Looking for a Sign in Dementialand (Or When You Just Gotta Make the Call)

After one of my friends excitedly told me she was pregnant, she launched into a long monologue about whether or not it was the right time to have a baby. She explained that she and her husband had been talking for years about when the right time to have a child might be. First, she was in a grad school. Then, he got a promotion and had to do a lot of traveling for work. Just when they thought the timing might be right, her mom was diagnosed with cancer.

She told me, “We came to the conclusion that maybe there is no exact right time to do it. Maybe you just have to make a decision.”

Those words stuck with me. When I think about my life, there have not been definitive signs telling me when it’s time to make a life decision or major change. If I would’ve waited for those signs, I’d still be sitting there–in the same life stage I was in many years ago. At some point, you just have to make a decision and move forward.

I remember having to make a series of career decisions in the couple of years after finishing graduate school. I went on a job interview at the university where I currently work as a faculty member. I wanted a sign that I should take the job if I was offered it.

I’m not sure what I would’ve considered a sign. Perhaps a carrier pigeon that would drop me a note telling me I should work at the university. Maybe a fortune cookie at dinner that said, “Take the freaking job, Elaine.” I would’ve settled for a well-done piece of toast with burn marks in the shape of the Northern Iowa mascot (which is an adorable Panther named TC who I’ve become quite close with over the past nine years, by the way). I got nothing. No signs. No signals. In the end, I just had to make a decision.

Maybe it’s getting engaged. Maybe it’s having a baby. Perhaps it’s going back to school or changing jobs. It could be something less monumental but potentially life-changing, like starting a fitness program or registering for your first 5k. You can always find a reason to not do it. There’s always something that makes the timing not exactly right. Sometimes you need to do it anyway. God, the Universe, or whatever power you believe in will not present you with the perfect time and circumstances to do anything. If we wait for perfect, we’ll always stand still.

In the past week, I’ve been asked the same question three times. The question is: How do you know when it’s time for your loved one to move to a nursing home?

A typical response to this question is, “You’ll know when the time is right.” I’m not sure why everyone says this, except that perhaps it’s comforting to think that God or the universe will put a billboard in your life to signal that you should consider a nursing home for someone you care about. As comforting as this might be, it doesn’t always happen.

A woman approached me at an event last week and asked if there was any “test” a doctor or psychologist could give her mom that would give her a definitive answer as to whether or not she should live in a nursing home. After talking to this woman a bit, I realized that she knew the best choice for her mom at this point was probably a nursing home. She had information that could never be assessed by a test, and she had more knowledge of her mom than any doctor or psychologist could ever have. And, yet, she wanted a checked box that signaled that it was time for mom to move to a nursing home.

I can’t check a box that indicates it’s time for nursing home care. First of all, I don’t know your mom, your dad, your grandparents, your sibling, or your partner. You are the person who has the information to make this decision. You may like the idea of a “professional” giving you a definitive answer, but it doesn’t work that way. I get really annoyed with people who answer questions with questions, but if you ask me if your loved one should live in a nursing home, I’m likely to ask what you think. Then I generally just repeat this back to you. Sometimes I rephrase it, and sometimes I don’t even go to the trouble. Later on you thank me for my brilliant advice when I never gave you any advice. You had the answer all along.

Second, decisions about nursing homes are about more than the person who needs care. People with dementia do not exist in isolation. You must consider the health, social support, and knowledge of family members and friends who provide care at home. We hate to make decisions based on finances, but money impacts the choice to consider nursing home care. You even have to consider issues like the layout of one’s home (e.g., Is it accessible?). I can ask you a series of questions about your loved one’s health in order to assess whether or not a nursing home might be the right choice, but that’s not the whole picture. Life ain’t that simple. Sorry, folks.

When I worked with individuals in hospice care, I had a few conversations about the choices they had to make throughout their illnesses in regards to stopping life-saving treatment (particularly chemo). One woman told me that she was looking for a sign that it was time to give up on chemo. If she had some sign, she could tell her family that the time had come to stop. However, that sign never came. She had to make a decision, and it was more difficult to tell her family because it was her choice. There was no real signal that the timing was right to forget chemo and call hospice. She just had to make a decision. It was her life, her choice.

It’s a little different with dementia. Obviously, as dementia progresses it becomes more unlikely that people can make their own choices about care. Family members and friends step in. Sometimes people with dementia and their loved ones are proactive enough to have discussions years before these difficult choices must be made. Often they are not.

We often anticipate that these decisions will be made based solely on the health of the person with dementia, but they are not. I know a man who cared for his wife with Alzheimer’s in their home until he fell and broke his hip while cleaning out the gutters. It was at this point that she moved to a nursing home. He felt guilty that this decision was made based on him and not her, but that’s how things often work. Another woman who had Alzheimer’s received in-home care for several hours a day for a few years. When her money ran out, she went on state aid and moved to a nursing home. Her family felt awful that they didn’t have enough money to pitch in and keep her at home. Love doesn’t pay the bills. (If it did, the world would be a different place.)

Quite often, a person with dementia lands in a nursing home as a result of a crisis. Maybe they fall and injure themselves. Perhaps they end up wandering around town, confused and scared, and their family realizes they can’t provide supervision at home anymore. Unfortunately, nursing home admissions in crisis are not ideal. They are stressful for the person with dementia, as well as for the family. Also, when we must admit someone to a nursing home on very short notice, we seldom get that person into our first choice of nursing home. I encourage families to make a decision before a crisis happens.

There is no pre-determined right time to get married, have a baby, go back to school, or change jobs. You don’t have a prescribed timeline for your life. There is not an exact right time to choose a nursing home for a loved one. Sometimes there’s just a difficult decision.

A carrier pigeon isn’t going to drop you a note, and sometimes fortune cookies just aren’t that helpful. And, as a professional in the field, I’ll certainly chat with you about it, but I can’t make the decisions for you. In the end, you just have to make the call.

And not look back.

Critical Nitwits in Dementialand

I was speaking at a support group when an older woman told me that her husband, who had Alzheimer’s, needed 24/7 care. She said she was able to be home most of the time, but she was continuing to work about ten hours a week at a liquor store. She explained that her job paid little more than minimum wage. She paid more for her husband’s care than she made at the liquor store. A lot more.

Then she listed off the reasons that she kept the job. First, she enjoyed it. She liked the social aspect of talking to people about booze. Second, she wasn’t sure if she could get the job back if she quit, and she didn’t know what the future held. Third, she needed to get out of the house sometimes or she would lose her mind. Fourth…I stopped her before the got to the fourth reason. I don’t know how many reasons were on the list.

“You can stop justifying this to me,” I told her.

“So you understand?” she asked.

I did understand, but that didn’t really matter. What did matter was that she understood. She understood her reasons for continuing to work, and they made sense to her. That’s what mattered. She may have been looking for some support for her decision to keep working, and I get that. However, the way she justified her decision to me indicated that she felt the need to justify it to others in her life as well. It bothered me that she felt the need to defend her choice to continue working.

Caregivers have to make a lot of rough decisions. Sometimes those decisions are supported by others. Sometimes they are not.

I don’t understand how you can put Dad in a nursing home.

I don’t get why you are touring assisted livings. Grandma is fine at home.

It doesn’t make sense that you took her off that drug.

Mom is a safe driver. You broke her heart when you took her keys away.

Most people with dementia have one or two primary care partners. I often work with these primary care partners, who feel that their decisions are criticized by those a bit more removed from the situation. And these care partners spend a lot of time explaining and justifying their decisions.

I used to try to help these care partners come up with ways to effectively communicate their reasoning. To some extent, I still do this. However, I’ve shifted my focus to helping care partners cope with those in their life who might be judgmental of their decision-making.

If you are a care partner who is questioned about your decisions, explain concisely why you did what you chose to do. And then…stop explaining it. Just stop. If they don’t get it after one explanation, they won’t get it after 27 explanations. Just move on with the knowledge that you are doing the best that you can. And that’s all you can do.

We make the best decisions we can with the knowledge we have at the time. Sometimes we make bad decisions in caregiving, as we are prone to doing in other areas of life as well. Maybe your family and friends are eager to point out when you’ve made a bad decision. Some people are like that. You can’t change them.

Often it’s a relative who shows up in town for a weekend and has “all the answers.” (Yeah, that’s sarcasm. In fact, I speak fluent sarcasm.) Sometimes it’s a friend whose well-intentioned advice isn’t that helpful. I see caregivers who spend a lot of time and energy explaining their decisions to these people, and caregivers don’t have excess time and energy. So you know what? Stop explaining yourself. Stop justifying your decisions. Just stop.

There are two types of people. The first type of person understands you and supports you. There is no reason you need to explain or defend yourself to them. They understand that maybe your decision is different than the one they would have made, but they are a different person than you are. They understand that you have to do what works in your situation. They get it. If you are lucky, you have many people like this in your life. If you don’t, you need to find more…immediately.

Then there’s the second type of person. Perhaps you have a few of these people in your life. (Well, if you are lucky, it’s only a few.) They look for fault in the people around them. They forget that different things work for different people. They expect that everyone is like them and should make the same decisions they would make in similar circumstances. They listen with the goal of finding fault in what they hear rather than finding understanding or common ground. If you have many people like this in your life, you may need to reassess your social circle…immediately.

There’s no reason to justify your decisions to the first type of person, and it’s futile to explain them to the second type of person. Save your breath.

We can’t always eliminate the second type of person from our lives–although when it’s reasonable, it’s worth considering. What we can do is stop trying to win their approval…because we never will. You set yourself up for failure when your confidence about your caregiving decisions is dependent on critical nitwits. You have to find a way to care less about they think. You’ve got to tune them out.

The best way to do this is to fill your life with as many supportive people as possible. You need to find people whose supportive voices drown out the unsupportive voices. Maybe you find these people at a support group. Maybe you find them online. Maybe they’re at your church. But you find them.

If my husband had Alzheimer’s and needed 24/7 care, would I work ten hours a week at a liquor store even if the job actually cost me more money than it paid?

Maybe. I’m honestly not sure. But it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because the woman at the support group is not me. We are different people. What works for one caregiver may not work for someone else.

She didn’t have to explain to me why she kept her job. It doesn’t matter if I get it. It matters that she gets it.

Welcome to the Real and Non-Perfect Dementialand World (and What to Say if You Want to Make Me Super Angry)

I overheard a bunch of people chatting before a support group meeting. There was a middle-aged guy updating some other family care partners about his wife with dementia. I need to tell you that I am going to change a few details here so this person isn’t as identifiable. It’s pretty typical that I do this, but I’m making a special effort here because I need to tell you about something he said that had me pretty bent out of shape.

The man was well-dressed and handsome. He seemed confident, and I could tell that he was a long-standing member of the group that others looked to for support. I couldn’t help but think he looked a bit like a younger-ish Harrison Ford…think somewhere between Star Wars and The Fugitive. 

He explained that his wife was continuing to live at home, although her condition was progressing. She was now unable to walk without assistance. She needed help with bathing, toileting, and eating. He told the group that his friends and siblings were trying to convince him to considering placing her in a nursing home, but he “could never do anything like that to his wife.”

“I love her too much to put her in a place like that,” he said, shaking his head with a huge emphasis on the word “that.”

I know he loved his wife. I know he was committed to keeping her at home because he cared about her. Yet his comments made me cringe. I cringed because a lot of people love their family members with dementia but are unable to keep them at home. I cringed even more because I knew he was talking directly to some of the people who were unable to keep their loved ones at home, and I worried he was making them feel like crap. Everyone’s situation is different, and his comment came off as judgmental considering his audience.

I do a good job of biting my lip in such situations, but my husband tells me I don’t have much of a poker face. I’m sure I was glaring at this guy. If looks could kill, he would’ve dropped dead before the support group meeting even started.

I have no doubt that this gentleman was a tremendous care partner for his wife. However, he also had some resources that helped him keep her at home; some resources that not all care partners have. First, he was in his late 40’s and in good physical condition. He was able to lift his wife, who happened to be much smaller than he was.

I found out later that he was a successful business owner in the town I was visiting. Although he had a busy career, he could often work at home and had the ability to make his own schedule. In addition, he had the financial resources to hire in-home assistance for a several hours a day. Furthermore, he seemed to have friends and family who were willing and able to come over to give him a break when he needed one.

I give the guy a lot of credit. He had a system in place that allowed him to keep his wife at home at a point when many people with dementia have transitioned to a nursing home. It took organization and dedication, and I have no doubt he did it out of love. He had the option to keep her at home. It’s wonderful he was able to do so, but it isn’t the right decision or a feasible alternative for everyone.

I have to be honest and tell you that his line about “loving her too much to put her in a place like that” really stung. I don’t think he meant to offend, but that doesn’t change the fact that it just plain hurt. It stung professionally because I work with many family care partners who must make the choice to place a loved one with dementia in a facility–not because they don’t love them–but because it is the best option they have with the resources they have available.

It’s a rough choice to make, and I spend a lot of time telling these care partners that they need to let go of the guilt. I care about these people, believe they love their family members, and know how hard they’ve tried to make the right decisions on a difficult road.

Perhaps it also stung me personally. My grandma spent a short time in a nursing home at the end of her life. Although I’m sure he didn’t mean to, this guy had implied that my family didn’t love her enough. We did love her enough. That guy should be glad I didn’t tell all my cousins about his comment.

Love is important. I don’t know what life is without love. Yet, love doesn’t erase our financial, physical, and emotional limitations. We can’t all quit our jobs to care for a loved one 24/7, and not everyone has a flexible work schedule. I talked to a care partner who recently told me that she had exhausted all of her vacation taking her mom back and forth to Mayo Clinic to see a neurologist–before her mom even had an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Her boss had told her if she had to leave work again due to a crisis with her mom, she’d be fired.

Some care partners have kids. The other day I talked to a stay-at-home mom who takes care of her three young children during the day. It seems as if some members of her family have assumed she can help her mother-in-law with dementia during the day….because she doesn’t work. (I have to be honest in telling you that taking care of three small children seems like more work than what I do at work.) Even the most amazing women have their limits.

Sometimes in our attempts to keep our loved ones with dementia at home, we overlook potentially risky situations. They may be risky to the person with dementia (e.g., wandering, falling down stairs), but they may also be risky to the care partner. It’s no secret that caregiving for someone with dementia can take a toll on a care partner’s heath. I’m talking about both physical and mental health. (No matter how much tiny women love their spouses with dementia, they still can’t lift large men without getting hurt. And people need sleep.)

I can show you research that supports this, but I’ve seen plenty of first-hand evidence as well. Often, it is not a change in the person with dementia’s health that triggers placement in a facility. People with dementia frequently move to nursing homes because their loved ones have increased health concerns and can no longer provide care.

I recently met a school counselor whose husband has Lewy-Body dementia. She knows he will soon need 24/7 care, and she understands that it is not realistic, considering her family situation, that he will stay at home for the duration of his disease. She is struggling with the right time to transition him to an assisted living.

I was livid when I found out that one of her immediate family members had said to her, “If he were my husband, I’d quit my job to keep him at home.” I’m pretty sure she could see the veins in my forehead when she told me this… Sure, if you are financially able to quit your job and this is the right option for you, that’s fantastic. But this is the real world. Who is going to pay the mortgage? And this particular woman said that her job was the only thing keeping her sane on this journey.

Someone I know said something a few weeks ago that has stuck with me. I had what Oprah would call an “aha moment.” This woman told me that her daughter had been raped decades earlier. After the rape, many people made comments that started with “If that were my daughter, I would….” Of course, they would then end the statement with something that she had not done. She promised herself that she’d never make a similar statement to someone who was going through a tough time. After she told me this, I made the same promise to myself.

I’ve heard many people say that they would never place a loved one in a long term care facility. If you want to see the veins in my neck pop out, say that to me. In a perfect world, we could confidently say we’d never make that choice. If this were a perfect world, I could say that my love would keep my family members from living in a nursing home. But this is not a perfect world. Love doesn’t keep people from getting sick or make them better, and it certainly doesn’t prevent nursing home admittance.

Here’s the take home message…You may have had to make the hard decision to transition your loved one to an assisted living, nursing home, or memory care community. (And if you aren’t there yet, this may be in your future, whether or not you realize it.) You probably struggled with it. You hoped the timing was right, but you’ll never know for sure. Some members of your family may have even disagreed with you on some aspects of this decision, and you had to defend your thinking…when you weren’t so sure yourself. There were probably moments where you felt like an awful person.

Don’t let anyone make you feel like you made the wrong call because it’s not the one they made or because they claim it’s not the one they would make if they were in your shoes. Maybe they made a different call, but they are a different person in a different situation. And if they haven’t had to make that call, they should shut up about what they would do–because they really don’t know.

You are not less of a care partner because your loved one lives at a facility. Your responsibilities may be a different than if your loved one lived with you, but you are not less competent, less caring, or less worthy. Don’t feel like a failure. Stop second-guessing yourself. Stop feeling guilty. Stop worrying you’re not a good wife, husband, sibling, daughter, son….

You did the best you could with the options that were available to you. Sometimes life presents us with a bunch of alternatives, and they all suck. (I’ve tried to rephrase that last sentence about ten times but I can’t come up with anything better. Sorry.) You have to pick the one that sucks the least, for you and for the people you love. And then you move on and make the best of it.

Welcome to the real and non-perfect world.

Praying for the End in Dementialand

I was 23 when my grandpa passed away. He had a lot of chronic health conditions, including diabetes, and he’d recently had a leg amputated. The last time I saw him in person, he kept calling the guy I was dating at the time “Steve” (although his name was not Steve) and he was very grateful to “Steve” for helping him figure out the remote control to his crappy TV at the hospital. The last time I talked to him on the phone, he was telling me about a church picnic that he had attended. He mentioned he brought brownies in a basket. There had been no church picnic.

I remember sitting on the bed in my small grad school apartment with my black cat, Teela, as my mom called me to tell he that he died. It seems surreal that I still have Teela (although now she has three doggie brothers and a feline sister–oh, and a dad!) and am looking at her in her kitty condo as I type this today. It seems so long ago, but I guess it wasn’t that long ago because I still have Teela–although she is a bit heavier and moves slower…I could say the same about myself though.

I asked my mom if she thought I should call my grandma to express my condolences. To be honest, I wanted her to tell me not to bother Grandma. I was a little nervous to make the call. I didn’t know what to say. When Grandma answered the phone, she launched into a story about the Red Roof Inn she was staying at near my grandpa’s hospital. She had spent a lot of nights there, and they were kind enough to not charge her for the night my grandpa died. She was absolutely overwhelmed by their kindness. I think of this every time I see a Red Roof Inn to this day.

I didn’t really know what to say when she paused after praising the employees of the Red Roof Inn, so I blurted out, “I’m sorry about Grandpa.”

“Oh, honey,” she said. “I was praying for the Lord to take him. I knew he wasn’t gonna be strong enough to come home after losing that leg. It was the best thing.”

The best thing?

At that point in time, I had this idea that we all should fight for our lives to the bitter end. I saw death as failure, not as a natural part of life. And I wasn’t sure what I thought of someone hoping and praying for a loved one to pass away.

In a way, I was glad my grandma accepted my grandpa’s death on some level. On the other hand, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the notion that my grandma prayed for my grandpa to die. I can assure you that the experiences I have had between then and now have absolutely allowed me to wrap my mind around this.

I was speaking with a woman recently whose husband has a type of dementia that can progress very quickly. I pointed out that this rare type of dementia has a shorter life expectancy than Alzheimer’s and most other types of dementia. I had only known this woman for about…3 minutes…so I worried that I’d said too much and was perhaps being a bit pessimistic and blunt when I had no idea where she was at with this.

“Oh, thank God,” she said. “The quicker this progresses, the better.” Then she looked horrified, like she couldn’t believe she said this to me.

There are many people who live well with dementia. Unfortunately, her husband is currently not one of them. And she wants this over as soon as possible, for him and for her.

Then she asked, “Am I a bad person for wishing he dies sooner rather than later?”

I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. It seemed like a question for a ethicist, pastor, or philosopher rather than for me. All I could do was reassure her that her feelings were normal considering the circumstances. She was absolutely right that he seems to have little quality of life. He spends most of his day in their bed–but with his eyes open–and he gets upset if she tries to turn on the lights or the TV. He recently told their kids that he was sorry he ever had them, and he had even become aggressive toward one of his grandchildren. She also pointed out that he’d be really upset if he realized that all the money he had worked so hard to save would likely be eaten up by a nursing home.

So, are you a bad person for hoping that your loved one with late-stage dementia passes away rather than lingers on? Absolutely not. This is normal. It’s also normal that you might wish for them to pass away in one moment but in the next minute be willing to do anything to keep them on this earth.

And when they do die, it is normal to feel guilty that you wished that they would pass away and then want them back. It is normal to feel a variety of emotions when a loved one with dementia dies, but one of those emotions may be relief. And–no–none of this makes you a bad person. It makes you human.

If someone says to me that they want their loved one to “go quickly” or “leave soon” or any other euphemism we can use to avoid the actual term “death,” it may be partially from a selfish place–because being a care partner is demanding.

However, I find that more frequently it has nothing to do with the care partner and everything to do with the person with dementia. While some people with dementia live a life worth living right up until the moment they depart, we cannot say that everyone with dementia has a positive quality of life from dementia to death. It’s just not true. Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, Lewy-Body Dementia, frontotemporal dementia…these can be cruel diseases.

When we look at our loved ones and see depression, anxiety, and pain (physical and emotional), we may hope for death. Don’t beat yourself up if you pray every night for God to peacefully take your parent, spouse, or sibling. No judgment here. And if you attend a dementia caregiving support group and mention that you are ready for your loved one to pass away, you will see a chorus of nods and knowing looks.

I fully anticipate that this post will offend someone. And I am offended as well. I am offended that dementia causes such suffering that one would at some point hope for death for a family member or friend–and that as a society we haven’t been empathetic or supportive enough to those in the midst of this journey.

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. 

Passion in Dementialand (A Post About What Gets Us Excited)

A little passion goes a long way.

I’m not talking about relationships here. I’m talking about life. No one has passion for everything they do. We all have to do things that we don’t like doing. That’s part of living in the real world. But we gotta have passion for something or we’re sunk.

My passion is dementia. I don’t like dementia itself. In fact, I really don’t like dementia at all, but I get excited (maybe I should say “fired up”) about educating people about dementia and raising awareness. I cannot count the number of times I have been at a party and was engaged in an intriguing conversation about dementia with someone I had just met–except I was the only one “engaged” and probably the only one who found it “intriguing.”

My husband once joked that we might get invited to more social gatherings if I talked less about dementia. Or maybe he wasn’t joking. Someone once told me that everyone should be passionate enough about something to talk about it enthusiastically for a ridiculous amount of time at a party while boring everyone else in the room. Yep. I can do that.

When someone stops me at Target to ask a question about dementia and I don’t abandon my cart immediately to chat, there is a problem. You should worry about me. Maybe you should even considering planning an intervention of some type–because something’s not right.

I get excited about things other than talking about dementia. A part of me wants to tell you I’m passionate about classical music, art history, and expensive red wine, but I’m not. I’m passionate about college basketball, perfecting recipes for low-cal margaritas, and cheap white wine. (I’m known for buying wine on a clearance end cap at Walgreens. In my defense, our Walgreens has an underappreciated selection of alcohol.) And although these passions may seem less than refined to some, there’s no reason they are less valid.

Maybe you get the same feeling from listening to a full symphony that I do when someone on my team makes a three-pointer or takes a charge. It doesn’t really matter what triggers that feeling, as long as something does.

You may not be as passionate about this dementia stuff as I am (or maybe you are because you are reading this blog) and maybe you don’t like college basketball or cheap wine, but my wish for you is that you are passionate about something. For my stepfather who is a retired forester, it’s trees. If he ever shows up at our house and doesn’t sniff our trees to assess their health within an hour of arrival, I’m worried. One of my mom’s most interesting and notable hobbies is tie-dyeing. If you’ve seen pictures of her, you should know she tie-dyed those t-shirts herself. If I ever get out her tie-dye supplies and she says she’s not really interested in tie-dying, there’s an issue. I’m not saying that issue is dementia, although it could be. It might also be depression or perhaps another medical issue–or maybe just a simple rut. But I’m gonna wonder what’s going on.

When we think of dementia, we think of loss of memory. However, the more time I spend with people who have dementia, the more I realize that loss of passion (more than loss of memory) triggers hopelessness. If you wake up in the morning and have something to be excited about–no matter how big or small it is–there’s hope.

When I think about the individuals I know with dementia, I see many that have held onto a passion or developed a new passion. I know a guy who struggles to remember his wife’s name, but when he’s told that the St. Louis Cardinals play tonight, he’s excited. There’s a woman with Alzheimer’s who used to be a master gardener. She still finds joy in watering the flowers at the adult day center she goes to five days a week. And then there’s the family that tried to stop their grandma from reorganizing her closet every single day–because she had just done it the day before. However, organizing was her passion. It’s what she was excited to do when she woke up in the morning.

I find that families sometimes try to shut down the passions of their loved ones with dementia. Maybe they don’t seem purposeful or legitimate. Maybe they aren’t the same passions that the person had ten years ago. But here’s the thing…and this is advice that works both in and out of Dementialand…

We are not qualified to judge the validity of someone else’s passion. 

I have a friend who is a member of what we call the “sandwich generation.” She is sandwiched in caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s and her young children. One day she noticed her daughter and her mother playing together in the sandbox at a park. At first, she thought about how it looked like a typical grandmother-grandchild interaction. Then her young daughter left the sandbox, and grandma stayed there–playing like a child. My friend sat sitting on a bench, watching her own mother play in a sandbox all alone. She wasn’t quite sure what to think. Then she realized her mother was smiling as she sculpted pictures and designs in the sand with a rake.

You rarely see adults playing alone in sandboxes at city parks, so my friend was not entirely comfortable with this. However, as she thought about it more, she realized it really wasn’t all that different from a monk in a Zen garden raking sand as a part of their meditation. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that playing in a sandbox is no less valuable than how I spend my free time–watching college kids try to put a ball through a hoop.

She kept bringing her mom and her kids back to that same park. She learned to ignore the people who stared at the smiling woman raking alone in the sandbox.

We are not qualified to judge the validity of someone else’s passion. 

I have a lot of friends (both with and without dementia) who have passions that I don’t really get. I don’t have to get their passions to support them in pursuing their passions. And it doesn’t matter what they get excited about as long as they get excited about something. And who am I to say what they get excited about doing is any less valid than what I get excited about doing?

Because of the impact dementia has on the brain, people with Alzheimer’s and related diseases may become apathetic. Often we say someone has “given up,” but that’s not really the case. It’s an actual symptom. The less scientific explanation is that the part of the brain that control motivation and excitement is damaged. Sometimes I will see someone who has “dimmed.” They can’t get interested in stuff that used to interest them–and they can’t find anything to replace those interests.

People who struggle to remember and understand their surroundings may find it hard to be excited about much of anything as dementia progresses, but there are cases when passion remains although memory may have declined. And when that happens, there is a sort of beauty that amazes me.

I often think of a woman who told me about her mother with dementia that didn’t remember she had grandchildren. Her mother eventually moved in with her family and every single morning would seem a little bit surprised to see a couple of small children in the kitchen. When the kids would call her grandma, she would be over the moon–as excited as, well, a new grandma.

“Oh my goodness!” she would exclaimed. “Are these my beautiful grandchildren?”

She didn’t remember she was a grandma, but she still managed to be pretty passionate about it. The most amazing part of this is that her family chose to focus on her passion for being a grandma rather than her need to be reminded everyday that she was a grandma. Rather than being sad that she didn’t remember her grandchildren, they focused on the look of excitement on her face when she realized those grandkids were her grandkids. It was her enthusiasm that allowed them to cope with her loss of memory.

A little passion goes a long way.

Choices in Dementialand (aka Confessions of a Spoiled Dinner Brat)

At any given time, there are several blog posts in my “drafts” that I haven’t published. Sometimes they aren’t published because I think they are poorly-written and need some polishing. Once in a while I hold something back because I haven’t quite found the right words to explain what I want to explain. And then there are a few that I haven’t published because they are somewhat rambling and pointless.

However, this one has been a “draft” for quite some time for a different reason. I have not published this post yet because it will make everyone think I’m a spoiled brat. In a way, maybe I am.

Let me start by saying that my husband is a really good cook. Not only is he a good cook, he enjoys cooking. On the contrary, I am definitely not known for my cooking. And I don’t enjoy cooking nearly as much as he does. However, I do enjoy eating.

In the middle of any given day, he is likely to ask me, “What do you want for dinner?” He’s not asking which frozen pizza he should throw in the oven or if he should pick something up at Panchero’s (although both of these options are completely acceptable in my book). He’s asking what he should stop at the grocery store to buy and go home to prepare. Whether I say pasta, tuna steak, or an egg sandwich, he’s on it. Pretty amazing, right?

Well, yeah…except I hate the question “What do you want for dinner?” The great thing is that he’d go get and make absolutely anything I name, but that is also the struggle. Even though I’m a vegetarian who generally avoids fried food and doesn’t do spicy, there are probably a million options. That’s precisely why it’s such a hard question to answer. When he asks me what I want for dinner (especially in the midst of a long day at work), I usually can’t come up with a single idea.

I don’t mean to complain. The guy is willing to go grocery shopping and prepare dinner. You’d think I’d have the mental energy to make a decision about what we should have, but sometimes it’s just too overwhelming. When you can choose anything, sometimes it’s hard to chose anything. So when he asks me what I want for dinner, I usually say I don’t know or that I don’t care.

Choice is great. Being able to make our own decisions is what empowers us and makes us the people we are. If you think about some of the punishments that we hand out to criminals, an important factor is that we take away choice. People in prison don’t get too much choice about what to eat or when to go outside. Others make those decisions for them. This is a big part of why people in prison feel dehumanized and stripped of their identity.

While we don’t like our choices made for us, making decisions for ourselves takes mental energy. The other night, we went out for froyo. We were at one of those places where you top your own frozen yogurt and they weigh it to figure your price. (Total tab for my husband and me: Almost $15.) It’s great to be able to have choices in yogurt and toppings, of course. And, yet, I’m not sure choosing from 27 flavors of yogurt really makes a person happier than choosing from six flavors. That’s before you even get to the toppings. (I should add that we now have four top-your-own froyo places in town, so this all happens after we decide which one to visit.)

Evaluating and making choices, whether these choices are big or small, taxes our brains. There are times when we have so many options that we shut down and can’t make a choice. The brain becomes flooded and it’s just easier to not make a decision. I once had an international student in my class from Africa. He told me that the first time he went to buy laundry detergent in the US he looked at all the options and, completely overwhelmed, left the store without buying any. I recently read an article that said that women who have a ridiculous amount of clothes often look in their closet and say they have nothing to wear because the amount of clothing is overwhelming. For that reason, fewer clothes in a well-organized closet may make getting dressed in the morning less stressful.

Choices take mental energy for all of us, and the dementia brain may have even more limited mental energy. Decisions that require evaluating many options can be really difficult, even they are decisions that most of us consider minor and pretty inconsequential. What do you want to do today? What do you want for lunch? Where do you want to go? What do you want to wear? 

Sometimes we can help people (and not just those with dementia) by giving options. As people have more limited mental energy, the number of options should decrease accordingly.

Would you rather go to the park, the coffee shop, or the art museum today?

Do you want to wear your blue shirt or your red shirt?

A family caregiver I once talked to told me that she was worried about her mom’s appetite. She would often ask her mom what she wanted to eat. Her mom would say that she wasn’t hungry. A simple change in how she asked the question made a huge difference. She starting asking questions in a different way. She made her questions multiple-choice and limited the options.

“Would you like a turkey sandwich or a salad?” she would ask. Her mom would respond with her preference. It wasn’t that her mom wasn’t hungry. It was that she was overwhelmed by the question.

Not surprisingly, processing options may take longer for people who have dementia. Often we have the tendency to jump in and make a decision when someone doesn’t respond immediately. Or we ask the question again–in a louder voice. (Why is it so common for us to think someone will be able to process our question more efficiently if we yell at them when the opposite is true?)

When I was in graduate school and first started teaching college classes, I was frustrated that my students were not participating in the discussion when I asked questions in class. My major professor, who had thirty years of teaching experience, observed my teaching and gave me some helpful feedback.

“Elaine, obviously no one is answering your questions in class,” he said in his heavy Dutch accent. “You ask a question and no one responds because you don’t give them a chance. They don’t have time to process the question before you jump in and answer it yourself.”

I taught myself to slowly count to ten in my head (and tolerate the silence) after I ask a question to a classroom of students. Fortunately, my students seem to think silence is awkward so they jump in at about seven to answer–even if they don’t want to.

I’ve started using this same strategy when I talk to someone with dementia. To tell you the truth, I probably should use it with everyone. Because we perceive silence as uncomfortable, we often don’t give people time to process questions they are asked.

So…a note to my husband. Please give me 3-4 dinner options and then plenty of time to process my choices. Maybe a printed menu with photos would be nice.

He packs my lunch for work, too. Yeah, maybe I am a tad spoiled.

The B Word in Dementialand

Burden. It means hardship, mental weight, or strain.

It’s a word caregivers at dementia support groups dance around awkwardly.

Caregivers vent. They talk about their lack of privacy or their dearth of support. They discuss their frustrations and challenges. They say they have no time to care for their own health or spend with friends. Every once in while, someone cries.

But then it usually comes back to a statement that goes something like this: “But it’s not a burden. I love her and I’d have it no other way.” Then they all nod knowingly in a sterile way.

One day, a woman made what I thought may have been a total support group faux-pas. She said it was a burden.

Let me start by saying that she was in her late 30’s with a couple of kids and a full-time job. Her mom had younger-onset Alzheimer’s and had moved in. For a few months, her mom had been able to contribute around the house. She cooked and did dishes. She could watch the kids for short amounts of time. She kept the house clean and pulled weeds. But lately her mom needed so much support to provide help that it really wasn’t help at all.

“Caring for mom is becoming such a burden,” she confided to the group. Everyone cringed at the word burden. “This disease is such a burden on our whole family but most of all it’s a burden on Mom.”

Although some members of the group seemed uncomfortable with her using the word burden, there was something about what she said that made me think. The disease is a burden, she said. The person isn’t a burden. And the disease is a burden to the person who has it even more than the caregivers.

We often say that we don’t mind caring for those we love when they are ill, whether that be with Alzheimer’s, cancer, or another disease. We tell others that we do it out of love. We say we wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t doubt that this is the truth.

Yet, we wish that we didn’t have to do it at all. We don’t like it when our loved ones need care. We want to see people we care about doing the things that they enjoy. We hate seeing them in pain, whether it be physical or emotional. And that’s why we should hate Alzheimer’s…and cancer…and ALS…and cystic fibrosis.

What this woman acknowledged was not that her mother was a burden but that Alzheimer’s was a burden. And I agree. Alzheimer’s is a burden in a million different ways. Sometimes I feel like caregivers want to deny that the disease is a burden because if they use the word it means that they don’t love the person who needs care.

You get to love the person but hate the disease. In fact, I encourage you to hate the disease and to tell everyone you know how much you hate it–because we’ve spent too long ignoring the challenges this disease presents to individuals, families, and society.

I talked to a family a few months ago who had lost their father to Alzheimer’s before his 60th birthday. They had been through a lot. He had been asked to leave (in their words, “kicked out”) of several assisted livings and memory care communities for aggressive and inappropriate behavior. They had gone through his savings and the savings of his children to try to secure him decent care. Although they weren’t entirely sure, his family thought he died because he had aspirated food into his lungs and developed pneumonia.

“Is all of this normal?” one of the daughters asked me. “I feel like our experience with Alzheimer’s has to be worse than the normal experience. If it’s like this for everyone, people would be fighting harder for a cure.”

I’m not sure there is a “normal” with Alzheimer’s, but I hear a lot of stories like this. The disease can be a real nightmare. They didn’t want to care for their father. They’d rather he didn’t need care in the first place. We care for people because we love them but it’s that love that makes caregiving so difficult. And it’s okay that sometimes we get angry and sad because we have to be caregivers, particularly when the person who needs care is young enough that they really shouldn’t need care (in a perfect and fair world, anyway). It doesn’t mean that our loved one is a burden. It means that caregiving is hard.

I’ve talked with many individuals who have an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Keep in mind that this is a life-limiting illness. Eventually Alzheimer’s progresses to the point where life is not sustainable. You will die from the disease or with the disease. I know I may sound harsh in pointing this out, but I still struggle to get individuals to understand it. Life doesn’t end at diagnosis (and I know many individuals living and living well with the disease), but Alzheimer’s is terminal.

However, I’ve never had someone after their diagnosis mention to me that their greatest fear is death. Never. When I talk to individuals who are newly-diagnosed, they almost always say that their fear is becoming a burden to their family. Their family usually jumps in and insists that they could never be a burden.

Sometimes it’s better to acknowledge that they will all be burdened by the disease itself. And they will all be burdened together because that’s the way love works. They didn’t ask for this disease and it’s not going anywhere.

At a memory care community recently, a woman with dementia walked up to me and said, “My brain has a clog and I’m carrying around a ball and chain.” I didn’t ask for further explanation, but I sent a text to myself immediately so I would remember her exact words. It struck me as a better description of dementia than anything I’d read in a textbook.

Her clog? Her ball and chain? Those are her burdens. People with dementia are not burdens. They are burdened.

A Special and Weird Kind of Loneliness in Dementialand

When I was in graduate school, I had a friend who was going through a rough stretch in her relatively new marriage. She told me something that struck me as interesting…and sad. She said that she was sometimes lonely when she was single, but that loneliness did not compare to the loneliness she now felt when her husband was right next to her. Her husband seemed like a stranger to her.

When I was in graduate school, I had a friend who was going through a rough stretch in her relatively new marriage. She told me something that struck me as interesting…and sad. She said that she was sometimes lonely when she was single, but that loneliness did not compare to the loneliness she now felt when her husband was right next to her. Her husband seemed like a stranger to her.

Shortly after talking to this friend, I came across the following quote:

It’s a lonely feeling when someone you care about becomes a stranger. —Lemony Snicket

I remember sharing it with that same friend after she had decided to file for divorce. And, for several years, I thought that quote was about falling out of love. I thought it was about thinking you knew someone and realizing they weren’t the person you thought they were…or maybe that they were but they changed…or you changed.

I was single at the time. This quote stuck with me. I vowed to never end up in a relationship that made me feel more lonely than I felt as a single person. I didn’t want to marry someone who would make me feel alone even though they were sitting right next to me on the couch. And I didn’t.

That’s what I thought that quote was about.

But recently I’ve used the same quote in a different way. And it makes me just as sad.

Dementia makes people lonely for the people right next to them. A woman once told me that she missed her husband even though she was sitting beside him. She cared for him 24/7 in her home. She was rarely not in the same room with him. She asked me how she could be so lonely when she was never alone.

She told me that she loved her husband for 30 years, and she loved the man who lived with her now, but that wasn’t her husband. He didn’t know who she was. He was often aggressive and destructive. She managed to love and take care of him, but it wasn’t her husband. She missed her husband. The hardest part, she told me, was looking at this guy who resembled her husband.

“I didn’t know I’d miss him this much when he was still living,” she said. “Now that’s a special and weird kind of loneliness when your husband doesn’t know who you are.”

A special and weird kind of loneliness? I couldn’t argue with her terminology, but in my field it’s actually called ambiguous loss–someone is psychologically absent but physically present. People in the early stages of dementia can very much be psychologically present in relationships. However, as dementia progresses, relationships change. We must modify our expectations and our perspective. And there is loss…

There’s no way around it. My former neighbor told me once she missed her husband’s conversation skills as his Alzheimer’s progressed. She told me she had always appreciated how he could argue with anyone and then charm his way back into their good graces. She missed that. She still had his smile and his hugs, but she was grieving all the great conversations she had. She was lonely. He was right here, and she was lonely.

It’s not just spouses that go through this. Parents with dementia might not be able to give advice like they used to. Dementia may keep grandparents from being there for us in the ways that they used to be there for us. When we can’t depend on people like we used to be able to, we feel lonely. We feel lonely for people we can see and touch.

A few years ago, I went to the funeral of a man who passed away from Alzheimer’s. His wife was standing up by the casket, dutifully greeting a long line of family and friends. I overheard an interaction that I have not forgotten.

Someone gave the wife a hug and said, “I know you’re going to miss him so much.”

The wife smiled and said, “Oh, it’s okay. I’ve been missing him for years now.”

It was one of the more awkward funeral interactions I’ve experienced.

There’s a lot of love in Dementialand. I see a lot of laughter, hope, and joy. There are families living in Dementialand who make the most of every moment and opportunity. Yet there’s so much loneliness.

And there’s no loneliness like the loneliness that occurs when you’re looking right at the person for which you are lonely. That’s what dementia does.

Why We Can’t Afford to Accept Dementialand (And What the General Public Hasn’t Yet Figured Out)

I think I’ve given someone the wrong impression about how I feel about Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Someone the other day said to me, “I think you’re right. We just need to accept that old people get dementia and lose their memories.” Hmmmm….. I took a deep breath. It’s not just about old people and it’s not just about memory loss.

Also, I think a point of misunderstanding here is how I’ve used the term acceptance in my blog and public speaking. When someone has dementia, we need to accept the changes the occur. Fighting those changes is a bit like try to herd cats (inefficient and frustrating for all involved).

But should we accept Alzheimer’s and related dementias? Absolutely not. We should fight by increasing education and research. We cannot afford (financially or otherwise) to throw in the towel on this battle.

I could make a case that we need to find a cure or prevention method for diseases that cause dementia because these diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body Dementia, Frontotemporal Dementia) cause suffering and end lives. But I am going to take a different approach–one that may be more appealing to legislators, policymakers, and economists.

If Alzheimer’s and related dementias progress to end stage, most individuals need 24/7 care and reside in nursing homes. Keep in mind the most common reason for nursing home admittance is dementia. If we can prevent or cure dementia, more people will be able to stay in their homes (or at least seek out a less intensive care option) as they age. Most people would choose to stay at home given the option. We don’t like to be dependent. We don’t want to be told when and what to eat. But beyond that…nursing home care is expensive at the individual and societal level.

Some people have enough personal wealth to pay for their nursing home care until the end of life. A few people have long term care insurance (and some of these individuals quickly find out that their policies do not cover what they expect they will). But the rest of us….

The rest of us pay until we can’t pay anymore, and our family is decimated financially. At this point, the state pays for our nursing home care. (Contrary to popular belief, Medicare only pays for nursing home care in very limited short-term cases.) As people live longer and more individuals have Alzheimer’s and related dementias, as a society we will struggle to pay for care. And I think the word “struggle” is an understatement.

The cost of nursing home care is dependent on where one lives and a few others factors (e.g., semi vs. private room, level of care). However, a widely-reported mean is $220 to $250 a day. This adds up to $80,300 to $91,250 a year. And you thought college was expensive. Very few of us can pay for an extended stay in a nursing home without long term care insurance or state assistance. And it’s rare that people have long term care insurance because it’s expensive and you have to be pretty healthy to qualify. Sometimes in the end it turns out to be a rip off anyway.

I’m not sure legislators understand the financial crisis this will create. In fact, I have participated in three informational panels for state legislators to learn more about the need for funding for research and support for Alzheimer’s and related dementia. Each time I came in my business suit (a rarity for me) prepared with financial numbers and statistics. The total number of legislators that attended the three sessions combined: Three. Actually, make that two. One legislator attended two sessions, and it’s misleading to count him twice. The general public doesn’t get that this is an impending financial and public health crisis, and apparently legislators don’t get it either.

In my opinion, the biggest challenge we face when we try to rally support for Alzheimer’s and dementia funding is combating the myth the dementia is only about memory loss. The general public still thinks that dementia is the natural process of increasing forgetfulness that occurs as we get older.

First of all, dementia is not normal aging. (And I will add the dementia doesn’t only impact old people. I know people in their late 30’s with Alzheimer’s and related dementias.) There are some normal age-related memory changes, but these normal changes do not severely impact daily life.

I speak to many older women who worry they have dementia because they used to be able to bake their signature cake from memory and now they need to look at the recipe. Sometimes people think they have Alzheimer’s because they used to be able to remember several items at the grocery store without writing them down. Now they need to write a list. Those are normal age-related memory changes. When we have these changes, we can use strategies (e.g., recipes and lists) so that they don’t negatively impact our lives. These strategies may work at the start of dementia, but over time a person becomes incapable of following a recipe or creating a list.

The other piece of the myth of dementia that has held us back in terms of research and funding is the incorrect assumption that this is just about memory. Memory loss is one part of dementia. I hate to be this harsh, but dementia is about eventual complete and total brain failure. Take a second and think about what your brain controls…. Actually, it may be easier to think of what your brain doesn’t control. Your brain is the control center for EVERYTHING about you.

What does your brain control? Your mood. Your movement. Your memory. Your swallowing. Your immune system. Your impulses. Your breathing. Your speech. Your language. Your non-verbal communication. Your facial expressions. And this is by no means a complete list.

So here are some things that may happen with Alzheimer’s and related dementias that are not memory related:

1. People with dementia might eat things that aren’t edible, like marbles or rubber bands. They might not realize the food they are eating is spoiled or that it’s not prepared (e.g., eating cake mix or raw eggs).

2. Dementia can cause a person to have issues with balance and movement. It is common for dementia to cause someone to be unsteady on their feet and fall down stairs. Eventually, it can progress to the point that the person can no longer walk. At the end stage, people are bed bound and pressure sores are problematic.

3. An early sign of dementia is being unable to detect sarcasm. A person with dementia may also be unable to figure out that someone is lying even when it is apparent to others.

5. Compulsive behavior (such as repeatedly locking doors or buying a large number of food items even though the pantry is already stocked) can be a sign of dementia. Someone who starts pacing around the house compulsively might have dementia.

6. A lack of eye contact during conversation or inappropriate staring in public places might be a sign of dementia. A person’s non-verbal communication skills can become compromised.

7. Often dementia is mistaken for depression. Many people go to the doctor early in their disease process and are misdiagnosed as having clinical depression. This can be tricky because, not surprisingly, people who have dementia are often also depressed.

8. Dementia impacts the part of the brain that regulates mood, so being moody or displaying inappropriate moods can be a sign of dementia. If someone starts laughing at things that aren’t funny, they may have dementia.

9. Dementia can impact swallowing, and individuals are at an increased risk for choking. Often families must make a decision about whether or not a feeding tube is an option. People at the end stage of their illness may also aspirate on oral secretions.

10. At the end stage, the immune system is compromised. The brain activates the immune system. As brain cells die, the immune system doesn’t respond as it should. It is common for someone with end stage Alzheimer’s to die of a urinary tract infection that has spread.

It’s not just about memory. It’s not normal.

And we can’t afford to just accept Alzheimer’s and related dementias. It’s time to fight.