Following Up in Dementialand

Several months ago I wrote a blog post about why I dislike the movie, The Notebook. In short, I take issue with how it presents Alzheimer’s. On an unrelated note, I think it promotes stalking as romance.

You can read all about it here:

https://welcometodementialand.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/my-least-favorite-dementialand-movie/

I had no idea the Facebook messages and emails I would get after this post. Sure, some people agreed with me. Other people sent me comments like:

“Chill, honey, it’s just a movie.”

“So what if it’s not realistic. It’s a damn movie. Relax.”

“You don’t seem to understand the purpose of a movie. Why do people have to overanalyze everything and take away all the fun?” 

I was surprised that this post caused a stir, but I’ve realized that I’m a poor judge of which of my blog posts people will be controversial. I never would have guessed that my post about The Notebook would earn me the most hate of all 50-some posts I have written. People acted like I was killing kittens. And I can laugh about this now…

I predicted that Monday’s post about care partners who pray for their loved ones to pass away would offend someone. I thought I’d get a few emails from people who didn’t like the way I presented this, or maybe were just uncomfortable with the whole premise.

I got a little bit of feedback on Monday morning, mostly from people who said they could relate to the post. A few people thanked me, and in general people said reading the piece made them feel a bit more comfortable with their experience of wishing a loved one would die–rather than continue to live a life that they were pretty certain wasn’t worth living. I went for a run and checked my email when I got back. And whoa.

I had a lot of emails. Nineteen to be exact. They were from individuals who had experiences to share that related to the blog piece. Many of the emails were from care partners or former care partners of those living with dementia. However, quite a few of the emails were from those who had lost a loved one to cancer or another illness. And I thank those of you who gave me permission to share parts of your emails and Facebook messages. (A few people also posted very insightful comments on the actual blog post, if you are interested.)

Here are excerpts from the messages I received:

“My mother in law lives with us and has vascular dementia. I hate to say it, but I’m ready for her to pass away. It’d be different if I thought she had any joy in her life now. But I don’t think she does. There is a time when somebody is just done. She’s done. But her body is still here. I haven’t told my husband this. I don’t know if he’s there yet.”

“I have felt guilty for years because my mom was dying of cancer and I wished it would just be over. I prayed for her suffering to be done. Then when she died I felt awful. Not because she was gone but because I prayed for her to be gone. But she was suffering. I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

“My mom has Alzheimer’s and she has had it for about 10 years. The first 5 or so years she was happy. Now she’s not. She lives in terror. I know it must be scary for her. It’s scary for me. I just want it to be over. I want the nursing home to call me and tell me she’s gone. When the phone rings, I hope they are calling to say she’s gone. Maybe that’s awful, but it’s the truth.”

“My dad doesn’t want to be here anymore. He has cancer and Alzheimer’s. We don’t make our animals suffer. We know the kindest thing is to end their suffering. But people have to suffer until the bitter end and we have to watch it….Dad asks me to help him end it in a joking way. He says I should just shoot him and laughs. But I wish I really could.”

“For many years I have felt bad about praying for my mom to die when she was at the end of her life. The doctor kept giving her antibiotics and meds. I wanted them to stop giving her the medicines but I didn’t know how to tell them that and was scared they’d think I was a bad person. So I kept giving her all these medicines but hoping they wouldn’t work…Reading this made me feel more normal.”

“My mom had Alzheimer’s and I prayed she’d die for over a year. After she finally passed, I missed being in dementialand. I guess I got used to living there. I also felt useless like no one needed me. I didn’t know how much I needed to be needed.”

“Amen. My husband is at the end of dementia and has COPD. He is tired. I am tired. I don’t eat, I don’t sleep, he doesn’t know what’s going on. I want to fast forward time. If I had a remote control I’d hit fast forward. Then I think about how I know that after he’s gone I will want to rewind but still can’t stop from wanting to hit fast forward. Don’t know how to change how I feel.”

“I thought I would feel sad when my sister died of Alzheimer’s but I didn’t. I really just felt mostly relief. But I still feel horrible that I felt relief. I feel like a good sister would’ve been sad. This blog post helps a little.”

I usually feel good when I write something that people “get.” If people say they can relate to something I write, I feel like I’ve been successful. However, I didn’t get that feeling as I read through people’s comments on this one.

I just felt…sad.

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. 

Why Dementialand Needs an Orientation

There’s a lot people don’t tell you about dementia.

The doctor says your loved one has dementia. Maybe it’s Alzheimer’s. Maybe it’s Vascular Dementia, Lewy-Body, or Frontotemporal Dementia.

The doctor only has a limited amount of time because that’s how our medical system works. You go home. No one teaches you how to live with dementia. No one tells you what challenges might lie ahead. You think it’s about forgetfulness, but you will learn that it’s much more than that. It’s about brain failure, and your brain is the control center for your body. Dementia can cause a person to be unable to swallow and control motion. If it progresses far enough, a person isn’t able to eat, talk, or walk. Maybe no one told you that.

No one tells you what to do when your loved one forgets they can’t drive anymore or when they insist that they have to go to work when they haven’t worked in 15 years. No one teaches you how to deal with a previously mild mannered mother who is screaming obscenities you didn’t know she knew. What do you do when you have to buy Depends for your dad and he takes them off and tries to flush them down the toilet? How do you make sure Grandpa doesn’t leave the house and get lost when he gets up at 3 am?

When your mom starts saying she doesn’t have any kids, should you tell her she actually has three? Should you explain to her that your dad passed away years ago when she asks when he’s coming home? And if your grandma starts slapping you when you tell her she has to take a bath, should you push the issue? How often does she really need to bathe, anyway? No one told you how to deal with this.

I spoke to a woman this week whose mother has dementia. Her mother constantly apologizes to her, making statements like, “I’m sorry I’m not the mother I used to be. I’m sorry I can’t be there for you.” And then they both cry.

After a few years of this, she finally came up with a response. Now she says, “You may be a little different than you were. I loved the person you were, and I love the person you are now.” She says she regrets that it took her years to learn how to figure out the right thing to say.

No one tells you how to help your loved one through the extreme anxiety that may come with navigating an unfamiliar world. No one tells you what to do when they cry but can’t tell you why they are sad. And what do you do when they get really pissed about something that never even happened? What if they think another family member is stealing from them?

You promised them you’d never put them in a nursing home. But what do you do when someone needs to be with them 24/7 and you have a full-time job? How can you break that promise without feeling guilty for the rest of your life? And how do you figure out which nursing homes are best for people who have dementia anyway? Also, you can’t figure out how you’re going to get your 250 pound father in the car and to the nursing home when he says he’d kill himself before moving there.

And when is it okay to laugh? A woman once asked me if she had done the right thing when her husband forgot to pull up his pants and waddled out of the bathroom with his Dockers around his ankles in front of company. I asked what her response was. She said, “I laughed, but I don’t know if I’m supposed to.”

No one tells you if it’s okay if you aren’t always completely honest with someone who has dementia. I recently talked to a man whose dad died of Alzheimer’s. He said, “I wish I have known it was okay to lie sometimes. That would’ve made it a lot easier.”

Although I’ve referred to how a family is unprepared for the challenges they might encounter, the same is true for individuals who have been diagnosed. How do I cope with changing abilities? How do I tell other people about my diagnosis? Am I able to handle my own finances? What can I do to make sure I remember to take my medication each day? (Once someone with Alzheimer’s said to me, “I’m on some meds for my Alzheimer’s, but I don’t always remember if I’ve taken them. Maybe if I remembered to take it, I’d remember to take it.” How’s that for irony?)

There’s a recent research study by the Alzheimer’s Association that suggests less than 50% of people with Alzheimer’s are even told of their diagnosis. How can you prepare for something when you’re not given all of the information?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one out of three older adults dies with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. In a nation where dementia is so common, how can we be so unprepared? Sure, we wait and hope for a cure…but in the meantime, how can we neglect to provide the education and support so many families need? And why can’t we talk about dementia without embarrassment or stigma?

And although I am confident we will someday find a cure, it will not be today. I’m not a pessimist, but I am a realist. Medical technology has increased our lifespan–which has in turn increased the likelihood that we will experience dementia. In other words, we can save you from all this other stuff so you’ll live long enough to get dementia. Yet, we are completely unprepared for the challenges dementia brings.

And it’s not just about old people. I know several people who were diagnosed in their 30’s. And I don’t think I fully understood this tragedy of this disease until I stood face to face with someone who was my age and had just been diagnosed. She even looked a little like me…I went from knowing ‘this could be me someday’ to ‘this could be me.’ There’s a difference.

Alzheimer’s is a fatal disease. Lewy-Body Dementia and Frontotemporal Dementia are terminal illnesses. Dementia kills people. I hate to be this blunt, but I think society’s lack of understanding of the terminal nature of dementia stagnated research for many years. We think it’s just about old people becoming forgetful, but it’s not just about old people and it’s not just about forgetfulness. It’s about total brain failure. Alzheimer’s has no survivors. You will die from it or with it.

I have to be careful when I mention that dementia is fatal. Many individuals and families impacted by dementia don’t realize this. In the past, I have stated this in a very matter-of-fact way, but sometimes it’s the first time that people are hearing it. No one tells them.

There are also positive things that no one told you about. You might smile because your mom laughs at something that she sees…but no one else sees. You don’t care that she’s having visual hallucinations or has issues interpreting what she sees. You’re just grateful she finds humor in something.

It might make your day that your dad thinks he is a New York City subway station as he wanders around the nursing home. After all, he loved the subway and New York was his favorite city. Grandma has been retired as a teacher for many years, but she conducts class in her memory care unit using dolls as her pupils. She finally has a sense of purpose again, and it makes you happy. No one told you that you that such things would make you happy. You didn’t realize the challenges of caregiving for someone with dementia, but you also didn’t know about these unexpected moments in which you would find joy.

No one told you that some friends and family would abandoned you. Sure, maybe they say that they pray for you and think of you all the time, but they aren’t there offering to run to the grocery story or stay with dad so you can go out to lunch. On the other hand, no one told you that some people would step in and amaze you. Maybe they’re not the support system you expected, but they get you through the day.

I advise incoming college freshmen at summer orientation each year. When young people graduate high school and progress to college, they must adapt to a new set of norms, an entirely different culture, and different goals. What worked in high school may not work in college. For that reason, there is an extensive two-day orientation to Collegeland. It includes sessions on financial issues and tips for success. There is no such orientation to Dementialand.

I wish there were an orientation because there are a lot of things about Dementialand that no one told you.

But When Are You Supposed to Grieve in Dementialand?

I gave a presentation for dementia family caregivers at a memory care community last fall. A middle-aged woman in the front row did not seem impressed with me at all. She almost scowled at me when we did make eye contact, but for most of my presentation she stared at the wall above my head. I wondered if I had said something to offend her. After I was done talking, she came up to me.

She blurted out, “My husband has early onset Alzheimer’s. So when am I supposed to grieve?”

I asked her what she meant. She said she grieved when he was diagnosed. She grieved when he had to move to the memory care community. She grieved again when he no longer knew who she was.

She seemed so angry. I wasn’t sure if she was angry at Alzheimer’s, grief, or me. Maybe all three of us.

“When he dies, am I supposed to grieve again?” she asked me. She seemed almost annoyed at the idea of having to grieve again after all the grieving she had already done.

This question likely stemmed from concept I mentioned during my presentation. I had talked briefly about “ambiguous loss,” which means that there is some uncertainty about whether someone is gone. Examples would be soldiers who are missing in action and people who are in comas. More recently, we’ve applied this term to people with dementia.

When do you grieve when you’re not sure if people are dead or alive? Do you grieve if they’re right there with you but they linger somewhere between this world and another? Those are the types of questions families undergoing ambiguous loss encounter.

When someone dies in a car accident, grief comes all at once. When someone dies of Alzheimer’s, the loss is much different. I’m not making the case that it’s easier or harder, better or worse. But it’s a different journey. We may feel like we’ve lost our loved one little by little over years. In some ways, we might feel like there is little left to lose when death comes. And yet, even if there is relief, there is still a loss.

I’m not an expert on grief, but I will tell you this… I hate Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief. You know the model. There’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I used to think these stages didn’t work for dementia because of the long goodbyes and multiple gradual losses involved in diseases that cause dementia. But it’s only recently that I’ve realized that these stages don’t work for grief in general.

In defense of Kubler-Ross, she eventually came to state that all stages were not experienced by everyone, that the stages did not always occur in order, and that some people experienced emotions outside of the five that she listed. Most thanatologists (those are people who study death–fun, right?) acknowledge there is no real research or evidence to support Kubler-Ross’s stages.

Despite these limitations, people generally really like the theory. Why? Because it’s comforting to think we progress through these stages and come out at the other end (acceptance). But when we lose someone close to us, it’s not that simple. Grief just isn’t that clean and tidy.

And when we grieve, we often have the expectation that the progress will be linear. That we will “progress” forward at a steady rate toward some end goal. But in reality, there is no end goal. There’s no point where we won’t hurt. The best case scenario is that we get to a point where life is enjoyable despite the pain.

We often are also told that our grief will make us better, stronger people. I think that’s a bunch of crap. A college student of mine lost her sister and received a sympathy card that suggested she would emerge on the other edge of her grief as a wiser and more loving individual. She said she didn’t want to be wiser and more loving; she just wanted her sister back.

I once talked to a woman who had just lost her husband to dementia. She was relatively young (probably in her 50’s). She told me she was scared she could never enjoy life again, but her bigger fear was that she could enjoy life again. And if she could enjoy life again, what would that mean about her? It terrified her that a week or so after her husband’s death she went out with some friends for margaritas and actually had a pretty good time.

“But my husband hadn’t known me for a year,” she said, as if she needed to defend herself. She certainly didn’t need to defend herself–not to me, anyway. “It’s like I didn’t know what stage to be in…so I went out for margaritas. In my mind, I shouldn’t have gone out for margaritas until he was gone at least a month.”

And then there was the woman who had lost her husband to Alzheimer’s after taking care of him for 15 years. She said when she passed she felt a lot of things, but the overwhelming feeling was uselessness. Who was she if she was no longer his caregiver? Was there even a reason to get up in the morning? Although she was continually frustrated by her husband’s dependence on her (and resentful of her caregiving responsibilities), she cried after he passed because no one needed her. Kubler-Ross never mentioned uselessness.

The problem with the Kuber-Ross stage theory is that it sets up some expectations and predictions for grief. And when we don’t follow the path we expect, we think we’re doing something wrong. This is even more evident when we experience “long goodbyes” like those that happen in Alzheimer’s.

When that woman asked me if she was supposed to grieve again when her husband died, I didn’t have a good answer. I told her however she felt at his death would be okay, and she wouldn’t really know until she got there. I drove two hours home that night (in a blizzard, nonetheless) thinking about what would have been a better response.

I wish I had said that there is no “supposed to” when it comes to grief.

Tequila in Dementialand

A woman had recently been admitted to hospice and her family wanted to go out of town to attend a wedding. The volunteer coordinator asked if I might be able to stay with her for an evening.

Bev (not her real name) was a divorcee in her 70’s who had had vascular dementia. She’d experienced several strokes and had been told she was in heart failure. I know she had a constellation of other health issues as well. As a former director of nursing at a nursing home, she knew where this was headed.

When I first came in, Bev offered me a drink. I made a rule for myself when I started volunteering for hospice to say yes when I was offered food or drink because people often feel the need to give me something and–to be honest–I really like eating and drinking. But when I asked Bev what she had, she threw me for a loop.

“There’s beer and wine in the fridge,” she said. “Do you like tequila? What do you like? There’s hard stuff, too.”

And she wasn’t kidding. Bev had the most well-stocked home bar I’d ever seen. Several kinds of tequila, rum, multiple flavors of vodka, whiskey, bourbon, you name it…. I’ve been to many bars that did not have that selection of alcohol.

“Do you have any soda?” I called from the kitchen.

“For a rum and Coke?” she asked. I laughed out loud, but it wasn’t a joke. I grabbed a Coke. Just a Coke.

Bev kept forgetting who I was and why I was at her house (although this didn’t stop her from continually offering me alcoholic beverages throughout the evening). She’d ask me to remind her who I was, but it didn’t seem to bother her in the least that there was someone in her house that she didn’t recognize.

Despite her dementia, Bev was pretty clear on some things. She knew she was in hospice, and she knew she had limited time. She was certain of how she wanted to die.

She told me that she had a large extended family and they spent a lot of time at her house. She told me that she thought it was partially because they loved her and partially because she kept her bar stocked. At least four nights a week she had a crowd at her house. They drank, played cards, watched movies… And she had already told her family that this was not going to change now that she was in hospice.

“The party goes on,” she told me. She didn’t want a bunch of solemn goodbyes.

Then she asked me if I’d pour her a glass of tequila. I didn’t know what to say. This was the first and last time a hospice patient had ever asked me to play bartender. I had a cell phone number for Bev’s daughter, so I decided to give her a call. I asked if her mother was allowed to have a glass to tequila.

The daughter said that Bev’s doctor had told them it was okay for Bev to have one drink each night. I felt a little bit uncomfortable pouring a drink for my hospice patient, so I brought her the bottle and a glass. With shaky hands, she poured it herself.

As we were sitting together and Bev was having her tequila, there was a knock on the door. It was two guys delivering a hospital bed. Bev’s daughter had indicated that they might be stopping by.

“Where does the bed go?” one of the guys asked.

“Right here,” said Bev, motioning to her dining room. The two guys and I gave her a funny look.

I decided I had better call Bev’s daughter. I explained to her that Bev was intent on having the hospital bed in the dining room. Bev’s daughter wanted to know why, so I asked Bev. She took a long drink of her tequila before answering.

She explained that she wanted to be in the midst of everyone. She didn’t want to be isolated upstairs in her bedroom as her condition progressed. And, she told us, she needed to make sure the bar was stocked. This was something that Bev had given some thought to. Her daughter hesitantly agreed, and the two guys brought the bed in.

They set up the bed and left. Bev turned to me and asked (again) who I was and why I was at her house. After I told her, she told me I should get myself a glass of tequila. My high school and college peers had not pressured me to drink as much as Bev was pressuring me to drink.

Although she was having difficulty remembering who I was, she was open to sharing details of her life with me. She told me that her husband had left her a few years ago. I had a feeling it was a few decades ago, but that didn’t matter. She mentioned that he “couldn’t handle the party of my life.” She told me that her husband thought she was an alcoholic.

“Maybe I am an alcoholic,” she said, leaning in. “But I’ve had a pretty good life.”

Her daughter got back about 10 pm. At this point, Bev was fighting to stay awake on the couch. As I left, she offered me a drink “for the road.” I was putting on my coat in the foyer when I heard her ask her daughter about me.

“Now, who was that? She seemed nice but I guess she doesn’t drink. I offered her the special tequila,” she said.

About a month later, the volunteer coordinator called to let me know that Bev had passed away. I didn’t ask for any details. I wanted to think she passed away in that hospital bed in the dining room with the party continuing around her.

I can’t drink straight tequila, but that night I had a margarita.

Bev was wrong about me. I do drink. I only wish I could’ve used some of her good tequila in that margarita.

Dying in Dementialand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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