by Kathryn Braund
He was tall, slim. Good looking. So gentle, so kind. A perfect gentleman. He walked as straight as an arrow flies, no bend at his shoulders or back, and his smile – you enjoyed it. You loved the quiet way he expressed himself. Oh, he could be forceful in words, if necessary; his anger was usually full of common sense. He taught me to enjoy fishing and hunting. I taught him to enjoy dogs in the show and obedience sports. We were together twenty-four hours a day for forty years, loving each other all that time. But the last few years of his life inflicted such suffering, I wince to look back.
Although not native to Montana, we had moved from Montana to Washington. Quickly, he purchased a load of mountain wood for our stove. When I went to look at it, I jumped away wide-eyed, then immediately tracked a busy trail of Carpenter Ants. Greatly disturbed, I hurried to tell him. He lengthily and completely dismissed my fears. Normally, he would have immediately jumped right up to investigate. (In a few months, ants began dropping on us. Our attic was full of ant nests.) I thought back to several other unusual decisions he had made that had disturbed me.
I went to a doctor for answers. He explained that people can exhibit Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) symptoms, although as the Alzheimer’s Association (ASA) states: “Not all people with MCI develop Alzheimer’s.” (AA)
“Check with the Alzheimer’s Association,” the doctor urged. “Their education programs are splendid.” He gave me their Online address. “It is: ALZConnected.”
My dear husband suffered a TIA (small stroke) in 1991; in 1993 he had a right artery operation. Soon after, he drove to Sacramento, California, to pick up a Dalmatian puppy for me; returning, took the wrong entrance to the freeway. He never drove again. Falling, he suffered a concussion. A pacemaker saved his life. We moved to California to be close to his son and daughter-in-law, and on arrival, a second TIA made his memory take a sharp downward turn. He was not able to truly enjoy his new house. In 1997, he had a heart operation.
There were times he was his absolutely wonderful self and one beams with happiness, convinced he is getting better. But then . . .
The Alzheimer’s Association names three stages of this horrific disease. “Stages may overlap.”
In the Mild Stage, the victim of Alzheimer’s still acts independently, can do everything he’s used to doing, yet he sees his memory of things, people, and places is not as good as it used to be. It worries him. His family notices this slight memory loss also.
- He forgets correct words,
- Has trouble remembering names,
- Forgets what he has just read,
- Has trouble organizing things,
- Misplaces objects,
- Has trouble with tasks he used to do easily.
Alzheimer’s Association says: “Early diagnosis can allow a person the opportunity to live well with the disease for as long as possible and plan for the future.
The Moderate Stage. A good thing to remember is that the way the brain cells are damaged, a person’s reaction to this terrible disease may differ from others. As the second stage progresses, it means almost constant care. The victim likes to wander, forgets where he is or where he is going, and stops enjoying the things he used to enjoy. As the millions of caretakers for those being consumed by this tragic disease know, some days are good, and some bad. You take each day as it comes. There are plenty of difficult moments when you wonder why this awful disease has to be. The sufferer knows he is forgetful, but never how much. That hurts the caretaker as much as it disturbs the victim.
Here are some of the characteristics that may (or may not) occur. The sufferer wakes in the middle of the night, thinks it is time to get up, and may do all sorts of things. One can find a package of brown sugar in the noodles jar, a shirt stuffed under a couch pillow, bread crumbs in the coffee pot, and where did he hide his underwear. As the Moderate stage progresses he may end up sleeping in a closet, and think the spare bedroom is the bathroom. Worse. He may leave the house for a walk and completely forget where he is and no one is there to guide him home. The last was the most frequent condition my dear husband had of the symptoms listed above. Once, in California, it took four hours for his son, a policeman, and me to rescue him. He had been with me shopping in a superstore and disappeared when my eyes were focused on a product instead of him. (He had been asleep in one of the huge empty boses in back of the store). Through this, I learned the catetaker had to install special locks on all outside house doors so the victim is protected. The lack of the caretaker’s sleep becomes a double-edged sword.
Sufferers enjoy rides in cars, even though frequently they won’t know where they are. When you tell them, they might exclaim, “What are we doing here?” Thank goodness, they are easily distracted.
Music is a great helper. Even if the sufferer seldom listened to music when he was well, soothing music becomes a choice he thoroughly enjoys. TV is watched, but the diseased brain often scrambles words and visual perception becomes distorted. Most sufferers cannot work the TV correctly any longer. The same applies to talking books. He is gradually losing his ability to sort things out.
In California, our insurance allowed us to have a nurse help three times a week for a month after his heart operation. She gave him a shower, helped him shave, and then sat and chatted. It was really nice. We also had a visit from a social worker who suggested i might like to enter him in a once-a-week day-care for dementia sufferers. She said we both needed this respite. It would be for almost a full day – 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Arriving, he would have coffee, a sort of breakfast, later lunch and snacks. He would play games and do things with other Alzheimer victims. He did not like the suggestion . He comment was: “They are crazy people and old.” He would not go. I began to laugh inside and then my heart skipped several beats. He had used those very words a long tine ago when I asked him if he wanted to join a Senior Manor club. We left the offer sit. “When you change your mind, call,” said the social worker.
Our doctor suggested a sleeping pill because his sleeping was very erratic. After taking his first, he slept all night, although with quite a bit of tossing. After a week, the sleeping pill appeared to be like most others. They work for three to four hours. I stopped giving them to him.
He appeared to be getting better both physically and mentally. He hadn’t lost his handsomeness. He hadn’t lost his kindness. He did not lose his love for me. One new habit: he kept pushing the thermostat up to 99 degrees. I finally told him that the power company technician said it worked by itself without help. He stopped. A friend’s mother scolded her husband for the same thing and he remembered the scolding. Things kick in.The memory is there. It unlocks, thank goodness. Nevertheless ,my husband often forgot where he was or where he was going.
Some characteristics are completely lost on the sufferer. They do not realize what is going on in this brain cell deterioration. They cannot ever be blamed. “Alzheimer’s disease leads to nerve cell death and tissue loss throughout the brain. Over time, the brain shrinks dramatically, affecting nearly all its functions.” (AA) Caretakers have to be prepared and patient. That is difficult at times. Daily routines, while not always easy, can be fun, too. Plan them on being that way.
Our dogs were great companions for him. They instinctively knew something was wrong. In the daytime, they would lie or sit beside him and he would strike and talk to them. Our dogs were a great blessing.
Telephone calls and visits bring the sufferer straight back to reality. Visits really boost. He’ll tell stories of things he has done and memories he shares of those who are visiting. It is amazing.
Since I was still employed as Publisher/Editor of “The Courier,” a bi- monthly PWDCA dog magazine, I worked in my home office most often after he went to bed. I purchased a Jacuzzi. He lounged in it daily. He napped quite often, yet when awake, it was always good to be with him. I had to watch what he did.
It was in 1999 that I knew something was missing. I was homesick for Great Falls, Montana. Great Falls is a small city of about 52,000 with homes and ranches spread far beyond the city’s limits. Everything was handy. Every manufactured want could be satisfied. It as an excellent city for families, for kids to grow up in, for those who needed good doctors. It had a large and excellent hospital. We had worked and retired there. I wanted to go back to it and back to my friends.
Here, a fruit and vegetable stand in our vicinity that was so good – I had to drive to it. To get to a large market, I had to drive on crowded freeways for thirty minutes. A mall that offered products for home or person was another ten miles. I began to wonder. When I grew older and if my husband was not here, how could I make my way to these essential stores if I did not drive. Although I had many friends in southern California, the closest was more than an hour away. The doctors here were excellent and very pleasant, but I felt we were like file folders, to be opened and closed promptly. I hated using insecticide on the hordes of insects that thrived here. I disliked the air we breathed in California. I coughed a lot; my doctor told me it was because I had been a heavy smoker (I had quit thirty years ago). I sat down and wrote to our wonderful doctor in Great Falls, who had taken care of both of us so well, and asked if we could again become his patients. His prompt answer was ‘Yes.’
My husband’s son and wife grieved when I told them I wanted to go back to Montana. They understood and promised to visit us often. One of my sons flew in to drive us ‘home,’ When we made the one motel stop, my son and I bombarded my door so I could hear my husband if he decided in the middle of the night to take a walk.
My other son lived in Great Falls. He had everything ready – the house, the furniture and my husband was eager to be settled again.
Our doctor was glad we were back. I told him that in 1999 I thought that my husband was entering the Moderate stage of Alzheimer’s. He conversed at length with my husband, learning the Alzheimer’s effects on him, gave him a thorough physical examination and told me he thought my husband was doing remarkably well for the major medical procedures he had gone through. He told us to call him whenever any problem arose. He would see us immediately.
“The rate of progression varies. On average, those that do develop the disease, live four tonight years after diagnosis.” (AA)
One night softly after we arrived, I woke up instantly, instinctively feeling for my husband’s body. He was not beside me. I looked at the clock – 3 a.m. I jumped out of bed, grabbed my robe and slippers and sped through the house like a magnifying glass, searching for him. The front door was securely locked. Turning into the hallway, an icy wind pulled apart the edges of my robe. The sliding door in my office was wide open. I ran outside and followed his tracks through the light snow. His tracks were there, both inside and outside of the fence. How could he climb a five foot fence? I shook my head in absolute wonder. The fence did not appear climbable. I found him three hours later. A night-working neighbor had seen him walking on the dark county snow frosted road and took him to town to the police station. He was smiling when I claimed him. He had been sharing his war experiences with a police sergeant. I sobbed quietly into myself. How in the world did my wonderful husband come down with this absolutely horrible Alzheimer’s disease?
What was the spark that set off this decay of his brain? I knew that our brains begin a very slow shrinkage when we reach thirty years of age; that the shrinkage in an Alzheimer’s victim can be dramatic. Thanks to the Alzheimer’s Association, I knew that the human brain contains 100,000 billion nerve cells (neurons) along along with their branches (called the Neuron Forest) with approximately 100 trillion points of connection (called synapses). These depend on signals, tiny electrical charges (called near-transmitters) to transfer or store our memories, thoughts and feelings. Alzheimer’s disease attacks these brain cells, its branches, its points of connection and slowly destroys them. Thus, the brain loses tissue, shrinks, and gradually all mental and body functions die, and when neurons lose energy, as in older human beings, and cannot repair themselves, they fail to transfer signals to other neurons,and cannot repair themselves (Story of Hunan Development). They sicken and begin their downward path into nothingness. As the disease progresses, it slowly affects the victim’s ability to reason, remember, and thrive (Severe Stage). The death of both the victim and the brain’s astounding computer follows.
A friend (former hairdresser) came every few weeks, cut his hair and massaged him. Other friends visited. He sometimes es attempted to perform a few chores around our five acre property, yet everything was too difficult for him to do, and for me to watch.
He developed a health problem in 2001. Our doctor saw him and decided he needed to be hospitalized. After a few days, he had to be placed in a total care facility. It was there that I visited him daily, usually for both lunch and dinner. I also took him home for lunch, often took one of our dogs to see him. It was a marvelous facility, with an indoor garden, an activity center, a dining room and a huge, well-dressed yard in which to walk and sit.He kn ew I was not with him; that was very difficult at first. After a while, he forgot. When he was about to leave us, our family were there to visit, although I was alone with him when he said goodbye to earth.
A year later, I asked for and received a letter from our doctor, allowing me to visit the unit and ask several questions of patients. I needed to learn more. I was allowed to ask five questions of three patients. I could not be told what stage of the disease each was in (privacy). In my estimation, two were in the middle of the Moderate stage and one, possibly, in the beginning of Severe. I was able to communicate with each (with lots of help from the nurse). Question Five asked what they liked best. Each of the three answered, “Attention.”
Daily, I pass by the tall fence that hides the large yard for the Alzheimer patients on my scooter with my Havanese dog, Jazzy. The Manor in which I have lived for ten years is two blocks away.
It’s been sixteen years since he left me (he was born in 1916, I in 1920). I’m still here. I’m glad I am. Yet I miss him daily. And, oh, how proud I am of our wonderful memories – me with that gentle, kind, warm man of my life.
The Alzheimer’s Association is the leading non-profit organization for Alzheimer’s Disease. Headquarters are in Chicago. The headquarter address is 225 North Michigan Avenue, Fl 17, Chicago, IL 60601. Every state has a number of offices. Each office is available to help you whatever your inquiry is about this disease. You can also make inquires on their website which is: ALZConnected. Also, inquire on twitter: https://twitter.com/alzassociation