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.

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.

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.