When Alzheimers Hits Home

The first time we noticed something was wrong was when he poured the cream out of the tiny container. But he'd forgotten to take the cover off the take-out cup of coffee, and the cream splattered all over the table.

Then we were at a restaurant and he put the ketchup, as well as the salt, on the outside of the hamburger bun. Another time, while we sat around a coffee table waiting for our dinner table, he remarked that the table was awfully low to eat off of.

And, then, he couldn't find his way back to the table after using the bathroom.

A friend tells me about a neighbor's bizarre activities. Driving the snowmobile around the yard in August. Going into a neighbor's house, while they were gone. Calling a nasty watchdog a "nice kitty."

It's easy to chuckle, even laugh, at first. Until it's your relative. Until you realize that Alzheimers, or what passes for it, is setting in, and your life will never be the same.

As a caretaker, you have to handle midnight decisions to go for a walk, getting lost, incontinence, rantings and ravings, leaving the stove turned on but the gas turned off, inability to recognize friends, family, silverware.

There are some great books, support groups, and hints on how to cope. But the expense--mental and financial--can be huge. The person has to be dressed, fed, bathed, watched and calmed.

Sometimes, especially when you're an elderly spouse, it's not easy. I get a lot of calls from constituents who want to know about programs, research, support groups, home care, any help that might be available.

I wish I could offer more help, more advice, more ideas. Some creative solutions. But, sometimes, a nursing home is the only answer.

Luckily, my mother is in an excellent nursing home. But it's extremely difficult to visit her. I told her it was my birthday, she said "thank you." This year I told her "happy Mothers Day." She told me she wasn't a mother. Was that better than last Mothers Day, when she decided not to talk to me? Christmas, Easter, birthdays mean nothing to her. She has no idea if the clothes she wears are her own, or even where her shoes are.

If orange juice is offered in a styrofoam cup, you spend the rest of the visit picking sytrofoam out of her teeth, because she takes bite-sized hunks out of the cup. Liquids are thickened and food ground into mush.

She falls out of bed, and out of her wheelchair. Some state bureaucrats decided she couldn't be restrained, so she falls a lot.

Her glasses haven't been seen in more than a month. At least her teeth are her own, so she can't lose them. She won't eat, but says she's hungry.

She keeps repeating numbers, numbers that make no sense. 3-9-7-4. 3-9-7-4. Over and over and over.

She took a bite out of the aide that carefully dresses her and changes her diapers each morning. At least the florist didn't laugh when I sent flowers with a card that said, "I'm sorry my mother bit you."

The papers, and mail, lay unread. The chocolates my brother sends from Texas remain uneaten. She sometimes will talk to my husband, but refuses to talk to me. Other times she demands that he leave, because she doesn't know him.

Last week she was waiting for the bus. She had the invisible change in her hand, and was counting it, telling us how she and her friend had been out with the boys from Chicago the night before.

At 90, she has no physical illnesses to shorten her life. But her mind has taken that shortcut to some other place.

She is not alone. Our elderly are living longer than ever before. But, perhaps, not living better. Depression, dementia, Alzheimers. Strokes, heart attacks.

And suicide. My mother admitted she tried it once, attempting to drive her wheelchair down a staircase. She failed. But many elderly don't fail. In fact, the highest suicide rate in America is among those 65 and older, with white men over 70 having the highest prevalence.

Families try their best to find medical and psychiatric evaluation and care. Afterall, many dementias are caused by drug interactions, overdoses, poor diets, insufficient oxygen, diseases of adrenal, thyroid, pituitary and other glands, and a variety of other things.

But, sometimes they're not.

And that's when you ask why? When did this start? When will this end? Or, is it forever? And how do you say goodbye?

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