jmgoyder

wings and things

Making mistakes

This afternoon, my first niece, Ashtyn, came to visit us in the nursing home. I was holding Anthony’s hand and chatting about the Sydney conference to Ash, unaware that sleepy-looking Anthony was listening intently, especially when I lowered my voice.

You see, I obviously don’t want Ants to know Ming and I are going to be away for a few days because I don’t want him to feel abandoned, so I wasn’t going to tell him. And I didn’t anticipate that he would pick up on my conversation with Ashtyn in any accurate way because just before she arrived he’d asked me to clear away the mess of non-existent champagne glasses on the window ledge.

But, as soon as Ashtyn left, Anthony said, “So why didn’t you tell me you were going to Sydney?”

Sprung! I fumbled around with reasons and excuses and reassurances that it wouldn’t be for ages, all the little lies tucked inside my throat like baby mosquitoes, and it took ages to convince him that I wasn’t leaving him.

Oh well, I have three days before we go, so I will spend as much time as possible with Ants at the nursing home. It was a mistake to talk so openly in front of him about my own plans and I accidentally made him feel excluded – argh.

Another lesson learned.

The thing that saved the situation was when I remarked on how beautiful Ashtyn looked (pregnant with second child) and he said, “She knows how to do it.”

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Dementia Dilemmas

Okay, so in just a few days, Ming and I will be talking about how we have dealt with Anthony’s Dementia, including the nursing home decision. I have prepared a talk that mostly deals with the positives of our experience. It is, after all, a conference about happiness.

The trouble is that our own experience is possibly unique and may not resemble other people’s experiences of Dementia. So I am probably going to have to be very careful not to generalise, to pay respect to those carers who are dealing with personality changes, behavioural difficulties, and the horribleness of a loved one not recognising another loved one.

It is nearly six years since we finally (mutually) made the nursing home decision and, yes, the first year was a blank of heartbreak. But, since that horrible first year, I have made the nursing home my home too.

Today:

Me: Ants, I so love your big nose!

Anthony: You just want to see me naked, Jules!

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The dream

I have various versions of the same dream about once a week. It’s always some sort of party, or wedding, or get-together but the venues change from dream to dream. The ‘characters’ in these dreams usually include old friends, close relatives and always Ming, but he is often either a baby or child.

In each of these weekly dreams, Anthony is extremely incapacitated and in a wheelchair; the destination is hours away from the safety of the nursing home; and it’s only when we get there that I realise I have forgotten his medications for Parkinson’s Disease (the timing of which is vital).

So, in each of the dreams, I am either searching my handbag for a stray pill, or trying to decide whether to drive all the way back to the nursing home. I am totally panicked and trying to figure out who can help me get Anthony from his wheelchair out to the car, but people are milling around him, happy to see him but concerned about him being in a wheelchair etc.

Because this is a dream I am, of course, leaping tall buildings and smashing windows and unlocking safes in my frantic search for Anthony’s pills – all to no avail. So I get back to the party, or whatever it is, and am relieved to see that Ants isn’t slumped too badly in his wheelchair. I rush to him and kneel, apologising for forgetting his medications and all of a sudden he gets up and is fine – robust, loud, laughing and hugging me as if the whole thing was some sort of bizarre practical joke. The relief that washes over me in the dream is so wonderful that it wakes me up.

So, when I wake up, it takes me about a minute to get my bearings and realise it was a dream but it never makes me sad. Instead, this recurring dream gives me enormous joy because it reminds me in so many ways how fantastic our life together has been.

I hope I get that dream again tonight.

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Pip, the therapy dog

Recently, I have been at a bit of a loss for words, not for any particular reason, just feeling quiet. Also I have been quite preoccupied with Pip, our four-and-a-half-months-old miniature schnauzer.

I am training Pip to be a therapy dog and we are now a few weeks into “puppy pre-school.” So far, she is very good at sitting for food but not very good at obeying any other commands although she is house-trained simply because she is an inside/outside dog; and luckily she chooses outside to do her business.

Pip is already relatively well-behaved in the three nursing homes I take her to, including Anthony’s. For the most part, I keep her on a leash but in Anthony’s room she will now settle on her own pillow on the floor near his armchair for a good couple of hours. I keep her pillow, a container of dog biscuits and a water bowl in one of Anthony’s cupboards. In the other two nursing homes, the joy I see on some of the residents’ faces, when they see, pat or even hold Pip, is beautiful.

Anthony smiles at the way I fuss over Pip and I keep hearing myself sounding like an old woman with a little dog (ha!) But, despite his initial reaction to her puppyhood “It’s just a dog, Jules”, he and she have now bonded.

Me: Do you love her, Ants?

Anthony: Well who wouldn’t, Jules.

At home, Pip is now a hurricane of energy; she races in and out of the house and terrorises Jack, our Irish terrier who is still so in awe of her that he stands back when I feed them both and only eats Pip’s leftovers!

Every morning, I am greeted first thing with a deep growl from Pip, which is her rude way of asking me for breakfast. The closer I get to the refrigerator, the deeper the growl. Ming and I are getting a lot of laughs out of this hilarious new addition to the family.

Apparently I can register Pip as a therapy dog once she has undertaken further training so I am looking into this.

So, even though I’ve gone a bit quiet lately, it’s an accepting kind of quietness. I found out the other day that Anthony is now a ‘full hoist’ which means he is unable to walk at all. I had assumed that he was still maybe able to walk, using the walker, in the mornings, but I guess I was a bit nervous to ask the question because I didn’t want to know(?)

Oh how much I wish I had made more of the last time I saw Anthony walk using his walker – that shuffle-sprint-stall that I have known for nearly a decade. It seems impossible that he would now be more or less bed-ridden but I am an idiot to not have seen this coming.

And, as I contemplate whether to cry or not, I see from the front window of what used to be Anthony’s mother’s bedroom – now my study – a black fur-ball of absolute joy racing towards the front door.

Yipping with delight, Pip enters the quiet.

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How to interpret a conversation that doesn’t make sense

One of the most difficult situations, when caring for and/or about a person with dementia, is how to make sense of that person’s unflow of words, or else silence.

Anthony’s previously loud voice has, over time, diminished to a whisper (Parkinson’s disease) and his ability to put words together coherently has been affected by Dementia. So conversations (as in the ‘dementia dialogues’ I write about from time to time) are becoming more and more difficult. Sometimes I find myself trying to interpret sounds, rather than words, and sometimes I find myself trying desperately to read his silence.

I haven’t seen Anthony for five days because on the weekend Ming, Meg and I attended my nephew’s fantastic wedding down south. This was an eight-hour return trip so we stayed the night.

And now I have a cold, so my determination to get to the nursing home in the late afternoons has been thwarted despite good intentions. The guilt, and missing Anthony, is difficult to cope with but obviously I don’t want to spread germs in a nursing home environment.

One of the greatest comforts to me is the relationships formed with other bloggers and it has been wonderful to reconnect with them over the last few days. I was feeling guilty about not reading other people’s posts when they were reading mine but I now realise that blogging doesn’t need to be like that and that people are more than understanding of bouts of silence.

At my nephew’s wedding,  I was, as we all were, filled with joy for the happy couple and their gorgeous little daughter. But, later in the evening, I experienced a moment of such intense misery that I could hardly breathe because of Anthony’s absence. My nephew and Ants have always had a wonderful connection, and I know that Anthony would have wanted to be there. Anyway, Ming got me through that moment and I went back to party mode -ha!

A few weeks ago, this was my short conversation with Anthony:

Me: Ants, is it okay if I write a book about you?

Anthony: No!

Me: But why not?

Anthony: Because I don’t exist.

I will never know what Anthony meant by this; was he being cryptic, humorous, philosophical? Was he being deliberately or accidentally poignant?

As Anthony becomes more silent, these transcribed ‘Dementia dialogues’ have become absolutely vital in terms of giving me conversational cues. Topics like the town he grew up in, our son, Ming, various nephews and nieces, farming, fences, cattle, the dairy …. all of these topics are interesting and important to Ants.

Eventually, Anthony will probably be totally silent so, from now on, I am going to record every single word he says.

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Blogging and reciprocation

Apart from the fact that my blogging has come down a notch in terms of frequency, I also have the guilts about not responding to others’ blogs so am going to catch up in next few weeks. In other words I am going to shut up and listen!  It has been a low period of time over the last few months and I so appreciate the support given to me by blog, Facebook and day-to-day friends. My turn now – to reciprocate.

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Dementia and experimentation

Yes I realise this sounds a bit like the title of a horror movie (and in the past few hundred years people with Dementia were misunderstood, undiagnosed, and treated cruelly under a regime of ‘care’). So the idea of experimenting is a little fraught.

But now (2017) the institutionalised care of people, like Anthony, who suffer from dementia, is kinder. So the ‘experimentation’ I refer to in the title of this post is my own.

Let me explain:

I was recently made aware that Anthony was exhibiting antagonistic behaviour toward carers, particularly in the late afternoon when they were trying to put him to bed. It was a terrible shock to discover this so yesterday I decided to go to the nursing home later than usual. I already knew, via hearsay, that it had now become necessary to put Anthony to bed earlier rather than later and that 4pm was the ideal time. If it were left any later, he would become more rigid and resistant to the hoist, the handling, due to the confusion of his sundowning (a late afternoon phenomenon that exacerbates the confusion of Dementia).

Once I realised this, I decided to adjust my visits from early to late so that I could calm Anthony before and after the bed-time ritual. Yesterday, I did this for the first time: I was there in Anthony’s room before the carers came in to put him to bed; I told him I would be back very soon to give him his evening meal, and vacated the room for about 15 minutes. When I returned, Anthony was comfortably in bed, happy to see me again and even happier for me to feed him his meal.

And, when I left him, he was smiling. So I guess this will be my new routine from now on. I have resisted the idea of a routine until now but I think it’s probably time I paid attention to the rather obvious findings of this experiment.

A. Anthony is more prone to exhibiting antagonistic behaviour later in the day;

B. Anthony is more confused in the late afternoon;

C. Anthony may settle into sleep better if I give him a good-night kiss, even if it’s only 5pm.

So it’s useful to know that later-in-the-day visits are more comforting to Ants than morning/noon visits. This way I can be around before and after the bed-time routine and, hopefully, diffuse Anthony’s distress, fear, and confusion.

Me: Ants, the nurses are going to put you to bed and then I’ll come back to give you your meal, okay?

Anthony: Okay, but it’s a bit unorthodox, Jules.

Perhaps I am the one being experimented on – ha!

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Still Anthony

One of the things I’ve been most grateful for over the last few years of Anthony’s dementia is that his personality hasn’t changed. He is still easy-going, gregarious, humorous, accepting and gentle. Like Alice in Lisa Genova’s book, Still Alice, Anthony is still Anthony.

Or he was.

The other day, about an hour before Ming and I were due to give a talk to a group of Dementia Practice students, he rang me from the nursing home to say that Anthony had broken a staff member’s hand.

What?

Apparently Anthony has been exhibiting out-of-character behaviours recently, partly due to a urinary tract infection. He is antagonistic and physically resists being put to bed etc. It is painful for me to imagine such scenes as Anthony doesn’t behave like this when I am there so this has come as a shock to Ming and to me. I also feel terrible that someone was injured.

But, picture this:

You have no idea where you are. It’s 4pm but you don’t know that. Two women in uniform approach you with a big piece of machinery [hoist].They are trying to explain something to you but you don’t understand – something about a bed. As they begin to undress you, you try to say no, that you are cold, but you can’t remember the words so you lash out. You are so terrified that the adrenaline kicks in and you fight. If you could flee, you would, but your legs won’t work. You wonder where Julie is and why she’s not there. Who are these women, with their gentle voices and strong arms and why are they putting you into the machine?

Anthony is scared.

In one of the support groups I attend, a woman recently described how her husband’s gentle personality switched overnight; he became angry, jealous and threatening. She said, “I didn’t recognise him. He was a different person.” At the time I thought how lucky we were that this hadn’t happened to Anthony.

Ming and I admitted to the Dementia Practice students that the possibility of Anthony’s personality changing was a brand new challenge. Perhaps I should visit later in the day than earlier so that I can calm Anthony down. I know I thought of this idea ages ago, for different reasons. I’ll ask the staff what they think when I go in today.

I have been preparing myself for the possibility that one day Anthony might not recognise who I am.

It never occurred to me until now that one day I might not recognise who he is.

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Values

Ming and have both sought psychological help over the last few years and one of the most difficult questions to answer is “what are your values?” I think this is a very tricky question, but an important one. It is also a question that I have found extremely challenging to answer.

Stereotypical answers might be: health, family, financially okay, great relationships, good job, political stability, beautiful kids, long life etc. but these are too vague and I don’t like my own vagueness.

Perhaps the question should be rephrased to “what do I value?” This turns the noun ‘value’ into the verb ‘value’ and, in my opinion, makes the question easier to answer. For example, I know what I value most, whereas I can’t quite pinpoint what my values are.

What do I value most?

  • Kindness (the giving and receiving of);
  • My son’s growing wisdom;
  • Anthony’s smile;
  • Authentic relationships with family and friends;
  • Humour;
  • My ability to write about dementia;
  • The new puppy, Pip;
  • Honesty; and
  • Salad.

I haven’t been very good lately at looking after my physical, psychological and emotional health but, like many, I baulk at self-helpy stuff. But there is nothing wrong with self-help! After all, the best way of helping others, which is something I feel passionate about, is to get yourself on track first, surely.

Ming comes home tomorrow from a 6-day intensive beginning to a diploma in psychology which he will complete in around 15 months. He seems to have found his niche and I can’t wait to hear about all of it; we have already had some fascinating phone conversations.

Even pre-dementia, Anthony would never have understood Ming’s passion for helping people; nevertheless he would be so proud if he understood. Often Ants still thinks Ming is a toddler so when this great big man steps into the nursing home room it can be a bit confusing.

Ah yes – other things I value:

  • Laughter;
  • Still being in love; and
  • Ming.
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Dementia and misrecognition

Ming has been the first of the two of us to be misrecognised by Anthony because Ants keeps forgetting that Ming is now a 23-year-old adult, and not the toddler he often thinks he sees in his nursing home room.

Anthony always knows me but, on the other hand sometimes, when I am sitting next to him, he will talk about Julie to me not quite realising that I am Julie.

Neither of these misrecognitions is tragic – well, they don’t need to be! After all, Anthony is not deliberately misrecognising Ming by thinking Ming is one of Anthony’s numerous nephews. Of course the first time this happened Ming was understandably annoyed and hurt but, since then, he goes with the flow and often says, in his big, booming voice, “I am your son, Dad!”

I am quite prepared for the day that Anthony might not know who I am at all; after all, I know how dementia works and how it manifests itself differently for each and every individual. Why would I be hurt by something that can’t be helped? If Anthony’s dementia worsens, which of course it will, then it may be inevitable that one day he won’t know who the hell I am. I am ready for that.

I’ve said this before but will say it again; if Anthony stops knowing who I am, it doesn’t matter because I will always know who he is. This misrecognition thing that happens with dementia doesn’t have to be seen as a tragedy; after all, the person with dementia has absolutely no intention of breaking your heart by not knowing who you are. You can still be the most trusted, and most loving person, in his/her life.

Anthony: Where is Jules?

Me: Right here, Ants.

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