Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Mom and I watched part of the closing ceremonies of the Olympics tonight. While most people were tallying who won the most medals, who made the biggest triumph or overcame the biggest hardship, ours ended just as they began -- with a focus on hats.
From the moment the games began My Mom's been mesmerized by the knit ski hats, particularly if they have a tassel on top. In her opinion, Canada took the Gold, US with the Ralph Lauren offering a Silver. No other country displayed visible tassels or poms, disqualifying them from the competition.
I thought it was a novelty that first night, but I left for a 6-day trip to Florida and found her just as enamoured upon my return. We were watching some type of an Alpine event last Saturday, they panned the crowd and out of the blue she perked up, "there it is!" she said. I was dumbfounded. There was what? The network had taken a break from the action. What could she have seen? I rewound and in an instant knew just what she spotted -- a grey knit hat with a giant tassel on top perched on the head of a spectator. There were 12,000 people on the hill at Whistler. She spotted the one wearing her hat.

Now, let's review her condition. Next month makes two full years of living here. Every single night she's gone to bed and every single morning she's woken up in the exact same room. Not once has she found her way into the room or back out on her own. Only fifty percent of the time does she even know I'm her daughter. Just when it seems like a lost cause, enter wardrobe. Clothes seem to dress up the situation. A new outfit, or even a small accessory like a hat, can hide the distressing signs of her Alzheimer's disease like a good black sweater can hide a few extra pounds.
My Mom's always been a clothes horse. She was a career woman who married late in life. She liked to shop and being single, could afford to buy the best. Most of her labels came from Saks. My cousins tell me of how they used to go to Aunt Wyn's to borrow clothes, especially for fancy dances. I borrowed her clothes myself when I reached high school.
Now that I think about it, the day my Dad died I took my Mom shopping to distract her from the tragedy. It was March and the department store had 80-percent off all winter merchandise. We left with two armfuls of big name bargains. I felt rotten to be shopping when we should have been grieving, but honestly, they were good deals. (Like mother, like daughter... enough said.)
Alzheimer's seems to worsen during times of stress, so My Mom has deteriorated mentally quite a bit just in the wake of my Dad's death and subsequent move to Michigan. In other words, she's no longer into brand names, but she she still knows what styles work for her. She loves anything in black and white.
For the most part I accept her decline, it's not like there are a lot of choices. But I haven't gotten into researching the disease or worried about splitting the hairs over strict definitions of whether she falls into dementia or Alzheimer's. For the record, my new line is -- "No one knows how to define the disease. Her doctor classifies her condition as 'dementia as a result of Alzheimer's' which covers both," so if pushed, that's my answer. If forced to explain the disease, it's supposed to kill off brain cells, right? But that's where they lose me... does it?
She got a gorgeous black and white sweater last year at Talbot's. The next morning, eyes still closed, lying in bed she uttered "Is my new sweater still hanging on the door handle?" through a groggy haze. Now come on! Seriously, she was still half asleep. Even if she had taken a peek around the room, her eye sight wouldn't have been good enough to see the sweater hanging way over by the door. She remembered the sweater.
She's completely accepted that she can no longer wear heels, but she's become incredibly proud of her new white tennis shoes. "Those are mine," she says like Rain Man every time she sees them. I have to hide them at night or I'll find her in bed in the morning with the shoes on! You've already read about her attachment to the white slippers. So... you get the point. Her mind fails her in many ways, but when it comes to fashion, there's still a pulse. And it's pretty strong.
She's remained as dedicated to that knit hat for the past two weeks as an Olympian training in pursuit of a medal. I decided she earned a reward for maintaining this mental stamina and went on line yesterday to buy her a knit hat with a giant pom on top. Sadly, at the end of the season, I found pickings slim. But, like any good Olympian, My Mom has overcome this seemingly enormous obstacle. During a late night trip to the grocery store last night she spotted a super grunge guy wearing the very hat she wanted. She peeled away from me at paper towel and bee lined that grocery cart right to where he stood buying 32 ounce cups for beer pong to oogle over his lid. She looked past his tattoos, past the hoop ring protruding from his lip and another dangling from his eyebrow, gazing straight up to the white knit hat with a giant pom sitting on his head. "Where'd you get it?" she beamed. Luckily, he was a good kid and not only treated her with respect, but as if she were serious. He told her the name of the snow boarding store where he bought it and even gave her directions on how to get there. She listened as if she'd be heading over there first thing in the morning.
Luckily he didn't catch on that she was trying to get him to give it to her. Can you only imagine where that hat has been? But she tried, once again proving that like an Olympic torch, she's got a light that doesn't completely extinguish in that brain of hers. Some day soon she'll have a new hat to keep it warm. I just hope after all this effort she wears it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Do Conversations Really Need to be Meaningful to be Meaningful???

So, it goes without say, My Mom is full of a lot of nonsense. Some days more than others. She can carry on even lengthy nonsensical conversations. At first, being a true Mom to My Mom, I'd try to steer her toward sanity, lately I find myself engaging full bore in completely meaningless conversations with her. Honestly, most of the time I'm finding them quite fun.

This week while watching the Olympics I said I wondered how ski jumpers learn the sport. What does it take to learn how to soar 140-meters through the air, I wondered, merely contemplating aloud. I didn't really expect My Mom to answer, but she did. "Oh," she said quite confidently, "you just go to the store. They show you how. (pause) You could do it." (as in "even you could do it.") For a moment I thought about calling her bluff, then decided to see where this would go. "You think I could?" I asked.
"Sure," she said, her tone very believable. "I did it. In fact, I was going to go to the Olympics."
"Really..." I say, trying not to crack a smile as I pictured Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies catapulting through the air. "Were you good enough?" She hops on that comment and confirms emphatically that she was quite good, for a while, but then confesses she hasn't ski jumped in a long time. (Or how 'bout never, I thought to myself.)
"Why did you give it up?" I ask. "Well, it was a lot of work, and there were just too many men," she says exasperated. I know she's half recollecting her days of golf back in the 1950's and early 60's when few women played the sport. She met my Dad on a golf course at a singles mixer. But the ski half of her story -- pure bologna.

This summer she told people she rode horses. She even recalled having a pony as a young girl. This is the same woman that couldn't go within a mile of animals at the state fair when we were young because the smell made her sick. She knows just about every famous person on TV. She met Hilary Clinton at "the nice stores at the mall". She's been to virtually every city you could mention, seen every play and recently an obscure opera being advertised on PBS. Oh, and she made her quilt. The one that says "made in China." Since the day she got it, she repeats the detailed story of how she cut every square and stitched every panel. I comment on how perfect the stitching is, as if it's store made and she gives me a dramatic and worn out look. "If you only knew how long it took..."

I used to be appalled and, of course, frustrated at the tall tales. Any one would. It's embarrassing when people who don't know her listen in -- it's frustrating to have a know it all, seen it all, met them all roommate. Yesterday she commented on the milk being delicious before even taking a sip as if she personally milked the cow. The behavior that I found funny for a few months when I first took this job began to wear on me, until I read "The 36 Hour Day," which led to a great epiphany. The author gave caregivers permission to mislead patients when necessary, such as saying you're "going to lunch" as opposed to "going to the doctors." What harm is there in making them think they're going to a pleasant activity? the book said. There's no benefit in creating angst for the entire duration of the trip. Wait until you arrive in the parking lot, then announce that you're at the doctor. Hhmmm, I thought. Makes sense. My Mom asks where we're going every three to four minutes during an entire outing anyway. It really does no good to tell her ahead of time.

So if that's the case, what's the harm with the reverse? My Mom not only likes tall tales, she loves to play make believe, regularly acting out a wide variety of characters from a little girl to monsters. I now consider her antics "story time" and it's really enhanced our interactions. I'm more inclined to hang in there and listen to her -- as if she's telling a story -- and she's thrilled with an audience. (even an audience of one.) The conversations, however off beat, are forging a stronger relationship between us once again, taking us out of the caregiving scenario rut.
The stuff she concocts is really quite funny. Just now at dinner she was wielding a giraffe pencil with an animal face eraser on top. "That's an eraser," she started out fairly sane. A few moments passed and she banged the giraffe's head on the table like a gavel. "Now you better listen to me," she said in her deepest commanding voice. She knows she's pretending. She's become some kind of ruler, banging some type of a club. I try to throw her off by being nobody's servant. "Do you really think you can be the boss of me?" I ask her. She laughs, then launches into complete gibberish -- I think making a case about why I should listen to her. The logic and words so far gone it's not even fun anymore.
I redirect. "Let's make it a wand," I suggest. "Like this?" she asks creating swoopy magical circles in the air -- a better depiction than I would have imagined. "Yes," I say enthusiastically. "How about making me a princess and finding me a prince?" I ask with enthusiasm. She laughed again. "Now you know that could never happen."
How about that? I embrace her fantasy land and she gives me a giant reality check. I guess I'm stuck kissing frogs.

The Artist...

I'm laying on the couch right now watching the new Picasso -- My Mom -- at work. She's pioneering a new blending technique, using big sweeping motions on a canvas to create just the right affect for her latest creation. From a distance she looks masterful by any one's account. Up close you'll find the technique involves a 4-year-old's coloring book, Crayola Crayons and an old fashioned rectangle pink eraser. Probably like any artist's discovery, the method began as she tried to fix a mistake on the page, then she realized she might be on to something creative. She's been finessing the skill for days.

I think back to six months ago when coloring was still considered childish by My Mom. I'm not certain of what brought the change of attitude (maybe she felt left out when one of her caregivers and I decided we'd have fun with the coloring books if she didn't...). Whatever the breakthrough, she's cleared past any misgivings over the activity and launched quite passionately into this new hobby. Complete with attitude. I had to include a photo of the artist at work -- just look at the pose. You'd think she grew up in some Bohemian commune, not a strict Scottish-Catholic family in Detroit. I love the one leg up and one leg down stance. And, yes, those are the infamous slippers adorning Mom-Mozart's feet. She attacks the work with full gusto too, working the crayon across the page with precision -- a steady back and forth motion to cover large areas, small deliberate strokes for edging. Technique nothing shy of impressive.

I would include reproductions of some of her "works", but sadly, that would be demeaning. She's definitely creating brilliant images in her own mind, but not yet on paper. Having said that, her progress is honestly extraordinary.

I bought the coloring books after reading an article that said studies show creative hobbies help Alzheimer's patients. They featured a man that despite a failing mind, still remained phenomenal at photography and a woman who could no longer speak, but could still paint. The subjects in the story were artsy in their past. My Mom, I'm pretty sure, like me, couldn't draw a straight line, meaning even stick figures were out of our reach.

I still thought at the very least maybe there'd be something soothing about coloring and quite frankly I had to find something to divert her from continuously reading junk mail. I never thought she'd take to coloring like a duck to water and I never thought she'd actually improve once she started.

But, improve she has. Quite a bit actually. Her advancements may only be from erratically coloring the entire page green with no relation to the pictures, to staying in the lines, using multiple colors and concocting this crazy new breed of blending crayon strokes, but how cool to see her actually excel at something at this stage of her life instead of always mentally and physically declining. Sure, the artwork may only be brilliant in her own mind, but seeing my Mom progress at anything at these days makes every page feel like a masterpiece.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Vitamin D Effect???

Can you believe since I posted that self incriminating entry about shaking My Mom out of bed, we've had almost no bad mornings? Go figure.
I'm wondering if I can credit Vitamin D3...
I started taking the vitamin this winter to fight off the so-called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or at least being chronically tired and not in the mood to do much of anything. As I researched the benefits, a few articles said the vitamin also helped Alzheimer's and Autism. So... yes, I tried giving 2,000 iu's to My Mom. I figured if anything, a vitamin can't hurt. Ever since she's been remarkably social and much more connected with the world around her.
She'll actually engage you in a conversation. Now, the conversation won't be particularly meaningful, but at least she prompted the chat. That's new. She's just more engaged in everything around her.
I know I can't say for certain this is what's helping, but I at least want everyone to know it might.