Impulse Control (Or Lack Thereof) in Dementialand

When I do presentations and explain how dementia can impact impulse control, I ask groups, “How many of you have ever felt like hitting someone, kicking someone, or verbally berating someone…but didn’t?”

It’s funny. I’ve asked this question to quite a few groups: nursing home administrators, nurses, nursing assistants, social workers, family caregivers, nuns, cops, city bus drivers, college students, and legislators—to name a few. The initial response of most groups is to passively look around to see if anyone else raises their hand. It’s almost like they think it’s a trick question and that I’m setting them up to look like dregs of humanity.

And then I say, “Okay. Only me, then.”

The two notable exceptions are city bus drivers and (get this) nuns. When presenting to both of these groups, hands shot up and heads nodded. Maybe bus drivers admitting that they sometimes suppress angry responses isn’t surprising…but the nuns?

Let’s face it. We all feel that way once in a while—maybe more than once in a while. Even nuns.

When the nuns readily (and honestly) admitted that they have felt like lashing out at people, it reminded me that those passing thoughts are part of being human. And, for most of us most of the time, they are just that–passing thoughts.

It’s not the absence of these urges that make us kind people and upstanding citizens. It’s the decision to take a deep breath, push those thoughts aside, and respond in a different—and more acceptable—manner. Our goodness is not dependent on the absence of frustration (and even rage) with others. It’s more dependent on our choice to respond in a way that doesn’t demand someone call the cops.

For the majority of our population, it is a decision. However, the ability to make that decision depends on the activity in a certain part of our brain: the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for impulse control, emotional regulation, self-regulation, and social skills.

Yeah, it’s pretty important.

When this part of the brain is damaged by dementia, people struggle to control their emotions. They may even become physically aggressive. At the very least, what goes through their head comes right out the mouth (whether it’s kind or not).

We’ve all been told “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” However, let’s imagine what life is like when you really can’t stop yourself from saying those things that float through your head. I wouldn’t have many friends, I’d probably be divorced, and I’m pretty sure I would’ve lost my job by now.

And I’m not unique. We all have thoughts, urges, and desires that ain’t pretty. It’s seeing someone drop a $100 on the bill while walking down the street and thinking—just for a split second—that you could keep it and no one would know. But you give it back. It’s getting so frustrated with a coworker that you have this moment when you clench your jaw and having the word “asshole” float through your consciousness. But you don’t call them an asshole. It’s seeing a woman you haven’t seen in a year and realizing she’s put on an impressive amount of weight in that time. Thank you, prefrontal cortex, for the ability to notice but say “I love the way you’re wearing your hair,” rather than, “Wow! You’re a lot bigger than you were at the Christmas party!”

If my prefrontal cortex fails me, I’m screwed.

With Alzheimer’s, the prefrontal cortex is eventually impacted, but it is generally not affected until a bit later in the disease process. However, this part of the brain is usually impacted early in the disease process for those with frontotemporal dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

When I was in graduate school, I started volunteering for a hospice. My first hospice patient had frontotemporal dementia. I was told by the volunteer coordinator that several volunteers had already visited this guy, but none of them were willing to go back. She wasn’t sure why.

As I entered his house for the first time, I greeted him by saying “Hi! I’m Elaine, the hospice volunteer!”

His response was “Hi, Elaine, the hospice volunteer. Can I get a kiss?”

Except…he didn’t ask for a kiss. It was something a bit more sexually explicit, and I’m trying to keep my blog PG-13 here.

I called the volunteer coordinator that afternoon and said, “I think I know why the other volunteers don’t wanna go back.”

I didn’t know a lot about dementia at the time, but for some reason I was comfortable being around him. His wife worked two mornings a week, and I’d come over and stay with him during that time. I’d sit on the floor with my laptop and work on my thesis. He’d watch movies and pipe up every 15 minutes or so to ask for a sexual favor. I’d tell him I was pretty busy at the moment with my thesis. He seemed to respect that. I’m not sure how my 23-year-old self found normalcy in that routine, but we did it for about four months. Then he moved to a nursing home.

I can’t come across a copy of my thesis without thinking of this guy and wondering how many times I was asked for sexual favors in the process of writing it. And somehow it makes me smile. Despite the weirdness of our situation, I really liked him.

I didn’t know it at the time, but his prefrontal cortex was degenerating. I don’t think he ever had an MRI done, but an image of his brain would have likely shown atrophy of this area. He wasn’t a dirty old pervert harassing a young woman. His brain was broken.

I once heard someone say that the prefrontal cortex is what separates man from beast. When it doesn’t function correctly, we want what we want—and we want it now. We are unable to think ahead to predict the consequences of our words and actions. And we don’t process emotions like guilt and empathy.

For those of us without dementia, our prefrontal cortex is constantly functioning to help us make decisions that preserve our relationships and jobs. And all of us, from nuns to bus drivers to college professors, depend on it to keep us out of trouble.

Knowing Better and Doing Better in Dementialand

I am driving a couple hours to southern Iowa to present at a community center. It’s a drive full of soybean fields, cornfields, and an occasional Casey’s Convenience Store. I’m listening to a Spotify playlist including (embarrassingly) artists such as Flo Rida, Salt-N-Pepa, Tracy Chapman, the Jayhawks, and the Jackson 5. There may or may not be one, and only one, Justin Bieber song.

I’m not sure if there will be fifteen people or a hundred at this deal. I’m not even really sure exactly what I’m going to talk about. I don’t know if most of my audience will have experience with dementia or have shown up because they saw a flyer and didn’t have anything better to do on a Tuesday night.

When I arrive, the woman who invited me to speak gives me a BP gift card and a small loaf of homemade zucchini bread. (I will later eat 3/4 of the bread on the drive home when I realize the Subway in this town closes at 9pm.) About 70 people show up, and they are overly thankful that I’ve made the trip. My audience is seated in folding chairs. I am at a podium on a stage. One woman tells me that her granddaughter was in a dance recital on the very same stage over the weekend. I tell her that’s a hard act to follow.

I give what I call my “Dementia 101” info. Then I do a little role play and demonstration to show how to approach and communicate with people who are in the later stages of dementia. My crowd is fantastic. They laugh at all the appropriate times. No one’s cell phone rings. Sometimes when I do public speaking I feel like I’m on my game (I could also write multiple blog posts about when I’m not on my game), and tonight I’m on my game.

An older woman sitting in the back row asks a lot of questions during my presentation. They’re good questions. They are questions that only someone caring with a loved one who has dementia asks.

How do you know when it’s time to take someone to a nursing home?

What do you do when someone with dementia tries to take their clothes off in public? (When she asks this question, a few people in the front row turn around to look at her.)

Should you take someone off their dementia medication, like Namenda, when they are in the end stages?

What’s the best way to handle it when they don’t know who you are anymore?

How do you feel about feeding tubes when people stop eating at the end of life? (The first words out of my mouth are “Not good.”)

I do my best to address her questions. To be honest, I think I do a pretty good job providing her with some options and ideas that might be effective.

After I get done with my presentation, several people come up front and form a line to chat with me. For experience, I know that listening to these people’s stories will take almost as long as my presentation itself. This is the reason by husband knows to expect me home at 11 when I say I’ll be home by 10.

The woman from the back row is in line. When she gets her chance to talk to me, she has a few more questions. Again, they are good questions. She wants to know what a person should tell their grandchildren about why grandpa doesn’t know who they are. She asks why people with dementia may not be able to sit up straight, why they slump in their wheelchairs, and what you can do to get them to sit up when they won’t. Then she wants to know if people in end stage dementia should just be left alone when they lie with their eyes closed and refuse to open them–or if it’s okay to shake them just a little to get them to open their eyes.

I do my best, but I admit I don’t have all the answers. Maybe I really don’t have any answers, just some thoughts and ideas based on my experiences. She thanks me for making the drive and tells me to watch out for deer on the way home. And then she says something that makes my heart leap to my throat.

“My husband died from Alzheimer’s a few months ago,” she confides. “Now I know all the mistakes I’ve made. I had no idea about all this stuff.”

She says this in a way that is matter-of-fact and not bitter. However, it stings me. I thought I was giving her helpful advice, whereas I was actually unintentionally pointing out her mistakes. She manages a smile and walks away.

I turn my attention to the next person in the line, but something nags at me. A part of me wants to catch the woman as she walks out of the community center. I have no idea what to say when I catch her, and I’m not sure if she’d want to be caught. I let her go.

On the way home, I think about the woman. She’s weighing so heavily on my mind that I don’t think to start my Spotify playlist until half an hour into the drive. My favorite Maya Angelou quote keeps coming to mind:

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

It’s something I tell myself a lot when I think about my own professional and personal life. When things go wrong, it’s often because I didn’t have the experience or knowledge to do better. (Of course, there are those times I mess up even though I do know better.) I also use this quote a lot with my college students. You didn’t know better. Now you know better. Don’t screw it up again. 

The reason the quote keeps coming to mind is that, in this particular case, it doesn’t work. The woman doesn’t have another chance. She did the best she could with the knowledge she had. She probably wouldn’t admit it, but she probably did okay. Yet now she has more information….because for better or worse I gave her more information. Now she knows better, but she can’t do better. It’s too late.

If I had known her husband was dead, I might have answered her questions differently. I’m not sure exactly how…but I might have at least changed my delivery even if I didn’t change my content. I wish I had known. There’s no real way I should’ve known, of course, but I wish I had.

I have to wonder if she made the right call by coming to listen to me speak. I’ll probably never know.

Maybe it’s better to think you did your best and not realize there’s more you could have done.






Habits of Sane Caregivers in Dementialand

Sometimes I write for people with dementia. Sometimes I write for people who have no experience in Dementialand. But today…today I am writing for dementia caregivers. And, really, for all caregivers.

If you are a caregiver, things can get pretty rough. I can show you research studies on the rates of clinical depression among caregivers. Spoiler alert–they’re astronomical. (They’re high among caregivers and higher among caregivers of those with dementia.)

Your life has to be lived one day at a time…maybe even one minute at a time. You get angry. You want to say that you’re angry at the disease and not the person, but I know that sometimes it’s not always easy to separate a person and a disease when you’re living on a couple hours of sleep a night.

All caregivers struggle. Some struggle outwardly; others seems strong on the outside but bury their struggles inwardly. You are not alone in your struggle–but I know it seems that way sometimes. Maybe your family is supportive, but it’s likely some of them make your life more difficult rather than easier. I’m guessing some of them make you crazy. Maybe you’ve got some friends…but some of them probably just don’t get it, even if they try.

I’ve put together a list of habits that I typically see in caregivers that maintain their sanity. [And–let me state for the record–a caregiver that stays sane might sometimes feel like they are losing their mind. They might cry. They might get angry. Maybe they sometimes make poor decisions. They mess up (we all do, right?). They could be on Lexapro or another anti-depressant. But they get through…day by day…minute by minute.]

Habits of Sane Caregivers

1. They sleep. Sure, maybe some nights are better than others. But they find a way to sleep. And, when they start getting an unacceptable amount of sleep each night on a regular basis, they find a solution. Maybe this means having someone watch their loved one a few afternoons a week so they can take a nap. If anxiety keeps them from sleeping, they go to a doctor or a counselor. They understand that they can’t caregive without sleep.

2. They leave the house. I know a guy who cared for his grandma who had Alzheimer’s. At one point, he went over a week without leaving the house except to shovel and take the trash out. When other people heard about this, they thought of him as a hero. Staying in the confines on your home doesn’t make you a hero. It sets you up for depression and stress–which sets you up for sub-par caregiving. Get the heck out of the house once in a while.

3. They understand that others can give care, too. A husband I once talked to loved his wife so much that he wouldn’t leave her side….24/7. He didn’t trust anyone else to take care of her. He thought he was the only one capable. He had plenty of people volunteering to come over and stay with his wife for a bit, but he declined their help. Let go of the idea that you are the only one that can provide care. Maybe someone else isn’t going to do things exactly the way you do them. That’s okay. Accept help.

4. They have a sense of humor. I don’t know what makes you laugh. Funny movies. Videos of cute cats on YouTube. Conversations with friends. Comic books. The Ellen Show. Sports bloopers. South Park.  Figure out what makes you laugh and actively seek that out. And don’t feel guilty for laughing.

5. They go to the doctor. The people who are the best about getting their loved one to the doctor when needed are often the worst at seeing the doctor themselves. And if you aren’t healthy, you can’t provide care. So go to the doctor for small health issues…so you don’t end up with big ones. I talked to a guy once who had a sinus infection but wouldn’t go to the doctor because his wife was dying from cancer. His sinus infection didn’t seem important when he thought about what his wife was going through. Ironically, it was his wife who finally told him that he needed to get his butt to the doctor to get some antibiotics–because he was getting increasingly irritable (or “pissy” as she said) since he didn’t feel well. You do the people around you a favor when you take care of your health.

6. They don’t feel guilty. As a caregiver, you mess up. Maybe you thought your wife only needed one pain pill, but in retrospect you should have given her two. Perhaps you tried to make dinner and it was a flop. Or you messed up the time of your grandma’s appointment and she was 30 minutes late. You gotta move on. Consider it a learning experience. Caregiving involves a set of practical skills, and we get better at those skills over time. When you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up. Learn from it and move on. You have a limited amount of energy. Guilt is a complete waste of energy.

7. They understand that the goal is to have a good day. They understand that their loved one will not “get better.” They are realistic in understanding that decline is inevitable in the case of Alzheimer’s, Frontotemporal dementia, or a terminal cancer. Yet they get that tomorrow can be a better day, even when their loved one isn’t improving.

8. They forget about people who aren’t supportive. They don’t continue to count on people who don’t come through. It doesn’t matter if those people are family or friends. It doesn’t matter if they have known they for decades. They stop letting those people disappoint them. They find new people to support them. Sane caregivers make a conscious effort to surround themselves with people who don’t screw them over time and time again. And when people do screw them over, they don’t spend a lot of time calling them out on it. They don’t have the time to waste on that type of thing. In short, they don’t do drama. 

And a few final notes. If you are a caregiver, listen to me here. It is okay to eat frozen pizza a couple nights a week. It is fine if sometimes you don’t return a phone call. Your neighbors will just have to deal with it if you don’t cut your lawn for ten days. Don’t be too hard on yourself if your flowers die because you forget to water them. (Tip: Buy hanging baskets of flowers. If they die, throw them away and buy new ones. It’s what I do.)

I once overheard two women who were caring for their husbands with Alzheimer’s having a conversation about the demands of their everyday lives.

“You know what we need to do?” one said to the other. “We need to stop feeling bad about all this stupid shit.”


Dying in Dementialand

I pulled up at a nursing home in an impoverished part of Kansas City. It was 2006–before GPS was commonplace. I had printed out Mapquest directions to find this place. It didn’t help that it was raining, almost 11 pm, and that the nursing home was tucked behind an authentic hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant and one of those Payday Loans joints, but I found it.

I was part of a new volunteer program that a hospice in the area had started. If a nursing home resident was “actively dying” (a hospice term used to describe what is typically the final 24-72 hours of life) and didn’t have anyone to be with them, we were called. I had taken the 11 pm to 3 am shift with a women dying of Alzheimer’s.

Although often people don’t understand that Alzheimer’s can be a cause of death, it is a terminal diagnosis. Many people pass away from other causes before Alzheimer’s kills them, but at some point Alzheimer’s degrades the brain to a point where it can no longer provide support for functions like breathing, swallowing, and fighting infection. That was the point my hospice patient had reached. Her body systems were shutting down due to Alzheimer’s.

Her name was Opal. Actually, that wasn’t her real name. I’d like to say I changed her name to protect her privacy, but the fact is that I don’t remember what her name was. And I feel like a horrible person for not remembering her name. After all, I was with her on her final journey, and that’s pretty significant.

Opal was an African-American woman in her 70’s who didn’t live in a great nursing home. It was dirty, and it smelled awful. If a horror movie were set in a nursing home, it’d be this place.

And just when I thought things couldn’t get more eerie, I saw a large rat. Upon closer inspection, I realize it wasn’t a rat. In fact, it was a small-ish shaved cat. The nursing home liked the idea of having a cat but knew some people might have allergies…. It was perhaps the creepiest-looking cat I’d ever seen. I termed it “Rat-cat.”

I found out that Opal had a daughter living across the country who had visited several weeks ago. Her daughter had been notified that Opal was passing away, but she couldn’t make it back. According to the hospice volunteer coordinator, the daughter had said she saw no point in coming back because Opal wouldn’t know she was there anyway.

Opal hadn’t recognized anyone for several years, and she’d been unable to speak for quite some time. There were some greeting cards taped to the wall behind her bed. I felt guilty about snooping, but I read them anyway. Most were religious cards that appeared to be from cousins, nieces, and nephews. One note mentioned that the sender had included a gift card to Walmart. I’m pretty certain that Opal hadn’t been up for shopping for quite a while. Except for her daughter’s recent trip, Opal hadn’t had any visitors in months.

For tonight, Opal had me. She seemed comfortable but not at all alert. Her eyes were slightly open but she didn’t seem to be able to see anything. Her breathing was labored and they had her on oxygen.

My job was to make sure she seemed peaceful and to alert the staff if I felt she was in pain or distress. More than anything, I was there to make sure she didn’t die alone.

A young nursing assistant stopped in frequently to check on her. My original prejudices about the nursing home were challenged by her cheerful and efficient demeanor. She was amazingly gentle in repositioning Opal and kind in talking to her. The nursing assistant told me to come find her if “things start changing.” I knew what she meant.

I spent most of my time sitting in a chair by Opal’s bed. I didn’t talk a lot. The TV was on when I came into the room, so I left it on and stared at it mindlessly for a few minutes at a time. There were a couple of books of devotionals on Opal’s nightstand, and I thumbed through them without really reading. At one point, I did start reading something from the devotional books aloud, but it didn’t feel right so I stopped.

The nursing assistant mentioned that Rat-cat tended  to frequent the rooms of residents who are dying, and sure enough it stopped by a few times. Mostly it just sat in the doorway and stared at me. I stared back.

I left that night not knowing if Opal even knew I had been with her. I slept a few hours and went to work the next day. I was signed up to go back the next night but had a feeling she would pass away before I got there. However, Opal was still around at 11 pm the next evening.

If you know me, you know I don’t do well on limited sleep. As I headed back to the nursing home, I was exhausted. I stopped to get a soda at a 7-11. Somehow I was distracted by the Slurpee machine and decided to mix the cherry and Coke Slurpee–something I did frequently as a kid but probably hadn’t done in ten years. And it was so good.

I brought it with me into the nursing home and stopped to see the nursing assistant at the desk. When I got to Opal’s room, I realized I had left my Slurpee at the nurses’ station. I had just greeted her by putting a hand on her shoulder and telling her who I was when I thought I’d retrieve my Slurpee, but when I took my hand off her shoulder, she made a noise.

It wasn’t something that indicated she was in pain, but it wasn’t a “good” noise. I put my hand back on my shoulder and she was quiet. I took my hand off her shoulder again, and she made the same noise–and continued to make it–until I put my hand back on her shoulder. She obviously didn’t want me to take my hand off her shoulder. She didn’t want me to leave. And, yet, I really wanted that Slurpee.

I said, “I am just going to the nurses’ station to get my Slurpee and will be right back. I will even run.” Despite her making the same noise, I took off to the nurses’ station in a full sprint. I grabbed my cup and sprinted back. I put my hand back on Opal’s shoulder, and she was quiet again. I sat with my hand on her shoulder while drinking my Slurpee for quite some time.

Rat-cat came and sat in the doorway. I wasn’t quite as creeped out by it the second night. In fact, I had gotten over the initial shock of his appearance and realize he was–in his own way–almost cute.

I wish I could tell you that Opal rallied, or at least that she opened her eyes and shared some departing wisdom with me. I wish I could share with you that I learned a life-changing lesson that would make me an infinitely better person from my time with Opal. I’d love to say her daughter called to thank me for sitting with her mom or maybe that another family member stopped in to say goodbye. None of that is true.

She passed away that night about 45 minutes after I left. Another hospice volunteer was with her. Unfortunately, the hospice failed to let me know, so I went back the following night. Rat-cat was there, but Opal’s bed was empty.

As I sit here nearly ten years later, I would give anything to remember Opal’s real name.