Alzheimer's

CATS, DOGS AND ALZHEIMER’S

“We have to move, Grandma.  I hate to ask, but do you suppose you could take care of our cats for a while?” asked granddaughter, Kristina, knowing I was pretty much her only option.   We had cared for our daughter’s dogs a while back, and even though we love animals, the dogs were somewhat rambunctious and a little much for Ken.  Thoughtfully, I considered Kristina’s request.  Cats were so different from dogs.  They weren’t in  your face or under  your feet all the time, so perhaps, they might be all right.

We were always a pet family: mostly dogs and cats with an occasional stayover bunny, rat, hamster and small alligator.  Some of our animal acquisitions arrived through friends of our children, but Ken was often the plea bargainer in bringing home a new pet.  We had gone to my cousin’s wedding and while at the reception, he managed to find a litter of kittens in my uncle’s garage.  All eyes and ears, the adorable little things just happened to be the perfect age to be given away.   “Oh, look at this gray and white one,” Ken exclaimed picking up the small critter.  On further examination he added, “And it’s the only male in the bunch.”  Elaborating on the fact that our dog, Lucy, needed a friend he quickly added how much the kids would enjoy a cat.   He was a sweet little thing and I was in agreement.  As soon as the festivities were over, we left for home with a surprise tucked into a box which Uncle Cliff had found for our kitten.

The new pet was such a delight for our children, each one passing the small animal from one to the other, remembering to be gentle as each waited their turn.  Lucy, on the other hand, her mothering juices flowing even though she had been spayed, held the kitten with one paw and gave him a thorough washing.  Yes, Jasper was home.

Several months later Ken looked at his male cat and remarked, “Jasper is sure getting fat.”  On a second examination I observed, “You didn’t pick the only male in the litter, you found the only female in the litter.”  Before we had her spayed, and during the happy days of the 50s when it wasn’t irresponsible for your cat to produce, Jasper provided kittens for all the children in the neighborhood.  She was also an excellent tool for sex education not only for our children, but for the children of our neighbors who gave the okay for their young ones to watch a live birth.  And Jasper?  She sought me out, letting me know in her own mothering way that it was time  to deliver and for me to be ready with the commentary.   She seemed to enjoy the quiet, well behaved audience with their occasional ohhhhs and ahhhhs as each kitten appeared in its own protective sack.  Too busy to care, it seemed she hardly noticed the group “yuk” as she licked them all clean.

It has been said that just petting an animal lowers blood pressure.  Ken’s Aunt Mary lived in an Alzheimer’s care facility where they had a resident dog who went from room to room spreading his cheer.   Not only did the residents pet him, so did the company.

For now, the experiment with Kristina’s cats is, “How will Ken react?”  We all went through a few days of adjustment.  A little worry that they would get lost if they slipped outside, and their adjustment to us?  It’s going well and they come and go as they please.  I believe, in their own small way, they are good for Ken.  He comments when they are around, “Look, a cat.”    Certainly, he’s not the Ken of old who would reach down and pick up either Junior or Gouda, but they come to him, curling up in his lap as he sits on the couch, or one will snuggle down on his chest  as he rests in bed contemplating getting up for the day.  With severe Alzheimer’s there is little apparent joy for the patient under any condition, but as I see Ken reach out to  touch, and then pet the cat’s silky fur I see him smile, hoping that somewhere in his clouded brain he feels a warm glow of happiness.

Originally posted 2009-10-08 08:05:37.

THE LIES WE TELL

“Everyone went home.”  That’s one of my stock lies.  Depending on the time of day, Ken has pretty much programmed himself with certain questions, various fixations and anger moods.  First thing in the morning he comes from the bedroom yawning and asks, “Where is everybody?”  My answer is always, “They went to work.”  Then he wonders what day it is, and if it’s a weekday he agrees that, of course, they do need to be at work.  On the weekends, if he asks about the day, I tell him they are working overtime, or say it’s a weekday.

In the evening when he asks, “Where did they go?”  That’s when I tell him, “They all went home.”  I go further to explain that all of our children are grown and have families of their own and they don’t want to stay for dinner because dinner is waiting for them at their own homes.  “Oh,” he replies.  Often he asks about the little ones, assuming we have been baby sitting.  “Their parents came and picked them up.”  That, at times, annoys him because no one came in to say goodbye.

“I have people coming for dinner,” Ken insists.  In the beginning, I would make an effort to convince him that we were not having company only to have  him go into a heated debate about the guests he had invited and why wasn’t I making enough food.  I have learned to suggest that when they get here I’ll cook another dinner.  “Meanwhile,” I say, “I will be cooking for just the two of us.”  He is happy with that and soon forgets about the imaginary company.

Lies aren’t always about food, company or the whereabouts of people who aren’t here.  At times I lie to avoid a hurtful truth.  Ken’s mother was also an AD victim.  Ken, his sister, Loretta, and I conferred about her bladder cancer, and her growing dementia.  It was decided that following surgery and convalescence, their mother would be transferred to a full-time, partial-care facility.  A widow and alone, Rose had managed with Loretta close by, but as illness, both physical and mental, became a part of the mix, she needed more supervision that any of us could provide.

Surgery went well and Rose happily adjusted to her new living situation, but that glimmer and desire of home remained.  Loretta and I were visiting one day when Rose asked, “When do I get to go home?”  In great detail Loretta explained to her demented mother all about her illness, her incapacity to care for herself and that her home had been emptied and was rented.  Saying nothing, but with great sad eyes, Rose looked puzzled and hurt.  A whisper away, I quietly said, “Lor-ettttt-ta.” Glancing back at me she said, “I just want to be honest with her.   I mumbled, “Why?”  When Rose had asked me the same question, which she did each time we visited, I would tell her that as soon as her doctor said she was strong and capable enough to care for herself, she could go home.  I suppose, by a very big stretch, it wasn’t a lie, but it made her feel good, if only for a little while, and it was a more comforting answer than the awful truth.

The scriptures tell us, “and liars shall be cast out.”  In his Alzheimer’s world Ken will say, “I haven’t heard from my mother lately.”  He doesn’t accept the truth, so I tell him, “She and your father are on vacation in Colorado.”  I have become very quick with the answers.  For instance, I sewed the front pockets down on all of his jeans so he couldn’t walk around with both hands deep inside.  I knew if he fell he would be flat on his face.  Thrusting his hands downward while groping for the pockets of his altered jeans, I tell him that having no pockets in front is the latest style.  Flat-out lie!  At times I feel a tad of guilt for my constant lies, which come so easy in our conversations, but on second thought I could call my deceptions in dealing with Ken’s demented mind — fabrication.  Yes, that’s it.  All day long I fabricate, or better yet, perhaps I’m just speaking fiction.

Originally posted 2009-10-04 06:31:18.

“TAKE ME HOME”

How many times during the length of a marriage does one of the partners nudge the other whispering, “Let’s go home.”  It doesn’t matter how great the party, how good the movie, how grand the evening or even how perfect the vacation, there comes a point when it’s time to go home. 

Children aren’t much different either; from a skinned knee on the playground to puppy love’s first rejection, the yearning is the same, “I wanna go home.”  The youthful statement is often accompanied by sobs, pleadings when bored or whining when the pleadings aren’t heard. 

Poets write verse about home, lyricists link home to a melody, our service people long for it and commuters drive for hours to get there.  Back home is where mom and dad live, a new home is what everyone wants, and home is where we are when the door closes.  A sanctuary from the world, our private abode; a place to hang our hats, kick off our shoes and relax in front of a warm fire and hopefully, a place where love is.

But what happens when you are home and you don’t remember it being your home?   Then the lament changes to, “When are you going to take me home?”  Each day, during a certain mood, Ken tells me that he wants to go home, becoming very anxious about getting there.  No matter how often I try to reassure him, “This is your home, Ken,” he becomes less and less likely to recognize what was once so familiar.   “Look around and you might remember the family room you built many years ago, and come into the living room,” I suggest, guiding him along the way.  “See your father’s Marine photo on the wall, and your parents’ wedding picture, and right here is the family portrait, the four of you:  your mom and dad and your sister, Loretta.  And look at you at 15, aren’t you handsome?”  

 Up until yesterday, the tour seemed to bring him back into, at least, some reality of being home.  However, yesterday he looked at his parents’ photos, glared at me and asked in an accusing manner, “Who gave you permission to hang my family pictures on this wall?”  At that point, fearing he would rip them down, I changed the subject and eased him into another room.  Forgetting the photographs, he still wanted me to take him home.

A few years ago, we attended the funeral of a good friend whose brain had been ravaged by Alzheimer’s very rapidly.  For their privacy, I’ll call them Luke and Paula.  Luke was a successful orthodontist at the peak of his career, being struck down at a comparatively young age.  Following diagnosis, he immediately sold his practice, and the couple moved mid-state to be near their son and his family.   While Paula battled Luke’s disease, I battled Ken’s so we didn’t keep in touch.  Seeing her again,  I gave her a hug and despite her brave front, there were tears when she said, “He’s home, he’s finally home,” explaining how often he pleaded for her to take him home.   Her reference, of course, was the Heavenly home from whence we all came.   However, I couldn’t help but wonder if he missed their place here, in the Bay Area, having been in their new home for such a short time it made sense that the old house held more memory.

I also believed Ken wouldn’t go through the “wanting to go home” phase because we have lived in this same house for more than a half century.  I was wrong.  As he regresses, he becomes younger and younger, often asking if I have seen his mother.  When he does, I know he has become the personality I have named “Buddy,” his parents’ nick name for him.  Undoubtedly, I thought, the home he  has in mind is where he grew up in Berkeley, or is it?  Even as his father, Nicholas, descended deep into Alzheimer’s he would beg to go home.  Is it possible that Ken isn’t asking to return to his childhood home on 10th Street after all?  Perhaps Paula is right.  In their tormented minds, were — are — they calling out to Him to take them home?    Could their spirit be remembering what Wordsworth suggested?

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home.”

Originally posted 2009-09-06 07:10:05.

“MOTHER, MAY I”…… AND ALZHEIMER’S

Growing up in San Francisco, the sidewalk was the gathering place and playground for neighborhood kids on a summer evening.  I would like to say a warm summer evening, but in the City that would be unusual.  More often than not great rolls of billowing fog tumbled over the tops of Twin Peaks cooling what was left of a pleasant day, but we didn’t mind.  Living four blocks east from the base of those famous hills, my sister and I tossed on a sweater as our mother had instructed, which was quickly removed and discarded onto a growing pile of outer wear as the games began:  “Kick The Can,” “Hide and Go Seek,” “Tag, You’re It,” naming only a few, and one of my favorites, “Mother May I?”

I have often wondered if its origin came from a frustrated school teacher in an effort to educate the players about the difference between “may” and “can;” permission and ability.   Wherever it began didn’t really matter, “Mother May I?” was fun and if we learned a bit of correct English along the way, it was a bonus.

With the mother in charge of the action. He or she controlled all of the players who were the mother’s children, all standing 20 or 30 feet apart from the mother.   A line, imaginary or real, was established as start and finish with all the children equally spaced on that line.  One by one the mother would call each player by name giving an instruction, and then wait for a response to her command:  “Take one giant step forward,” “Take three steps back,” “Jump forward on one foot four times and turn around.”  Any instruction mother dictated, the player was obliged to do.  Before setting forth, though, the player had to remember to always ask, “Mother May I?”  The mother then responded to the polite request with, “Yes, you may.”  However, the mother could be mean and say, “No, you may not,” and proceed to the next player.  If the player stepped forward without asking permission, she/he had to go back to the beginning and start all over. The winner, of course, was the one who remembered the magic phrase, resulting in reaching the mother and then returning to the finish line before any one of the other players.  The winner became the new mother.  Kids’ games; silly but fun, and pleasant to remember.

Alzheimer’s patients can be very territorial, not only with the house, their room, the car, the newspaper, the mail, or a worthless used napkin.  The list, actually, is endless.   Their life is extremely guarded as is their space.   After several years of living with Ken’s AD, I have found the relationship we share is seldom that of husband and wife.  If for a brief time, my husband is present, he can disappear in mid-sentence, or in mid-action.  Early on Ken was sweeping the kitchen floor — and it was Ken who took out the broom.   I called to him and asked if, after he finished, he would do something else for me.  I don’t even recall what it was, but in an instant he stopped sweeping and armed with broom and dustpan, he stormed over to where I was and growled, “Stop telling me what to do!”  When he becomes threatening, I matched his threat in no uncertain terms, which usually ended in a standoff.    Had I been more astute at that time I could have, possibly, averted his outburst.

Over the years I have learned to be more sensitive to his personality changes and his territorial domain, which is so much a part of being respectful to him as a person.  I have also rekindled the phrase of the old childhood game.  While I don’t say, “Mother, May I,” I do approach him slowly and ask, “May I….?”  If I approach too quickly and reach out to straighten his collar or close a button on his shirt, I may get my hand shoved away, and through gritted teeth he will warn, “Get away from me.”  I have long since stopped being hurt by these actions and remarks because I know this person is not the man I married.  More than likely, he feels like a trapped and frightened animal, fearful of me and my actions, no matter how well-meant.   But I have noticed that if I approach with caution and gently ask permission, using the magic phrase, “May I help you close the blinds?” “May I straighten your collar?” “May I button that one button on your shirt?” or “May I sit next to you on the couch?” and then wait for him to respond.  At times he says, “No,” or “No, thank you,” but other times, if he’s comfortable and not threatened,  he will say, “Yes, you may,” or a simple “yes” giving me permission.  Moving slowly through his strange world of Alzheimer’s keeps us both more content.

Originally posted 2009-08-29 06:40:27.

VALUE AND RESPECT

“You’ll have to take me out of here in a box,” said my mother many years ago.  She and my dad had retired to a lovely piece of land just a few miles west of Sebastopol, California in beautiful Sonoma County when they were in their early 60s.  My dad, who had worked at Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard received an early retirement because of his worn-out knees which made it next to impossible for him to continue climbing up and down the ladders of America’s former war ships.  He was also one of the “older” employees so it was easier for the Navy to just retire him rather than to be concerned with Dad’s aches, pains and restricted duty.  Besides, the war had been over for many years and keeping up the fleet was becoming a thing of the past.  In their search, my parents found a small piece of God’s amazing planet, built their dream home and settled in to enjoy the rest of their lives.  We, three daughters and our husbands, could only have hoped that their fabulous retirement years extended into nearly a quarter century.  Little by little, however, Father Time collected his toll from both of them.  Dad developed several conditions including congestive heart failure and Mama had recovered from a broken hip and kidney stones, but was becoming a bit forgetful.

As a family, we would often organize and spend a weekend at their acre and a half, trimming, weeding and trying to keep up with the demands of their little farm — an impossible task — but a fun getaway for us and helpful to them.   All the while, they stubbornly stuck to the earlier declaration of living where they chose until they died.  Even though there was concern from friends, neighbors and their church leaders, we three sisters allowed our parents their own decision.  My two sisters lived in Washington state and so the responsibility of Mom and Dad was, basically, mine.

Mama still picked from her garden, canned fruit from their trees, froze a few vegetables, and the two took care of each other.  My father could still drive during the day so they met their doctor’s appointments, shopped in town for their needs and actually got along quite well.  My one sister and her husband came from Washington for a visit and decided while they were there, she would do some “scudding out.”  With my father’s permission, and while my mother was engaged elsewhere, my well-meaning sister took it upon herself to clear out what she believed to be “older” jars of fruit and canned goods.  Loading half of my mother’s summer efforts into the back of her car, she took it all to the dumps.  Among the loss was Mama’s favorite Raw Tomato Relish.

It wasn’t until my sister and her husband were gone that Mama went to her storage looking for a jar of her favorite relish and found the cupboards half bare.   Puzzled, she asked my father if he knew anything about the missing supply.  Reluctantly, Dad had to confess his part in the vanished jars, explaining my sister meant well and had promised to toss only out-dated storage.  Mama was not only furious, she was crushed at not being consulted; at being treated as less than a thinking, reasonable and responsible adult.   A person without value; a person who, in Mama’s eyes, was no longer respected.  “What are we,” she said, “if we have no value and no respect?”   Feeling betrayed by not only her daughter, but by her husband as well, she fell into a long period of depression.

Eventually, she came out of her sadness, buoyed up by forgiveness, and life resumed for the two of them.  I certainly wouldn’t imply that her forgetfulness escalated because of the incident, but she began to slip further and further away.  To compound her declining health and memory loss, she developed leg ulcers (not successfully treated at the time).   One October day, Ken and I drove up for a visit.  I found her sitting on the patio, enjoying the last bit of an Indian Summer and reading.  Her legs were outstretched on a lawn couch and I noticed she had been self-treating an ulcer on her ankle, but the entire leg was an angry red and swollen.  “Has Greg seen your leg?” I asked.  Greg was a local doctor who lived next door with his wife and two daughters.  The family was devoted to my parents.  While he was not their physician, he watched over them, suggesting at times they see their own PC.  I knocked on his door and asked if he would take a quick look at Mama’s leg.  “She has a bad case of cellulitis,” he said, “and she needs to be in the hospital, now.”

My father declined our invitation to come home with us while Mama was in the hospital claiming he could care for himself and if he needed something he had neighbors.  We made certain she was comfortable and cared for at their HMO in San Rafael before we headed home.  I called my father during the week and visited Mama as often as I could.  At week’s end she was well enough to go home.  As we entered their house my father sobbed like a child proclaiming his loneliness, admitting they needed to give up their wonderful home and move closer to us — not live with us — just be close.  He realized that he could no longer care for his wife without help, especially after acknowledging the fact that her dementia was Alzheimer’s.

We found a nice little house less than a mile from where Ken and I lived, only a telephone call away, a 15 minute walk or a quick ride.  After a time, and with my mother’s advancing AD they required live-in help in addition to what I could provide.  But I still managed their affairs, and understanding the importance of “being master of one’s own ship,” I allowed my father to believe he was the one in charge.  He reviewed the mail and studied the bank statement, a job which had been my mother’s all of their married life.  I doubt he understood what he was perusing, but doing so returned to him his sense of independence.  Dad was still in command — the head of his household.  I never made a decision without consulting him, never took away his authority which allowed him to be a person who stepped up to the plate, taking on the responsibility in providing for the care of his beloved wife until her death, at home in her 90th year.   He died six months later at home — also in his 90th year — a man of honor, a man of value and respect.

Originally posted 2009-08-25 08:26:49.

THE PARTNERSHIP

During those first blissful years of early marriage I rarely thought of the state of matrimony as a partnership.  How unromantic was that?  A partnership sounded like some kind of business deal and I thought of “us” as being more than that.   He was the husband and I was the wife.  Husband and wife were the important words as were the titles of Mr. and Mrs. on the outside of most of our addressed mail. 

Before we married I remember how exciting  it was to sit and doodle during spare moments; practicing the best way I was going to write my new name.  Flaring the M for the Mrs. part I then curved the K for Kenneth and looped the R in as many scrolling ways as could be imagined for our shared last name.  I was going to become Mrs. Kenneth Romick as my doodle paper would testify, and it wasn’t going to be some kind of business arrangement.

The “he” part of our marriage was a G.I. student and I was the working wife, but when we were home, it was togetherness.  We moved into our first San Francisco flat where we cleaned and painted the shabby place — together.   We went everywhere together; we played together; we shopped together, we cooked and ate together — then he studied and I cleaned up — not together. 

So, perhaps everything wasn’t meant to be together — but still we weren’t ready for a business partnership. Partnership in marriage, we believed, was like what our parents had: tired and worn, yet pulling together for a common goal; not always at their best with one another, but having it not matter; spending a whole evening together exchanging only a few words and that didn’t matter either.  Yes, they were comfortable partners and Biblically speaking they were  — more or less — equally yoked:  a team.   A team, we noticed, where one member sometimes pulled harder than the other, and then at other times it was the opposite member who pulled the load.

I always believed that our “Honeymoon” lasted longer than most couples we knew.  Even with the birth of our children we had our times of romance.  So, it would be difficult to say when during these past five-plus decades of togetherness we became a partnership, but partnership we became — without sacrificing the “us.”   However, I am certain that the younger generation has long-since viewed our marriage as old and tired and as comfortable as Ken and I once viewed the marriages of our parents.  What I have found most interesting during  these years of coping with Alzheimer’s is how much I miss the partnership. 

I had planned a trip to Washington state  in 2006 to attend the 50th anniversary celebration for long-time friends Julie and Bob.  The couple planned to renew their vows with me as the matron of honor, which I had been, and the best man planned to be in attendance as well.   I explained to Julie that we were planning on coming, but I had to make the decision on a daily basis depending on Ken’s condition.  Yet, I couldn’t wait until the last-minute to make reservations and route our trip. 

One evening I pulled up the Internet punched in motels for our stops and read what was offered.  Several looked good.  I asked Ken to sit with me and help decide where we would stay.  Together we had planned all of our previous vacations.  But with AD he had no idea what I was talking about especially viewing the screen and listening to the information I read to him; it all meant nothing.  I wanted his input — a discussion, to bounce ideas back and forth between one another, to hear what he liked or didn’t like — to help me choose.   He was incapable of helping and in the end, it didn’t matter.  The chosen motel was fine and the trip went well, but I missed my partner — my husband — my team member.

The motel decision wasn’t all that important, but it was an example of what was to come.  The responsibility of “us” is all mine; we are no longer equally yoked, much less a team, and our partnership is in name only.  Our roles have changed.  I am now the caregiver and he is the patient, and I care for him in much the same way as I would care for a child — a very difficult child — who at times is stubborn, explosive and unappreciative.  Although, every so often he is lucid enough to call me sweetheart.  If I’m fast and ask him for a hug, he complies, wrapping his arms around me as in days of old, and for a few moments we are “us.”  We are partners.

Originally posted 2009-08-04 06:20:20.

LITTLE DOG

She was a yappy little thing and had been leaving her calling cards on the lawn at our rental property.  I shooed her away and she ran off with her tail between her legs.  I felt bad because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but I didn’t want to clean up after her either.  “Do you know where the little dog lives?” asked one of the neighbors.  I told him I hadn’t seen her before and we both watched as she ran down the street seeming to know where she was going.

Before long we came to realize that she was either badly neglected, lost, abandoned when someone moved or dumped.  Over the next several weeks, I watched as she dodged cars, lapped her water from sprinkler puddles and licked what was left on carelessly tossed food papers.  “If I can catch her, I’ll keep her,” I told the neighbors who had also become sympathetic to the small stray, but no one could catch her.  She knew all the hiding places and all the escape routes in and out of the various yards.  She especially liked the back section of our rentals as most of our tenants were at work and she could spend the day sleeping under a bush with no disturbances — except for me and my helpers — and once we came into view she was gone.

Like Ken, I missed having a pet in the worst way and when old age and a stroke took the last of our beloved dogs, I decided that caring for Ken and our business was all I could manage, but I felt sorry for Little Dog.  So against my better judgement I borrowed an animal carrier from Sabina, my daughter-in-law, and set it near Little Dog’s favorite bush hoping if I put food and water inside she would become accustomed to a “cage” and make trapping her a possibility.  Sabina suggested that I cover the cage with a blanket to make it look like a “den.”  Water in a bowl was the first lure, but I carried a hand full of kibble.  Sure enough, the next day she was there, but viewed me with great suspicion.  I tossed the kibble from a distance, which she accepted.  However, as soon a I stepped forward she was gone.  I examined the cage with its “den” camouflage and decided Little Dog was no dummy.  She had pulled the blanket down and made herself a tidy bed, so I put it in the cage with more kibble and fresh water.   Apparently, she appreciated her new home.  Each day her bed was slept in and the kibble was gone.  After a week or so, if she was there, Little Dog  no longer raced off, often accepting my hand-held treats which she sniffed at until I gently tossed them in her direction.  Closer and closer she came until I could almost touch her, but if I reached out, off she ran.

She was almost like a feral cat and I wondered if there were feral dogs, but that made no sense; dogs liked companionship and people.  So what was her problem?   Perhaps I needed to rethink my intentions.  What if Little Dog was a tramp dog?  Supposing she was happy and wasn’t interested in being retrained?  Maybe she liked her carefree life, especially if she had a benefactor?   What if I trapped her, took her home, worked with her (when?) and Ken forgot, leaving the door open and she ran away?   What then?  Would I hunt her down and try it all again?

Meanwhile our daughter, Julie, called, “Mom, Can you watch our three dogs?  Tim and I would like to get away for a few days.”  It had been a while since her menagerie had come to stay, but I told her it would be all right.  One of their dogs was an escape artist so I knew I would have to be careful with Ken, making sure he never left the front door open; difficult, but manageable.  This would be a test.  If I could manage three dogs and Ken, I could manage Little Dog.

While in the past, Ken whistled at the back door for our dog to come, he wasn’t particularly interested in his three visitors.  Occasionally, he would reach down and pat one of them, but he wondered where they came from and why they were here.   His Alzheimer’s had removed the joyful camaraderie he had once shared with all dogs.  My thoughts these past years that, perhaps, a dog in our house would be good for him were no longer true.  The three canines were just objects to him, and I felt concern when they got excited.  It would be easy for Ken to trip and fall over one of them — if not all of them.   My decision those few years ago had been correct.  We were better off without a dog.  And Little Dog?  I went back to our rentals with kibble and a treat.   Her blanket had not been “nested,” and the kibble was scattered — probably cats.  She was gone.  No one had seen her.   I could have allowed my thoughts to drift to the worst case scenario, but I refused to go there.  Instead, I decided she had been lost, but now she is found.  In my heart, Little Dog was home.

Originally posted 2009-07-11 01:05:40.

THE GREAT ADVENTURE

My father in law, Nicholas Romick, immigrated to America when he was a fresh-faced boy of 15 arriving at Ellis Island in 1906. Coming into the harbor Nick stood at ship’s rail with other newcomers as the Statue of Liberty came into view, his young body filled with emotion: excitement — trepidation — he wasn’t sure.

 The awesome thing about his trip was that he came alone with only a pack on his back.  Fortified with a burning desire to “come to America,” he left Austria with blessings from his widower father and a loan of $50. to pay for the voyage which he promised to return. From the time he waved his last goodbye to family and friends on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and stepped onto the gangplank of an American-bound ship Nick was on his own.

Through the long process of immigration with thousands of other Europeans who poured through the Island’s gates, Nick was pushed along with the crowd exiting from just one of the many ferry boats onto the docks of New York City.  His last name had already been Americanized from Romic’ to Romich, the first of two changes. Furthermore, his only knowledge of English was, “Mr. Man, Give me job.” Fortunately, a kind farmer from upstate New York answered his plea and offered the boy work. For the next few years the industrious youth repaid his benefactor with an honest day’s labor for an honest dollar. He studied, taught himself English, saved the dollars, and then struck out to explore the new immense land.

Nick rode the rails in boxcars, worked in Detroit as a sand-hog and in the mines of Montana and Bingham Canyon. Always moving on, he continually looked beyond the next horizon. It wasn’t by chance that he found himself in Pueblo, Colorado where there was work at the steel mill. Still loving his new country he also missed the old world; the people, the customs and his first language. During his wanderings Nick had heard of a large Slovenian community in Pueblo and at 22 he thought it time to settle down.

New man on the job at the mill, Nick was befriended by the Perse brothers who invited the lonely man to their home for dinner. Other than the two older brothers, the offspring of Pete and Mary Perse numbered 14 in all, seven boys and seven girls. Comfortable in their midst, Nick couldn’t help but notice pretty little Rosie, still a child at 10.

Yet, adventure called once again, and Nick left his new-found friends joining the U. S. Marines, where Romich became Romick. Knowingly, the choice took him away from Colorado, but through his enlistment Nick earned his citizenship, something he knew he must have.  The Marines also opened up a whole new world of discipline to him, not only in obedience and following the rules of the Corps to the exact letter, but he was introduced to a new level of personal hygiene, something unfamiliar to him as a boy and traveling the country as a rugged and ragged hobo.

Six years later he returned again to visit the Perse family after serving in Guam and China where the Corps guarded the American Legation. Rose, 16, was no longer pretty little Rosie, but beautiful Rose.  She and Nick developed “an understanding” while he was on leave.  Returning to China for an additional two years the couple corresponded until his discharge.  Nick returned to Pueblo where Rose, at 18, was waiting.

They married in spite of the 12-year-age difference with the family’s blessings — everyone believing that Nick would pick up where he had left off — working at the steel mill. “You’re not going back to the mill,” Rose told her new husband, “We’re going to California.” 

Two years later in a small East Bay apartment the couple welcomed their first child, a girl, whom they named Loretta.  Nick worked at several odd jobs eventually finding permanent employment with Block Tannery in Berkeley.   With steady income the couple purchased a small frame house on 10th street also in Berkeley so Nick could walk to his job.  Kenneth was born two years later.  Nick remained with Block until his retirement, never losing one day’s work throughout the depression.

When I met Ken I also met his family. I found Nick’s stories fascinating and agreed with Bob, their neighbor, who advised Ken and Loretta to write down, or  record them in some way.   “Your father is a remarkable man, having lived a truly adventurous life,” Bob reminded the two.  “His experiences could fill a book.”  Young and foolish, they dismissed the advice complaining they had listened to their father’s tales all of their lives and if they didn’t hear them ever again, it would be too soon.

Years later, the editor of the magazine section of our local newspaper assigned me to write about an immigrant who came to America with a pack on his back. Search though we did, we found none — other than my father in law. In spite of the nepotism, Jerry said, “Do it.” I knew that Nick was forgetting the present, but hoped he would recall enough of his early life to make a good article. Through the years I heard most of Nick’s stories myself. Sitting together, I began my interview.  He was pleased that someone wanted to listen and spoke freely about China and his father and of his ocean voyage.  However, when I asked detailed questions about his homeland, upstate New York, Detroit, Montana, Bingham Canyon, his answer was always the same. With furrowed brow, he would say, “I don’t remember.”   The brief article of Nick’s life which spanned the better part of a century was the perfect size for the Sunday magazine. For the readers it was a good read, but for family it was only a portion.  The rest of the story, like my mother’s recipe for dinner rolls was gone — held captive within the Alzheimer’s prison of Nick’s padlocked brain.

Somehow, we believe that memory will last, sharp and clear, as long as life itself, and by some kind of self-imposed denial we also believe that life too will continue day after day just as it is now; that there will always be time to sit and listen to the legends of those who came before; that Alzheimer’s and other devastating brain diseases are something that happens to other people, but none of  that is true.  Loved ones pass on, time for doing runs out and for so many, memory is stolen away like a thief in the night leaving all to wish and wonder about the past, our own roots and remembering the hundreds of curious questions which now can never be asked remaining forever without answers.

Originally posted 2009-06-28 20:38:38.

CHOICES

When I was a little girl we lived in a fourth-floor flat located in the Noe Valley District of San Francisco.  On the corner, just down the street from our building, was “Dan’s,” a sparkling new soda fountain which served the best hamburgers and milk shakes in town, and ice cream — the likes of which we kids had never seen.  Long before Baskin had ever heard of Robbins “Dan’s” served at least eight flavors.  I had discovered maple nut, so for me there was no question as to what flavor I chose; three scoops of maple nut for a nickel.  Some of my little friends, though, had not settled on a favorite flavor and would wander back and forth in front of the counter changing their minds with every step.  Finally, the nice man in charge (it might even have been Dan himself) would say, “What would you like, vanilla or vanilla?”  “Vanilla,” was the immediate reply — problem solved.  Sometimes there are just too many choices.

Today, we’re confronted with even more choices.  Not only B & R with their 36 flavors of ice cream, but how many channels do we need on TV — and menus?  When Ken and I go out to eat, if only for a quick bite, he studies the menu board, or the menu, then hands it to me saying, “You can order.”  I know all of those choices are confusing to him, as they were to his mom and dad and my own mother, all three victims of Alzheimer’s.  So, as we did for them and as I now do for Ken, I order.  It’s like vanilla or vanilla.

At home, choosing has become almost problematic as  Ken’s AD continues its advance.  Perhaps it’s not so much the choosing, but forgetting that a choice has been made.  I had arranged his razor and shaving cream in a plastic glass, the comb and brush in another, and his toothbrush and toothpaste in a third.  With all three side by side on a shelf, it was easy for him to do his morning routine before taking a shower.  This method has been successful for the past several years, but not any more.  A shave and shower for a younger, healthier Ken was 10 minutes.  Now it stretches from 30 minutes up to an hour.

After a period of time I peek into the bathroom to see how he’s doing.  “Good,” I  say to me, “He’s shaving.”  Then he’s brushing his teeth; five minutes later he’s shaving again.  I worried one morning that he would injure his face after a third shave.  Had I intruded, suggesting he move on to the shower, he would have been furious.  Furthermore, during the day when he brushed his teeth, he felt he should shave again and wanted to shave before going to bed as well.  Shaving and brushing his teeth had become “one.”  For sure, I needed to rethink his entire routine.

Solution:  reduce the choices.  The comb and brush stayed, but as soon as he finished shaving, the razor and shaving cream vanished.  It was replaced with the toothbrush and toothpaste which remained all day until he went to bed, then the shaving gear went back on the shelf and the toothbrush and toothpaste vanished.  At times I see him searching for the missing “set,” but a change of subject brings him out of the bathroom or into the shower.  The new arrangement is working.

However, there are times when Ken makes decisions because he still has an understanding of what he wants and what he likes.  Planning on doing some yard work I laid out an older pair of jeans — mended and faded.  Dutifully, he put them on and was ready for breakfast, but before sitting down he returned to the bedroom.  Coming back to eat 10 minutes later he was wearing his good jeans.  The shabby pair ended up in the back of the closet.  Surprised, I had to laugh, and I felt good for him because he made a choice by himself.   In addition, when I ask what kind of ice cream he wants for dessert, chocolate or vanilla, he says without hesitation, “Chocolate.”

Originally posted 2009-06-28 07:15:33.

TREASURES FROM THE PAST

The age-old question prevails:  If you had to leave your home forever with only minutes to spare what would you take?  Important documents usually heads the list, then family photos and videos where a visual history of family exists.  And if you’re lucky, there will be a scramble for the written histories of generations past; histories that remind us who we are and where we came from.

My family has been blessed with some histories.  Unfortunately, they’re out of balance when it comes to male and female.  Women seem to be the historians rather than the men.  In two of my previous writings I brought to mind a tidbit about my mother in The Dinner Roll Recipe, and The Great Adventure a very condensed history of my father-in-law’s life.  While it’s easy to say Nick’s children should have written his story, it’s better to say Nick should have written his own story; at least he should have put down as much on paper as he could, and early on, which would have allowed  someone to help him fill in the blanks.  That’s what my grandmother did with her own mother’s story, which Grandma titled, “She Came Alone.”

Helena left Sweden as a young single woman of 25 during the early 1860s to come to America because of her newly found religion.  Arriving in New York, she took the train to Nebraska, joined a handcart company sponsored by her church and walked to Utah where she later married and reared a family.  While pregnant with her eighth child, Helena became widowed.  That child, Sarah, was my grandmother.

Sarah later wrote her mother’s history as well as her own.  Certainly, we became acquainted with the husbands as they were part of the story, but how much richer the men’s history would have been had they written it themselves, or at least added their input.   Sarah’s father-in-law did write a portion of his history covering bits and pieces of his boyhood in Sweden and Denmark and his church missionary service.  Sadly, we know nothing of where he met his wife, their immigration to America or their married life together.

My own mother, bless her heart, wrote her and my father’s history several years before she developed Alzheimer’s.  How grateful I am that I have her handwritten manuscript, but again I have little of my father’s early years.   “Where was I?” I now ask myself.  My sister sat him down one day with a tape recorder to capture his story.  No doubt uncomfortable with the machine running, my sister ended up with, “I was born, I grew up and got married, had three daughters, and now I’m retired,” kind of interview.  The tape ran 10 minutes, if that.   Better to hide the device and begin a casual conversation if you want the past to come forward.  Some people become very shy when confronted with a recorder.

Whatever inspired Alex Haley to write “Roots,” I can only wonder.  His search must have become almost addictive for him to overcome all of the obstacles in his way, and then to finally find what he felt was a recognized beginning for his family; how extraordinarily rewarded he must have felt.  Possibly no other book has so stirred the excitement of family history research as “Roots,” and subsequently the TV mini series which was watched by millions.

So what does this have to do with living with Alzheimer’s?  The number of victims is growing at an alarming rate and no one knows when memories will be — just gone.  So video, tape, dictate or write about your life, or other members of your family, and include in it corresponding world and local events.  Who knows, perhaps years from now one of your progeny might do some rewriting and make your story a historical best seller.

Originally posted 2009-06-19 05:22:22.

Sign-up For Our Newsletter

Sign-up for our free newsletter and receive expert tips from Ann Romick, a woman who has cared for 4 different family members with Alzheimer's over a span of 30 years. Be the first to get notification of her forthcoming book, Journey Into the Fog, based on her experiences.

We respect your email privacy

Email Marketing by AWeber