7 Holiday Tips for Alzheimer’s Caregivers

Alz awarenessHow should we deal with our Alzheimer’s loved one during the holidays?

The calendar reminds us that we are deep into the holiday season. Our waistlines are expanding and the stresses of family dynamics emotionally stretch us.

As much as we enjoy the family time, the abundance of good food and the reminders to be grateful for another year – we also have to remember how stressful this time can be – especially for someone who suffers from Alzheimer’s or dementia.

So here are seven tips to remember as we move into the holidays:

Don’t expect a dementia or Alzheimer’s loved one to make any food.

One year into her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Mom tried to figure out a recipe so she would feel like she was part of the festivities.

But as we watched her struggle to find pots and pans, worry about the cost of groceries and wonder if she had made her salad – hundreds of times over – we realized it was time to stop expecting Mom to cook.

Even if she has a favorite recipe and everyone still enjoys her marshmallow salad or her french silk pie, relieving her of the stress can be a gift.

If your loved one wants to shop for gifts, plan ahead for this adventure.

Be prepared with a list and know the easiest way to get in and out of the stores. Forget about Black Friday shopping – too many people, too much noise and parking places are limited.

Be patient, take plenty of time and be prepared to answer lots of questions. If possible, buy everything in one store. Then go home.

Better yet, sit down with a laptop and show your loved one the pictures. Then order everything online.

Include some of your loved ones’ favorite foods.

Even though her appetite is changing, Mom will want her annual piece of pecan pie. So one of my holiday duties is to buy a premade pecan pie and through the years, I have found the best ones in the frozen section at Target.

When we first walk into the farm kitchen, Mom’s eyes always go to the dessert table. She may not say anything, but I know what she’s looking for.

I brought your pecan pie, Mom, and the first piece goes to you.” Then I dress it with a generous dollop of Cool Whip.

Every year, Mom says, “I DO love pecan pie.” I dread the day when she forgets how to say this one, grateful sentence.

Do an activity together, such as looking through the Christmas cards.

Although sending Christmas cards is becoming one of those traditions celebrated in the past, my mother’s demographic still considers it a holiday courtesy. She loves receiving her cards.

Remind your loved one who the senders are or tell a favorite story about the person behind the return address.

Be prepared to look at the cards several times during the holidays and tell the same stories. That’s okay. It’s part of the Alzheimer’s process, and someday – you’ll be glad you took the time to do this.

If you check your loved one out of assisted living for the day, be sure to check back in before dark.

Driving through some beautifully-lit neighborhoods was once a favorite activity. But this idea depends on the level of Alzheimer’s where your loved one exists.

Mom feels uncomfortable outside of assisted living in the dark. Looking at the lights is no longer one of our seasonal pleasures.

As the sun sets, Alzheimer’s patients often experience Sundowner’s Syndrome. They may pace, say the same words over and over and exhibit anxiety.

They feel safer in their rooms before dark, so make sure you time your meals and your activities accordingly.

If you are traveling for the holidays, it is usually not a good idea to include your Alzheimer’s loved one.

Although we all want to be together during the holidays, that pleasure becomes less and less tangible. Traveling out of their comfort zone is difficult for Alzheimer’s patients: several hours cramped in a car or a plane, strangers, noise, unfamiliar surroundings, different types of foods and smells.

It makes more sense to hire a caregiver and let your loved one stay home while you join the rest of the family.

Fight against the false guilt that says you can’t leave for a day or two. Yes, you can. Taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to make it through the marathon of caregiving. So take a break and drive away to be with your family.

What should you buy for the Alzheimer’s patient?

None of us needs more junk, least of all an Alzheimer’s patient who is living in a studio apartment at assisted living. Keep it simple.

A stuffed animal, a baby doll (especially for the women), a pretty picture for the room, a picture of family members with their childhood photos inserted next to the adult photos, a favorite piece of candy, a comfortable sweater.

One Christmas, I gave Mom a wooden cross, made in New Mexico and a bag of her favorite Lifesaver™ mints. She seemed most excited about the mints although the cross was a nice adornment on her wall.

This year I’m giving Mom a hug and a kiss, knowing that next Christmas may be completely different. This year – she still knows who I am, and I am grateful.

Next year – maybe not.

©2016 RJ Thesman, Author of the Reverend G Trilogy http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

 

 

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The House of Sickness Waiting

Something about houses attracts me. I notice Tudors with their brick facings, happy bungalows – especially the ones with porch swings – cottages framed by specialty gardens.ranch house

And I am writing my memoir focused around the theme of various houses in which I have lived. Maybe I should have become a realtor.

The house Mom bought, then had to leave behind, is a typical Oklahoma ranch style. When dementia first began to squeeze its nasty tentacles around Dad, Mom felt as if she needed to get Dad off the farm and into the safety of town. Neither of them could fully operate the farm anymore and when dementia stole Dad’s vocation from him, Mom made the final decision.

They settled into the brick ranch and lived there as Mom nursed him and my sister Kris helped her for 10 shadowy years. Then on a gentle spring day in May, the angel of death took Dad away.

Mom stayed, unwilling to move anywhere else. In fact, she announced one day, “My next move will be to the cemetery.”

Ah – if only it had been that simple.

The ranch home evolved into a pain-enshrouded house as my sister’s beloved cat, Champ, sickened and Kris had to put him down. What an oxymoron of love and pain when we have to call the vet and schedule a death – yet in the doing of it – we exhibit the release of love for our furry babes.

The ranch then became the forecaster of Mom’s next move as she began forgetting the location of pots and pans, the important bills she threw away, the pills she counted numerous times before swallowing.

It was in the ranch house where Mom passed out, her brave heart needing the extra pulsing of a pacemaker, her head bleeding from where she banged it when she fell.

When she had to leave – a series of ambulance rides transported her from the hospital to the nursing home rehab and later to her studio apartment in assisted living.


Meanwhile, the house of sickness waiting remained. Mom never had a chance to tell it good-bye.


The yard is its best feature, a surrounding halo of plantings – zinnias, pansies and the four o’clocks that actually open at four o’clock each day.

I like the house, usually finding a slice of serenity inside when I visit family. Although it is a bit weird to sleep in the bed in which I was conceived, I gaze at pictures on the walls and remember when we gave them to Mom and Dad. I hang my clothes in the closet and touch hangers that hold Mom’s winter coat, a suit she no longer wears, a knit shirt with embroidered daisies – some of the threads barely hanging on to their frayed outlines.

Mom’s brush and comb still wait for her on the dresser, flanked by doilies her mother crocheted, their white loops now fading into the yellows of the past. Mom’s massive mahogany furniture which none of us will want –  a sturdy pronunciation of her style.

But Mom never seems to miss the ranch house. She only remembers the farm as her home where she raised three children, cooked harvest meals and hung clothes to flap on the line like fabric silhouettes of each family member.

This place – this emotional shelter, safe within its strength yet even now scented with illness and Mom’s shadowed existence foreboding.

My sister is now the keeper of the ranch house. It serves its purpose of shelter for her, of last memories where our parents aged out in its rooms. Yet it also continues to play out its description as the house of sickness waiting.

Kris struggles with arthritic pain and several types of joint diseases which emit a pain I cannot imagine. She limps through the house, taking care of her cats and the neighbor’s pets, then ambles outside to feed the birds and pull  weeds from the gardens her green thumb has created.

The flag she painted on barn tin bears the symbol and colors of the University of Oklahoma. Inside the house, the walls record screams of pleasure whenever the Sooners do their thing and score multiple touchdowns per game.

The personality of this house follows me whenever I drive away. I am left with a sense of gratitude that my sister is safe within its walls – at least for now – until as she says, “The body gives out.”

Then we will know that somehow – in that house – our family made an imprint on the earth.

Houses become the measurements of years as each place serves a purpose. And within each place, we wait for that final call home that contains no walls, needs no paint and provides the freedom where our spirits roam.

©2016 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

Hope Claims Royalty

tiaraThis week, Queen Elizabeth celebrated her 90th birthday. As I watched her presenting the royal wave to her subjects, I imagined my mother sitting in her magenta chair at assisted living, adjusting her imaginary tiara and smiling for Elizabeth II.

But in the solitude of her apartment, I doubt Mom was even aware that the British monarch walked among adoring crowds and cut dainty pieces from luxurious cakes.

Mom has always loved British history. She read all the novels and biographies about famous Brits and gathered an amazing volume of information about our “homeland’ across the channel.

Ask her about the numerous wives of Henry VIII, and she could recite them all – in order – as well as the circumstances of their unfortunate demise when they failed to produce a male heir. Poor Henry never knew it was the deficit of his own sperm.


Mom felt such a kinship to Elizabeth, she often declared, “It should have been me, you know. We were switched at birth.”


The year we toured Europe, Mom experienced a special euphoria when our Eurail pass transported us to England. We stood for hours outside Buckingham Palace, hoping for a glimpse of the queen. Her flag waved in the drippy London sky, but she did not appear. Disappointed but grateful, Mom said, “Well at least we saw where she lives.”

When we strolled through the lovely town of Westminster, Mom stood quietly for a moment as a trolley passed. Then she shook her head and smiled broadly. “I can’t believe I’m actually here. I’m seeing this in person.” Years of reading and dreaming had finally merged into reality.

The Tower of London made her sad. English crumpets and tea provided a culinary thrill and when we boarded the train for France, Mom sighed and said, “Trip of a lifetime.”

Mom would have enjoyed the Queen’s birthday this week and all the celebrations depicted on television. But in her quiet Alzheimer’s world, our trip to England is probably hidden in the fog of demented plaque.

I want to believe that somehow, Mom’s soul felt a blip of joy for her majesty the queen and maybe their ethereal connection seemed more real than ever before.

I’ll never know for sure how Mom celebrated the queen’s birthday, but I am certain of one thing – my mother is also royalty, a daughter of King Jesus.

©2016 RJ Thesman  ̶  Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

 

Hope Struggles with a Birthday

Exfoliates quoteAll day I thought about her, my mother who lives within the shadows of Alzheimer’s Disease. Celebrating her 88th birthday without me and without any knowledge that she had survived another year.

By mid-afternoon, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I called assisted living and asked if they could bring Mom to the desk for a phone call.

“It will be just a minute,” the nurse said. “She had such a good day.”

“Really? You helped her celebrate?”

“We partied for all the February birthdays, and your mother had such a good time with our Hawaiian theme. She wore a grass skirt.”

“What?” My mother, the dignified woman with perfect posture, who always carried herself with self-respect. Dressed in a grass skirt?

The nurse continued, “Our activities director decided on the theme. Everyone wore a lei and we had a pretend luau with island music. It was such a great idea.”

I know about activities directors and the impact of their work. Roxie, in the Reverend G books, helps each resident find some type of interest that will increase their sense of significance.

These directors walk a fine line. How do you approach these seasoned seniors who deserve honor even while they have mentally become children? How do you celebrate birthdays for the generation that survived World War 2 and the depression, then rebuilt America and sent their kids to college for the education they always wanted but couldn’t afford?

Now they fidget away their days, shuffling with a variety of walkers, forgetting their names and the children they birthed, aware only of the dinner bell when they file obediently into the dining room and eat silently, then retire to their rooms to turn up the volume on the TV and hope sleep will come soon.

“We had pineapple upside down cake,” the nurse said.

“My mother likes pecan pie. I’ve never seen her eating pineapple anything.” I could not erase the vision of my mother in a grass skirt – this woman who raised me with a no-nonsense approach and a duty-bound responsibility to always do my best and use my gifts to the utmost for God’s glory.

“Oh, here she is!” cried the nurse.

“Hello?” answered a shaky voice.

Too fragile. Not the strong tone I remembered from my visit at Christmas. “Hi, Mom. It’s me, and Caleb is here, too.” I was certain the name of her grandson would trigger a memory.

“Hello?”

“Happy birthday, Mom.”

“Thank you. Hello?”

I ground my teeth and prayed for wisdom. “Did you have a party today?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

She was probably refusing to remember being dressed up like a perky five year-old and forced to wear a stupid grass skirt. I could do nothing to help her. I wanted to scream, but tried a different thought. “Did you have a piece of cake?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

My mother, who used to call me with hour-long conversations, asking about my writing and my work, interested in everything her grandson accomplished – now responding only in mono-syllabic words, phrases she somehow chose from the fog of a plaque-infested brain.

Surely, she would talk to her grandson. “Here’s Caleb.” I handed him the phone.

“Hi, Grandma. Happy birthday.”

“Thank you. Hello?”

“Grandma, it’s me, Caleb. How are you?”

“Hello? What?”

He looked at me, helpless. “Talk louder,” I whispered. “Maybe she can’t hear you.”

“Grandma, we love you.”

“Hello?”

Finally, I took the phone again. “Mom, we’ll see you soon. We just wanted to tell you happy birthday and we love you.”

“Thank you. Hello.” I wondered if all the hello’s really meant good-bye.

Then she was gone, and I imagined her shuffling back to her room, not caring that she is now 88, unaware of 2016, a presidential election coming soon and spring flowers eager to burst through the crust of winter soil.

For a minute, I felt the guilt of being the long-distance caregiver assuaged. We tried to help her celebrate the day, tried to let her know we love her and miss her, wished we could be there.

But it wasn’t enough. The echoes of her voice followed me up the stairs as I hurried to my bedroom to cry.

I hate Alzheimer’s.

©2016 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyhwedding - rj, ct, mom

Finding Hope in the Dark

It was a subtle change, yet I felt its impact as if a door slammed shut in my heart.Christmas-Cross

During the Thanksgiving weekend, I visited Mom. Each of the three days when I knocked and entered her room, Mom sat in her chair – in the dark.

Alone – with a book on her lap, pretending to read.

Just a few months ago, I often found her at a table with other residents, playing cards – laughing together, competing and exercising their brain cells.

Not this time.

Others still played in the dining hall. I saw them shuffling cards and tossing them at each other, then laughing together, enjoying the camaraderie of the game.

But they played without my mother, and I wondered why.

Then I realized the reason she sat alone, without friends, sans an activity she once enjoyed.

She doesn’t play cards anymore because she can’t. The comprehension required for something as simple as Rook or Uno no longer exists.

So my mother sits in the dark, lost within herself.

After our visit, I began to drive away, then pulled over, beating the steering wheel and crying out to the God who allowed this dark aloneness in my mother’s life.

But then I remembered the book Mom held on her lap, the words she read over and over, even without comprehending.

Her Bible.

Even though Alzheimer’s deletes entertaining card games and clouds the comprehension needed for winning – Mom still knows where to find hope.

She is never truly alone because Emanuel lives within her, loving her through this journey and offering his light to illumine her darkness.

©2015 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

What Alzheimer’s Cannot Do – Part 6

Alzheimer’s cannot destroy faith.Praying_Hands

During a Thanksgiving weekend several years ago, I visited Mom at the assisted living facility. It was Sunday and per her usual practice, she wanted to go to church.

So she dressed up, picked up her Bible and we walked down the hall toward the dining room. A visiting pastor had volunteered to preach a brief sermon and lead these elderly saints in worship.

The room was filled with Alzheimer’s and dementia residents in various stages of the disease – beautiful shades of white and gray hair, curly perms and a few shining bald heads of the rare men in the crowd.

The pastor kept his words brief, then we sang some of the favorite hymns: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Amazing Grace,” “When We All Get to Heaven.”

Most of the residents hummed along, some fell asleep, a few still knew some of the words. I sang lustily, my mezzo soprano blending with the bass of the pastor. My mother remembered some of the lyrics and hummed through the rest.

Then the pastor said, “Please join me as we all recite Psalm 23.”

I thought, You must be kidding, buddy. These people can’t recite a passage of Scripture. They can barely remember their names.

But they surprised me.

I watched them and listened as around the room – every single resident recited word for word the precious Shepherd’s Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”

The King James version, with none of them missing a beat.

“He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”

How many of them prayed that God would restore their lives, do a miracle in their bodies and release them from this disease, this long and tragic goodbye?

“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

A righteous life includes reading the word of God and hiding those words in their hearts so that when the end of life comes, when those final years flip over onto the calendar, these residents would hang on to what really matters.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

These saints understood the Psalm better than I because they live within that valley. I could see it in their eyes, in the faces accessorized with wisdom-carrying wrinkles. They knew this valley and only God could help them walk through it unafraid. And they believed he would comfort them along the way and never leave them alone.

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

Food no longer provided comfort because the appetite was gone, the taste buds had forgotten a favorite flavor or the joy of family meals. Yet smiles surfaced around the group – maybe a dim remembrance of God’s anointing on a life, the cup of joy that once ran over and now waited for its fulfillment.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

My mother, her voice clear, her eyes bright – solid in her faith and waiting for her timeline to end.

Each one of them in the room, recited what they believed. I could not speak. Tears choked me as I realized there’s a place deep within us, a sanctuary of the soul that cannot be stolen by whatever is happening in the brain.

Alzheimer’s cannot and will never destroy faith.

Amen and amen.

©2015 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

What Alzheimer’s Cannot Do – Part 5

Alzheimer’s cannot guarantee that I will be diagnosed with the disease.Alz awareness

Although the gene often travels through the mother’s line, Alzheimer’s cannot guarantee that I or either of my siblings will suffer from it. Researchers are working all the time to find a cure and to find out the source of the disease.

I intend to work hard to make sure that Alzheimer’s does not happen to me.

What are some of the ways I try to protect myself from the disease? What clues have I discovered from my research and interviews with scientists and experts?

  • Watch out for Stress

The busyness of life, the worries of our society’s dangers, the struggles of our culture – these can all lead to undo stress.

I can feel when stress begins to overwhelm me. That’s when I take a walk, say “No” to any extra activities and find a quiet place to meditate, journal or color.

  • Eat Organic

As much as possible and as my budget allows, I try to eat organic foods. Fast food, junk food, preservatives, additives – I try to stay away from these. I shop at Sprout’s and Trader Joe’s, at the Health Department in Hy-Vee and sometimes at Aldi’s. As much as possible, I try to eat foods that are as close to God’s creation as possible.

My mantra is: If God made it, okay. Eat it with joy. If man made it, don’t waste your money on it.

  • Take Supplements

Turmeric and Rosemary are two of the supplements I use every day. These are both good for the brain. A nutritional doctor once said, “What is good for the heart is good for the brain.”

Another healthy food source is folic acid, so quinoa is my grain of choice. It is high in folic acid and healthy proteins and it is NOT modified or coated with chemicals. I throw quinoa in my oatmeal, my soups and my stir fries. Sometimes, I also scramble it in my eggs.

  • Delete Sugar

Some researchers are now calling Alzheimer’s, “Type 3 Diabetes.” The American diet is filled with sugar, and we are so addicted, we don’t even realize how damaging it can be. From high fructose corn syrup to the additives in our favorite lattes to those easy drive-through treats – sugar is our staple.

But even a two-week fast from sugar can clear the brain, create a glow to the skin and increase energy.

Still not convinced? Consider how our flu and cold season corresponds with sugar season. From Halloween through Easter, we are encouraged to buy candy, all the sweets that go along with the holidays, chocolate for our sweethearts and bags of candy Easter eggs.

We are encouraged to get flu shots and buy cough syrup that is often laced with corn syrup, yet from October – March, our immune systems take a major hit. Then we spread the germs to each other, coat them with more sugar and somebody makes a fortune off our illnesses.

That brings me to the next point.

  • Beware of Massive, General Suggestions for Health

As research for the Reverend G books, I started noticing how often the 50+ generation is urged to get flu shots, Shingles shots and pneumonia vaccines. Yet the numbers of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s continues to rise – at last count, 5.4 million Americans.

Mercury and Aluminum are two of the metals that can contribute to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Many of our vaccinations are made with a base of mercury. Some of us wear metal fillings in our teeth, laced with mercury. And some of the so-called protein drinks given to the elderly are made with a base of aluminum. So are most of our deodorants.

So rather than bare my arm for all these vaccinations and use some of the products mass-produced as healthy – I increase my intake of garlic, onion and the rest of the root vegetables.

During the “sugar” season, I make my own chicken stock and my own vegetable soups, avoid extra sugars and add more garlic to my diet. I even take a garlic and parsley supplement. Ashwagandha is another supplement that improves the immune system so I throw it into my smoothies and soups.

As much as I love dark chocolate, I limit myself to one piece / week. Chocolate can block the amino acids we need. Without amino acids, we are more susceptible to cold sores and the virus that leads to Shingles. So I also take the supplement Lysine, which builds amino acids and prevents cold sores.

These are some of my health practices which I hope will prevent Alzheimer’s from invading my genes. And since I started these practices, I rarely have a cold and the flu hasn’t plagued me for at least five years.

Alzheimer’s cannot guarantee that I will be its victim, and I’ll do everything possible to fight against it.

©2015 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh