleasant day for everyone.

“You know what?” she asked. “They just eat cereal. They’re fine with it.”

Jackie told me that it took an Alzheimer’s diagnosis to put her in a position to stop feeling obligated to do things that her family members could do for themselves.

“I thought that my family would fall apart if I didn’t do all these little things for them. Turns out, they can take care of themselves,” she said.

All of us have limited time and energy. All of us have to decide how we want to spend that limited time and energy.

Jackie decided she didn’t want to spend it packing a suitcase for her husband and getting up early to make a huge breakfast for her family. More power to her.

Whether or not we have an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, we can consider whether or not we are spending our time and energy in ways that work for us. I should add that energy doesn’t only represent physical energy. We are talking emotional, mental, spiritual energy as well.

My husband was talking recently about conceptualizing how we spend our efforts as a closet. Once the closet is full, we can’t fit anything else in. Some of us can do more than others, but we can all only do so much.

If you know me at all, you know I do well with literal rather than figurative. However, this closet deal really spoke to me. When I am asked to join a committee or take on a new project, I think of my closet. If I say yes, do I need to throw something else in the proverbial goodwill pile to make room for the new endeavor? Do I have to make a decision to be less invested in something I’m already doing? Will I end up jamming everything into the closet and being less proficient at everything I do?

Here are some of the things in my conceptual “closet” in no particular order:

  1. Writing this blog
  2. Teaching my college classes
  3. Overseeing interns
  4. Speaking engagements
  5. Taking care of our dogs and cats
  6. Watching “The Bachelor” (most weeks this is a two hours commitment!)
  7. Keeping the house clean-ish
  8. Doing Next Level Extreme Fitness
  9. Going to athletic events at our university
  10. Being on boards/committees on campus and in the community
  11. Making overnight oats every night for my husband and me
  12. Administrative responsibilities at work
  13. Working on research articles
  14. Running–when it’s nice outside
  15. Visiting memory care community, adult day centers, and nursing homes
  16. Serving as NCAA Faculty Athletics Rep at our university
  17. Advising Family Service and Gerontology majors and mnors

Some weeks my closet seems pretty dang full. (To be fair, other weeks are a bit more sparse.) A few months ago, I felt like I was having trouble keeping my closet manageable. Everything was overflowing. I felt like the door wouldn’t even shut, so something had to change.

I could have quit teaching my college classes. I could have just gone MIA on campus. I could have stopped coordinating the Gerontology major. No more responding to emails from other areas of the university or turning in reports about the major. I could have not shown up at speaking engagements. Because these are responsibilities related to my paycheck and my professional reputation, tossing them out of the closet didn’t seem like a good option.

I had to look elsewhere to make a change. For years I had taught fitness classes at our community rec center. I quit.

Could I have given up “The Bachelor” instead? Yep, but I didn’t. Could I have decided to keep the house less clean?  Definitely, and I’m not a clean freak anyway. I could have even chosen to forget about this whole blogging endeavor except that I recently invested in a whole year of an upgraded membership to WordPress so you all wouldn’t have to see ads. I guess I have to blog another year to make that worthwhile.

I have a limited amount of time and energy to spend as I wish, and teaching fitness classes is what I pitched out of my closet for the time being. It’s the decision I made. Someone else might have made a different decision. Someone else is not me.

If I were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another disease, my time and energy would be more limited, and I would likely have to make more decisions about what I throw out of my closet. (If you are following me with this whole closet analogy, picture that closet getting smaller.) This is what I see people in the early stages of dementia doing whether or not they realize it.

You can also picture that shrinking closet for someone who has depression, cancer, or fibromyalgia. The more limits life puts on us, the smaller that closet gets. As health declines, the closet may be 10% of the size it used to be. It’s increasingly important to evaluate what the heck you are trying to manage in that shrinking closet.

It’s adaptive to acknowledge that your closet is no longer the size of the one Mr. Big built for Carrie on Sex & the City. It’s a closet you’d find in a studio apartment in downtown Chicago. Accept it, and evaluate its contents. You can focus more positively on what is left in your closet when you throw out things that are no longer working for you.

I should also add that an empty closet is…empty. Even a tiny closet needs some contents. We must have something we perceive as meaningful in which to invest ourselves. When we lose that, we lose our purpose.

Sometimes you find, like Jackie did, that giving up some of the things in your closet isn’t as traumatic as you might predict. Many of us, Jackie and myself included, think we are irreplaceable. I didn’t know what my fitness class participants would do without me. You know what? They still exercise–just with a different instructor. I miss them, but they are fine.

Similarly, Jackie’s husband is able to manage to pack for work trips on his own. Even a crisis like forgetting a toothbrush isn’t really a crisis. And although Jackie’s family enjoyed the breakfast she made, they are fine without it as well.

I once spoke with a woman who had cancer about the minimal energy she had while doing chemo. I remember her telling me that she couldn’t do everything so she had to choose what was most important.

“But really,” she told me, “that’s what I should’ve been doing all along.”

So here goes my attempt at something poetic and meaningful, keeping in mind I’m notably bad at poetic and meaningful.

Whatever life throws at you, may you keep your closet full but not cluttered. We can’t control everything about our lives, but we can control where we invest our time and effort. We can’t invest time and effort in everything. We may have less to invest than we’ve had in the past. Invest it in the right things for you. Don’t let how other people organize their closet make you feel like you’re organizing yours wrong. They aren’t you. They may have a bigger or smaller closet, and they may have different priorities.

For now, I’m keeping The Bachelor in my closet. Don’t judge.




Urinary Tract Infections in Dementialand

For better or worse, dementia progresses slowly. If someone with dementia shows a sudden behavior change, my suggestion is always to consider whether they might have pain that they are unable to express verbally.

Obviously, pain can be a result of numerous physical conditions–but I recommend checking for a urinary tract infection (UTI) first. People always think I have some sort of magical powers when I correctly diagnose a UTI without seeing their loved one (and without being a medical doctor), but I’m just playing the odds.

UTIs are incredibly common among those with dementia.

First of all, dementia causes individuals to have a compromised immune system. Once a UTI sets in, it may spread quickly. I can think of about ten people with dementia that I have known who have passed away as a result of a UTI that was identified too late and not contained. Yes, UTIs can often be fatal in those with dementia.

A UTI can cause “delirium,” an acute state that might include hallucinations, delusions, agitation, and restlessness. For someone who typically shows symptoms of dementia, it often appears that their condition has worsened quickly. These sudden changes are not a result of dementia but rather an indicator that the person has another health issue.

Sometimes a person with dementia expressing UTI symptoms might be mistaken for being overtly sexual. For instance, I have known several of men whose loved ones were called by the nursing home staff because they were taking off their pants and fondling their genitals in front of other residents. In many cases, a quick urinalysis will show a UTI.

At the risk of TMI (e.g., too much information), I have had urinary tract infections. In a span of 24 hours, I have gone from “something might be wrong” to the type of pain that is constant and disrupts sleep. It is horrifying to me to think of not being able to express this pain to others around me and seek help. However, I have seen many individuals with dementia be accused of giving their caregivers a “hard time” when in fact they had no other way to express that they were in pain. (Even worse, this happens with kidney stones.)

Dehydration can also be an issue with people who have dementia, and dehydration makes one prone to UTIs. It’s important to keep fluids in reach of someone with dementia when they may not remember or be motivated to get beverages on their own. People should also be encouraged to use the restroom frequently. Not surprisingly, poor hygiene can increase one’s risk. If someone lives alone and doesn’t remember to change their underwear, it’s likely that they will eventually end up with a UTI.

So…here are some of the changes in people with dementia that caregivers have noticed when a UTI had set in (note that is not an all-inclusive list):

  1. The person is unusually cold or hot for the environment (shivering, fever, etc.).
  2. The person sleeps a lot more than usual–or the person doesn’t sleep when sleeping is usually not a problem.
  3. The person grabs at their genitals or tries to take their clothes off.
  4. The person becomes incontinent.
  5. The person becomes aggressive toward themselves and/or caregivers.
  6. The person appears to be in pain when urinating (perhaps indicated by change in body posture or facial expression).
  7. The person starts to fall more often or have issues with balance.
  8. The person is suddenly much more confused than usual.

Obviously, some of these are symptoms of dementia, but keep in mind that dementia is a slow-moving condition. Changes that occur quickly may be a result of a UTI or another medical condition.

A woman I know was recently concerned about how quickly her mother’s Alzheimer’s was progressing. In a period of about 72 hours, she went from being calm and good-natured to lashing out when someone tried to assist her. She was suddenly confused about who her daughter was and her environment. She also refused to get dressed and would fight anyone who tried to convince her to take off her nightgown. I was asked if it’s normal for Alzheimer’s to progress so quickly.

Although aggression and confusion are part of Alzheimer’s, it’s not normal for these changes to occur so quickly. I suggested starting with a urinalysis. Sure enough, she had a raging UTI.

I often tell caregivers to bring a urine sample (if possible) to any doctor’s office visit. The good news is that a urine screening is fast and cheap. The bad news is that collecting urine might become more challenging as dementia progresses.

I recently heard the term “dementia detective.” The term was used to describe someone who pays attention to someone with dementia with the goal of figuring out their needs. We need more dementia detectives.

When someone with dementia shows changes in behavior, we need to stop saying that they are giving us a hard time. We need to understand that they are having a hard time.

And sometimes when they are having a hard time, it’s because they are experiencing pain.