Stubborn. I’ve always known I was genetically programmed with this trait from my earliest hours of life. Coming from a strong Calvinistic background, I attributed this character flaw to some sort of predetermined course, an assignment I could not refuse. Not true, by the way. I know it’s the DNA I inherited from my parents.
This morning after my husband and I walked our dogs and slid all over the snow plowed sidewalk, we hurried home while trying to keep from losing our balance, to warn my mother and father that maybe this isn’t the best morning to take their walk. Every morning and late afternoon, my parents set out from our home and walk about a mile around a park alone, one of the last forms of independence they can exert. They are highly attuned to weather reports, so blasting snow, pouring rain and strong winds usually call for a rain check on the walk…until the elements clear. So imagine our surprise when we walk in to find them with coats on, hats and scarves in place, and pulling on their gloves. “Mom,” I plead, “please be careful on the sidewalk that appears to be cleared, it’s totally icy.” No response, so I continue, “maybe you both could wait a few hours to see if some of the ice melts.”
As my mother opens the front door to survey the sidewalk, she turns to us, “We heard the cars sliding out there, we know it’s icy. We’ll be careful to avoid the icy spots. Don’t worry.” At that moment, I flash to a conversation I just had with my husband about his dear friend, 93 years old, who slipped and fell last week when a dog jumped on her and she is now suffering the effects of a stroke because of how she hit her head. I’m not ready to give in. “Whatever you do, don’t go on the ice…it’s like glass, I promise. Can’t you wait?”
Oops. This was my mistake. When my parents first moved in with us, I was invited to take a “Savvy Caregivers” class offered by the Alzheimer’s Association. You’ll hear me refer time and again to the most awesome instructor, Jay Jordan, who told us on day one: “No questions. Stop asking questions of your loved one, it only muddies the water. Help them make choices, don’t ask questions.” Because of the change in brain activity in a person with Alzheimer’s, the simple act of posing a question can send them into a challenging place, causing confusion and frustration. But asking me to stop asking questions…with all of my adult years spent doing just that professionally…was akin to telling me to stop breathing. It was so hard, at first. I would find myself biting my tongue constantly. Often in class I would proudly explain how we were doing so well as a new blended family and how I had done this or that…but Jay would catch me asking a question of my father and nix my enthusiasm. As always in these matters, Jay was right on. Once I stopped asking questions, and offered suggestions or made the choices, everyone could relax. Even though my mother does not have Alzheimer’s, the rule also applies to her. So in that moment, with her standing at the door, I knew I lost the battle.
My mother smiled as she took my father’s hand and walked out the front door. “We’ll just walk back and forth on the sidewalk where it isn’t icy,” she says and closes the door. And off they go. For twenty minutes…walking up and down our street avoiding the icy spots. They return smiling, invigorated, and ready to tackle the day.
As Jay Jordan says over and over, “When you meet a person with Alzheimer’s, you’ve met one person with Alzheimer’s.” How we deal with our loved ones varies from family to family. My story may be similar or different from your story, that isn’t the point. I’d like to share the steps I’ve taken over the past eight months and let you know what works and what doesn’t work for us.
I just returned from the gym to see that most of the ice on the sidewalks in our neighborhood has melted. My mother is waiting for me in the kitchen with a computer issue she’d like help with. After we tackle her password and unlock the caps key, all is well. Then she looks outside. “Well,” she says, “the snow has completely melted…on the sidewalk, anyway. I knew it would melt. We’ll go out again, and this time we’ll go to the park.”
Of course they will. Stubborn.
I am not alone. In a study by MetLife, the average age of an Alzheimer’s care recipient is 79. The average age of spousal caregivers is 75, compared to 51 for caregiving children. Almost three-fifths of each caregiver group is female. About half of caregivers are college graduates or hold higher degrees. This is part of a series of posts I am writing as I explore the life changes I’m encountering embarking on an unexpected journey.