There are many times when I walk into my mom’s room and she has this befuddled look on her face. I watch as her eyes wander slowly around the room, studying each piece of furniture, the window, and the doorways. Her eyes will land on pictures of once familiar people and a blankness has slipped over her eyes like a mask – no light of recognition.
In these moments Mom will often ask,
“How did I get here?”
I no longer answer by explaining, “Well, about two years ago I moved you from your home in Milwaukee so that you could live with me and I could help take care of you.” I don’t tell her she has Alzheimer’s. Unless she specifically asks, we don’t dwell on the fact that she can no longer handle money, make decisions, cook, drive, or take care of herself.
That’s too much information.
The answer that brings her the most comfort goes something like this:
Just sharing a short thought that came to mind today. I can’t imagine doing life without my husband. I know that someday one of us may walk the road of life alone – for we know not what a day will bring forth. But today, as we quietly celebrate our 42nd wedding anniversary, I give thanks to God for this man with whom I share my life.
I’ve heard Mom ask that question since I was a toddler. She still asks this question whenever she surveys the bread crumbs and potato chip crumbles all over the floor surrounding her chair at the kitchen table. It’s best not to be too forthright and tell her that SHE is the guilty party. It’s the truth, but the blunt truth would only injure her fragile mind. Many inadvertent hurts later, experience has taught us that it is best to come at the truth from the backside. “Mom, messes happen. No worries. Let me get out the little broom and we’ll sweep it up right away.”
Hiding the mess
My mother’s use of Kleenex tissues is almost exponential. In addition to wadding them up and stuffing her pockets and purse, they happen to be her favorite clean-up tool. Without supervision, she will wrap anything and everything in tissues that she wants to throw away (in a rare moment of clarity, she admitted to disposing of her $1,200 hearing aides in this way).
If I just hand my mom a banana to snack on, she will create a little mummy-wrap for the peel before tossing it in the trash. Surely it is a desire to help which fuels this behavior – to be busy helping is in her DNA and it bothers her to be idle. In talking with others who care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, this behavior is common.
Our experience thus far in caring for my mom has taught both my husband and I that it is best to address something that is bothering my sweet momma right away, rather than let her obsess over things. By way of example, we have learned to clear the table right after supper, or she will begin wrapping up everything in Kleenex and use still more Kleenex to wipe out the dirty dishes and clean the table. While my hubby and I clear the table, we enlist her help by offering her a warm, wrung out washcloth so she can feel useful in cleaning up after the “messy people in this house.”
Most evenings Mom wants to help with the dishes. If it’s only a few plates, I’ll let her stand at the sink to dry. It makes me nervous though, because her legs are bowed and pretty unsteady, so we improvise a bit by bringing the dish draining rack to her place at the kitchen table. It takes three dish towels to do it this way: one under the dish drainer, one to use to dry dishes, and one to set the dried dishes upon. It does take more time than if I do it myself, but it makes my mother feel as though she is contributing to the household duties in a meaningful way. You can see contentment in her face as she helps, and that make any inconvenience worth it all.
In the world of Alzheimer’s, a woman and her purse (and a man and his wallet) aren’t easily parted.
Mom carries her purse everywhere she goes and sleeps with it under her pillow or worn on her shoulder and hugged tightly to her side under her covers.
Rummaging and rifling through the contents of her purse is a favorite Sundowning activity (for more information on Sundowner’s Syndrome, click here). I keep a baby monitor next to my bed and can hear and see her zipping and unzipping her purse at all hours of the night – over and over again. I can see her happily stumbling over the same piece of mail and delighting in reading it out loud as if for the first time.
The contents of her purse may vary a little bit, but I can count on a few things. She’ll probably have five or six combs, her glasses in a familiar blue case, a few colored pencils absconded from her coloring set, her favorite pieces of mail, three or four tubes of lipstick, and Kleenex…wads and wads of Kleenex. And, for good measure, there may even be a roll of toilet paper crammed in there. It’s a harmless security thing. Her purse filled with familiar objects brings her a little peace and reduces anxiety.
Some church and community service groups even provide “rummage bags” or “rummage boxes” for memory challenged residents of local nursing homes, as the act of rummaging through the contents of the bag provides a sense of calmness and occupies them for hours (see related article filled with ideas here).
The paranoia associated with Alzheimer’s causes her to believe with all sincerity that people will try to steal her stuff. So precious is her purse, Mom will hide it to keep its contents safe. Now that she lives with me, I know where her favorite hiding places are located. When she still lived in her apartment or in her own home, sometimes she hid the purse really well. Really, REALLY well. For times like that, we found a handy little device called a Tile which helped us locate her purse using an app on our phone. We give it our highest endorsement and heartily recommend it for anyone dealing with an elderly parent…or someone like me who misplaces her car keys more often than she cares to admit.
Back to purses…
Sometimes my mom is hilarious. This was one of those days. Not long ago, I posted this on Facebook. I hope it brings you a smile too.
Mom is one of many afflicted with Alzheimer’s who adamantly refuse to shower or bathe. We deal with that problem okay by facilitating a “sponge bath” whenever she changes her clothes. Up until recent months, we handled hair washing by taking her to the beauty salon every other week or so. Sadly, her mobility is slipping away almost as quickly as her memory, resulting in her not getting out of the house much anymore.
One of the things we have discovered along the way as we have cared for my mother in our home is that she seems to enjoy taking care of little animals for vacationing families. Her most frequent guest is a sweet little guinea pig named ‘Mr. Nibble.’ Whenever he visits, Mom has purpose … and something to over-feed for a few days.
So, when a “free” parakeet became available, I jumped at the chance to add a little pet therapy to our home caregiving. My daughter and her family kindly offered to go pick up the bird from the paint store where he was temporarily residing. Momma watched with curiosity as my daughter carried the towel-covered cage through the kitchen and placed it upon an old toy chest. Once she figured out what it was, rather than be delighted, Momma chaffed at the sight of the bird in the cage. She wanted nothing to do with Philip. We had so hoped she’d warm up to this handsome little guy.
My granddaughter Violet (age 14) aspires to be a writer so, when she came for a visit the next day, I asked her to be a guest writer on my blog and tell about our experience with the bird. Here’s the story from her perspective:
“Pretty bird, pretty bird”
When Philip finally took flight, grandma and I were in mid-conversation. Philip zoomed around the kitchen, around the lights, over grandma’s head, into the living room and down on his cage again.
Great-grandma’s eyes were wide with fright. Philip took off again and great-grandma put her foot down. “Alright! Now if someone doesn’t put that bird away, it goes!” Papa laughed trying to lighten up the mood.
“NO! I’m not joking! Put that bird away or it goes!” Great-grandma said, pointing a shaking finger at the bird.
“This is my house and the bird stays,” Papa said calmly, but loudly (so she could hear).
About an hour later, great-grandma was sitting next to the cage saying things like:
“Whats you lookin’ for?”
“You’re so pretty!”
“Yaay! Hi birdy! Yaay! Whatcha doing over there?”
Then, while gently stroking the cage, I heard great-grandma say, “Pretty bird, pretty bird. I can’t whistle as good as you!”
Cute little story. Every bit of it true.
I wish I could say that Momma and the bird became good friends, but that part of the story would definitely be fiction. Truth is, even though her hearing is marginal, she could hear the bird’s high-pitched squeaks and squawks and the noise agitated her. To make matters worse, his daily exercise flights out of the cage frightened and irritated her something fierce.
Mom even threatened the poor little bird’s life and well-being on a number of occasions – so uncharacteristic of her before Alzheimer’s.
If life had do-overs, I’d ask for a trial visit to see how my mom would react before committing to pet ownership. Thankfully, we were able to quickly find a new family for the bird. Philip now has a happier outlook on life: a new home, a family with a little girl that adores him, and a new feathered friend and companion – another parakeet named Zeuss.
A summer thunderstorm knocked off the petals of most of the lovely peony blooms last night. Thankfully, a few tightly closed buds hold promise of beauty yet to unfurl in this summer’s peony finale. As the peonies fade in their glory and prepare for curtain call and their final bow, the daylilies in their own splendidly colorful petaled costumes stand in the wings ready to take center stage and continue the summer’s floral show.