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.”

Exactly. 

Before and After in Dementialand (Or Why I Watch TLC and HGTV)

I was talking to some friends a few weeks back, and the TV show My 600-Pound Life on TLC came up in conversation. It’s a reality show about super-obese individuals who get weight loss surgery and attempt to change their lives for the better.

For some reason, I was hesitant to admit to my friends that I watch the show. I wanted to say I had never heard of it. I wanted to say I had no interest in watching a reality show like that. Yet, the truth is that I have a season pass on my DVR. I started thinking about what it was about this particular show that I enjoy, and I finally realized why it appeals me. I love a good before-and-after.

I used to watch What Not to Wear. I DVR’ed that one as well. I would watch the beginning but then fast forward to the end. I didn’t care about all the shopping and hair talk in the middle. The make-up tips didn’t interest me. I only cared about the before and the after.

I’m really not that into homes, design, or decorating, but I watch a bunch of shows on HGTV. Why? Because I enjoy the transformation. I love the idea of taking something that is in shambles and making it something wonderful. I also have somewhat of a crush on the Property Brother that does the construction. (The one that does the real estate number-crunching stuff just isn’t my type.)

I really get into those house-flipping shows. There’s Flip or Flop, Rehab Addict, Fixer Upper… If you know me at all, you know I have no interest in flipping a house. If I ever talk about flipping a house, please do an intervention. I like the idea of flipping a house, although it’s not something I have the skills to pursue. I just like the notion of transforming something into something much better. It’s about the before-and-after. The before is dull and drab. The after is bright and shiny.

I also watch Intervention on A&E for the before-and-after effect. Someone might be a drug addict before but maybe–just maybe–they can be a productive member of society after. There a certain level of hope in that.

In grad school, I lived with my friend, Lisa. We would watch Intervention every Sunday at 9 pm. Exactly at 9:40 (as the family was just gathering for the intervention), Lisa would say it was time for her to go to bed. It still bothers me that she didn’t get to see the after of all those drug addicts. Why watch if you don’t get a chance to see the after? Couldn’t she stay up past her bedtime just one night a week? (As a side note: Lisa was a pretty great roommate. My only complaints about her are that she wouldn’t watch the end of Intervention with me and she had the willpower to eat only one cookie per day out of a huge bag in the freezer.)

Families impacted by dementia are often caught up in the before-and-after. There are the years before dementia. Then there’s the after. Everyone with dementia is different, and dementia affects everyone in a different way. But there’s no doubt that the after is not the same as the before. (A person with Alzheimer’s once said to me, “I’m still me but I’m a different me.”)

When I meet someone with dementia that has progressed past the earlier stages, I notice that their family often needs to tell me about the before. Maybe she used to be a successful real estate agent who could sell any house in a week. Maybe he was a teacher who touched a thousand lives. Maybe he was a cop or a firefighter who selflessly served his community. Maybe she made the absolute best apple pies on the face of the earth.

And I always listen when they tell me about the before. There is value in knowing about the before. It helps us to connect with an individual with dementia when we know where they’ve been, but I feel like the family is sometimes telling us this for a different reason. They are telling us about the before because the after isn’t enough. They want us to understand that this person is more than what we see in front of us.

I once met a woman with Alzheimer’s who had been a fantastic golfer. She and her husband traveled around the country playing in golf tournaments. Her family told me that she had been incredibly competitive…to the point where she would trash talk other female golfers. Her kids told me that she didn’t make a lot of friends on the golf course, but she won a lot of huge trophies which now decorated her room at the memory care community as reminder of her before. She once told an employee that she won all the trophies for having the largest cow at the state fair. Obviously, they didn’t hold the same meaning to her that they did to her family. They were a before thing. She was in the after.

As her Alzheimer’s progressed, she could no longer go out and play nine holes of golf. Her kids started taking her to the driving range until she was unable to do that. After she moved into memory care, a creative staff member went to Walmart and bought a few items so they could set up a mini-golf course in the hallway. The woman lit up like the staff had not seen before. The ball never went in the hole, but she would putt up and down the hallway for hours.

The staff expected her family to be excited when they arrived and saw how much fun she was having. They were not excited. In fact, they were angry and saddened. They thought it was demeaning that a woman who had once been a competitive golfer was now aimlessly pushing a wiffle ball up and down the hallway with a plastic golf club. They were caught up in comparing the before to the after.

I realized recently that my love of the before-and-after does not extend to working with individuals with dementia. It’s not that I don’t care about the before. It’s fun to hear about a person’s past, and the before holds some keys to what might work when you try to improve the qualify of life for someone with dementia. Most importantly, no one wants their life to be forgotten. We want to know that people will remember what we did and how we did it. We want to know that what we’ve done has been meaningful and worthy of remembering–especially if don’t remember it ourselves.

Although we should remember the before, we also need to let go of it. If we don’t let go of the before, we can’t appreciate the after. This is easier for a professional caregiver than a family caregiver. Professional caregivers don’t have a before in their mind when they work with someone who has dementia. Family caregivers often can’t get the before out of their mind.

I have recently realized that I must not be the only person who enjoys TV shows based on the before-and-after concept. There’s Restaurant: Impossible, Biggest Loser, Extreme Weight Loss, Flea Market Flip….You can probably name many more if you think about.
But there is no before-and-after reality TV show about Dementialand. I’m not sure how many people would tune in. When the after isn’t always bright and shiny, sometimes the show loses its appeal.

Pushy Awesome Friends in Dementialand

A few weeks ago, someone made a not-very-nice comment about my blog. It’s okay. I’m over it (sort of), but I can’t say it didn’t sting. It wasn’t constructive criticism. It was mean-spirited rather than useful. I even lost some sleep, and sleeping is my favorite thing in the world. (If you know me, you know that I don’t exactly excel on little sleep.)

I had been on a roll writing my blog, but this took the wind out of my sails. I didn’t want to write anymore. I told a few of my best friends this, and they all had the same response. They didn’t tell me I should keep writing the blog. They told me I would keep writing the blog.

They didn’t entertain my reasons for wanting to stop or take a break. They didn’t want to have a long discussion about it. They just told me that I would keep writing the blog. I would keep writing because there was no other option. And so I did keep writing.

Sometimes that’s what the best of friends do. They don’t talk to you about your options. They don’t tell you what choice you should make. They just tell you what you will do and then they make sure that happens. I’m generally not a fan of pushy people, but there are times when your best friends step in and make a decision for you. It may not be what you want at the time, but it’s what you need.

I spoke at an Alzheimer’s workshop last week. I noticed two older women in my audience. They were well-dressed, attentive, and poised with pen and paper to take notes. They sat in the second row, and I liked them immediately because they laughed at my jokes. After the presentation, we struck up a conversation at the refreshment table. (As an aside, if you want to talk to me after I do a presentation, don’t go to the stage, head to the food table, especially if they have cinnamon rolls.)

One of the women, Ann, was caring for her husband with Alzheimer’s in her home. Her best friend, Carol, had insisted they come to the workshop.

“I didn’t want to come listen to you at all, honey. But this one here made me,” Ann told me as she motioned toward Carol.

I learned that Carol had read about the workshop in the paper and told Ann about it. Ann was somewhat interested, but finding someone to care for her husband would be difficult, so she told Carol it just wouldn’t work.

That’s when Carol said that they would be attending the workshop. She called her own daughter to come stay with Ann’s husband, and she called to reserve their spots at the workshop. She told Ann what time she would be picking her up. She also mentioned that she would be buying lunch after the workshop. To make a long story short, Carol is awesome. And I told her so.

“I still didn’t want to come,” Ann confided. “But I really didn’t get a say in it.”

Ann had a couple of questions as a follow-up to my presentation. We chatted for 15 to 20 minutes about her husband’s challenges with impulse control and anxiety. Carol pulled a small spiral-bound notebook out of her purse and started taking notes on our conversation. At one point, she asked for my business card in case they “needed me” in the future. I happily handed it over. I really hope they do reach out to me in the future.

I can’t stop thinking about how I wish that every caregiver had a friend like Ann had in Carol. If Ann had asked Carol if she should find someone to stay with Ann’s husband so they could go to the workshop, Ann probably would’ve said no. That’s why Carol didn’t ask. She just did it. She didn’t ask if she should call and reserve seats at the workshop. She just did it. And sometimes that’s what the best friends do. They don’t ask. They just do. Maybe it’s pushy, but maybe pushy isn’t always a bad thing.

As one of my best friends was battling cancer about a year ago, she said something that has stuck with me. She was speaking about her neighbors when she said, “They’re the type of friends who don’t ask if they can bring dinner over. They say they will be bringing dinner.” When she said that, I vowed to try to be that type of person (although I can’t cook…so maybe bringing dinner over isn’t really the absolute best way for me to help people).

Unfortunately, I find that many caregivers don’t have supportive friends like Ann does. Dementia can be isolating and take a toll on friendships. Even close friends may not know what to say or do, so they keep their distance. They think it’s better to say or do nothing than to say or do the wrong thing.

This goes for those who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and related dementias as well as caregivers. I once asked a woman in her early 40’s who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s what the biggest surprise had been. She said that it was that the friends she thought would never leave her side had left her side. She defended them, saying that she knew they were confused and scared. Even though she tried to not take it personally, it hurt.

My point here is ridiculously simple. We all need friends. Having dementia or being a caregiver for someone with dementia doesn’t change that.

And maybe friends need to stop saying, “Let me know if you need anything,” and instead say, “I thought you needed this, so I already did it.”

Finally…to my friends who told me I would keep writing my blog…thanks. I owe you guys.

Small Victories in Dementialand

I try to respect people’s privacy. Within my blog, I change names and identifying details of individuals. And, when possible, I ask for permission to tell stories.

Almost without exception, people want their stories told. They are excited about the possibility they have had an insight or experience that others might find interesting or useful. They may not want their names given, but they want their stories out there. They want their stories told not because they want attention or credit, but because their story might help someone in a similar situation. And I love that most people are like this. When it is possible, they want to use their own struggles to make life a little easier for someone else, even if they’ve never met that someone.

I had a “first” of sorts this week. I was out running errands wearing bleach-stained sweats and a baseball hat. It was one of those days when you hope you don’t see anyone you know, but I did. I happened to run into an acquaintance, Shirley, who reads my blog, and she told me a story.

After she finished the story and was walking away, she said, “If you think this story could help someone else, please feel free to repeat.” I do think it could help someone else, so I will repeat.

Shirley’s mom has Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home. At this point, she rarely remembers family members, and Shirley has started calling her by her first name because “Mom” doesn’t make sense to someone who doesn’t remember she has kids.

A while back, Shirley and a family friend were visiting the nursing home. They had brought in some Blizzards from Dairy Queen and were helping Shirley eat hers.

With a mouthful of Oreo Blizzard, Shirley’s mom said to Shirley, “Honey, you make good food. Is there a comment box here? I want to write a comment about how nice you are. Maybe you’ll get a raise.”

As Shirley told me this story, tears welled up in her eyes. She explained that as a kid she had always sought her mom’s approval but never felt like her mom was able to express admiration or pride. She never felt quite good enough for her mom. Despite her mom identifying her as a nursing home staff member, Shirley had this overwhelming feeling of satisfaction that she had done something that met her mom’s approval.

As they left the nursing home, the family friend said to Shirley, “It’s so hard for me to watch how your mom doesn’t even recognize you. I feel so bad for you.”

I talked with Shirley about how two people can perceive the same situation very differently. Although the friend saw this interaction as sad, Shirley left the nursing home with a sense of peace and contentment she hadn’t felt in a long time. What her mom had said was so meaningful that it took her breath away. And her friend simply saw a woman with dementia who no longer recognized her own daughter.

Dementia is not a “look on the bright side” type of thing. It’s a fatal disease that leads to emotional and physical pain. It gradually robs us of our friends and family members. We can’t prevent it, and we can’t slow its progress. I would never tell a family or individual to see the glass as half full after there is a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or a related dementia.

And, yet, sometimes there are these poignant moments, and you have a choice about how you interpret them. When you are able to find a positive way to interpret an interaction with someone who has dementia (when you could interpret it negatively), you win. It’s absolutely a victory.

Sometimes you don’t get a lot of victories with dementia. So you gotta grab them when you can.

In that moment, it was Shirley 1, Alzheimer’s 0. Maybe the score would be different the next day, or even in 10 minutes. But you only focus on the game you’re playing right now.

Thank you for sharing that story with me, Shirley. I rarely cry, but you almost made me tear up in the snack aisle at Walgreens.

Why There Are No Superheroes in Dementialand

Tuesday was National Superhero Day. There’s a day for everything, right? Pancake Day, Oyster Day, Star Wars Day.

Superhero Day got me thinking in a way that National Frozen Food Day, Johnny Appleseed Day, and Goddess of Fertility Day did not. (However, National Frozen Food Day did make me crave frozen French toast sticks and tater tots.)

I’ve been thinking about how I don’t believe in superheroes, and I take issue when people call other people superheros.

I have a friend who is pretty impressive. She gets up every morning at 4 and runs 6-10 miles. Then she works all day. At night, she teaches a couple of yoga classes. She’s kind, funny, and humble. I don’t know how she does it. I’ve heard a lot of people say she must be a superhero.

But saying she’s a superhero doesn’t do her justice. Superheroes have special powers. They have capabilities that the rest of us don’t have. That means superheroes aren’t really that inspiring or impressive. My friend doesn’t have any special powers. She does what she does because she chooses to rather than because she’s some special breed. I think that’s more powerful than having some sort of superpower status.

I’m not inspired to go out and fight crime in my community because a superhero does it. I might be more inspired if a real person did it. To me, real people doing impressive things are infinitely more amazing than superheroes.

I am in awe of some of the dementia caregivers I have met. They are family members, friends, neighbors. They never sought out the caregiving role. It wasn’t a job they applied for and it wasn’t a path they chose, but they do the best they can.

It’s a guy who plays Uno with his wife for hours even though she doesn’t remember the rules and they are basically pushing cards around on the table aimlessly. And it’s not a burden to him. He loves every minute of it and knows someday he’ll cherish this time spent together.

It’s a woman who patiently answers the same question over and over when her husband with Alzheimer’s asks it …again…again…and again. And, amazingly, she answers in the exact same tone of voice the first time and the thirteenth time.

It’s a daughter who knows her mom’s medical record like the back of her hand. She organized and systematic in caregiving. When her mom is hospitalized and a medication mistake is made, she’s quick to correct it.

And I’ve often mistaken some people with dementia for superheroes. I know people in the earlier stages of dementia who do public speaking, sit on panels, and write books. I am in awe of them for the courage they show in times of uncertainly. They put themselves out there despite their own fears. They help me learn things about dementia that I could learn in no other way. They are making more of a difference than they realize.

A couple of days after September 11, 2001, I heard something that has stuck with me. When there is a disaster or a tragedy, you will see good-hearted, kind, and giving people stepping up to the plate. You have to look for those people and notice that positivity or your spirit can be destroyed by witnessing the devastation. And I was amazed (and continue to be amazed) at the good that 9/11 brought out in people.

But all those people sifting through debris at the World Trade Center? They weren’t superheroes. They were ordinary people stepping up to the plate in extraordinary ways. They were real. And I don’t think we can fully appreciate their actions unless we understand that they were real people with friends, families, strengths, vulnerabilities, fears, and favorite TV shows.

I feel the same way about some of the people I’ve met in the dementia community. They step up to the plate in times of struggle and tragedy. I remember having a conversation with the son of a middle-aged woman who had dementia. He had changed his work schedule to work third shift so that he could stay with his mom while his father worked during the day. He and his father had worked out this plan to delay placing his mother in a memory care unit.

When I was speaking with this guy after a support group meeting, I noticed a woman standing nearby eavesdropping on our conversation. Finally, she jumped in and said, “Wow. You sound like Superman.”

The man made some jokes about how no one had ever seen Superman and him in the same room. Then he pointed out that he was in no way a superhero. In fact, he was sleep-deprived son who was just trying not to screw everything up. He said that some of his days with his mom were epic disasters, but he kept thinking about how he could do better–and he kept showing up.

He told us that a few weeks ago he had forgotten to get gas and found himself stranded and embarrassed on the interstate…with his mom in the passenger seat. And a good day was when he had time to grab matching socks. He confided that he had no idea how much longer he could do this. He said that he often wondered if he needed to be on anti-depressant and he really wanted to start going to church again but Sundays were his only day to sleep in.

It’s only after I hear about the real struggles of caregivers that I appreciate what they do.

Superheroes don’t impress me. Real people do.

Assholes in Dementialand

One of my college students, Hillary, had come with me to a particular adult day center once a month for a couple of years. Today was her last day because she was headed to grad school at Syracuse.

One of the guys, who I will call Jameswas really attached to Hillary. He would rush in, pushing his walker to make sure he got to sit by her each time we came. He once asked her if her eyelashes were natural or if they were “imposters.” Talk about charming… Although he has vascular dementia, he has never forgotten a detail about Hillary. My male college students could learn a thing or two from James.

I make sure to take a picture of them together that day. I would tape it up in my office. It is right over my computer screen, and every time I look at it I smile. I also gave one to James and one to Hillary.

James has been to visit Syracuse two times in his life. He remembers what county it is in and the main highways that run through the city. I ask him if he thinks it will be a good place for Hillary to live for the new few years. He turns to Hillary and looks her in the eye. Long pause… I feel like he is ready to dispense a life lesson, and I’m right.

“Hillary,” he says. Dramatic pause. “No matter where you go in this world, 10% of people are assholes.”

He goes on to explain that 10% of people in Syracuse are assholes, just like 10% of people in Iowa are assholes, just like 10% of people in Korea are assholes. He tells Hillary to watch out for the assholes, but there won’t be any more there than there are here.

That was about two years ago. I cannot tell you how often I think about what James said. When I am in the checkout line in the grocery store and some jerk elbows his way in front of me, I think about how he’s in the 10%. The other day I was running on the trails and some idiot on a bike refused to move over to give me a little space as he passed. He’s part of that 10%. And I’m sounding sexist here. There are plenty of women in the 10% as well, like the employee at Culver’s who stares me down after I ask for a veggie burger as if I’ve ordered her to hand over her first-born child.

Somehow admitting that 10% of the world is made of assholes makes it easier for me to acknowledge I’ve run into one and then move on with my day. I try to focus on the other 90%.

As for Hillary, she is now almost done with graduate school. She loves hearing updates about James, who still asks about her every month. So much for that generation gap thing.