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Alzheimer’s affect every family differently

Q. Is there a time in caring for an Alzheimer’s patient when you must surrender your patient to professional caregivers, even though the person is a husband or wife?

A. Just as no two Alzheimer’s patients are alike, so too is it fact that caregivers perform very differently. Some few will not answer the call to serve, while the majority-wives and husbands, sisters, brothers and adult children-work through this life crisis, often sacrificing career-time, money and even their health.

Stories of considerable sacrifice regularly arrive here. Allow me to share one, from an Illinois widower who today is haunted by his wife’s last days. After describing her as “a great lady … and lots of fun,” he writes: “The Lord took her, leaving me with an Alzheimer’s body.”

“She could not see nor hear,” he continues. “Neither could she dress herself, feed herself and, what was hardest for me, didn’t know when she had to go to the bathroom.”

Now, these marriage partners grew up long before the sexual revolution. In their youth, mothers left a porch light on so daughters could find their way home, and “necking” was considered daring. “I had never been that intimate with my wife,” this widower says. “I didn’t know how to approach her (to undress her). Still, you do what you have to do.”

The stoical male caregiver held to fixed routines, somehow managing “one day at a time.” In the end, however, incurable Alzheimer’s disease won the struggle. It always does, even though it sometimes requires eight, 10 or more years, as diseased brain sections degenerate.

“One Saturday morning, when I got her out of bed she simply could not stand,” says our caregiver. “Hour after hour I agonized. Toward evening, I telephoned a nursing home for advanced Alzheimer’s patients and they told me to bring her in.”

Six weeks later, death claimed this inert, now helpless patient-leaving the widower to second-guess his surrender to the inevitable. She died on a Sunday, he remembers, and he had failed to visit her.

“It was never a chore taking care of my wife,” he says today. “I loved that lady.” But the visits to the home, he remembers as torture. “First, I’d wheel her into a small living room, where we could be alone. I’d get down on my knees,” he says, “and put my head in her lap. Then I’d cry; no I wept. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I’d go back home…alone!”

Psychotherapist Lois Morton, of Long Island, N.Y., was caregiver to her late husband, Dr. Henry B. Morton, for 10 years. She describes the experience in a journal for caregivers, referring to phases. She labels the next-to-final phase, “Transformation-We to Me.”

“People still saw me as part of a couple,” she begins. “They didn’t see me, only us. But there was no us. A role that defined me was gone; yet the new part of me was not seen.

“In this We to Me time it seemed as though the ground had fallen out from under me…"

Finally, no one can tell a caregiver precisely how to shepherd his or her Alzheimer’s patient along what some call the long goodbye. Perhaps the only useful counsel comes in two parts: 1) seek help; lots of it. 2) Join a support group, for both your sakes.

Prime Notes

  • The Census Bureau says 1,388 persons in the United States are older than 110. About 50,000 of us are 100-plus.
  • A Cuban man boasts of being 124 but has no documents to prove his alleged age. Note: The Gerontology Research Group maintains no one lives beyond 114.
  • Speaking of aging, critic Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times likes Glenn Close, new star of “The Shield,” the gritty cop TV series now in its fourth season on FX network. She calls Close, who turned 58 on March 19, “chillingly compelling.”
  • Stoic Jack Nicklaus, 65, played through his pain at a charity golf tournament one week after a grandson, Jake Walter Nicklaus, 17 months, accidentally drowned in the family hot tub. Note to grandparents and parents: The wisest course is to make your grandkids “waterproof,” teach them to float, doggie-paddle, then swim, as soon as possible. I wrote too many stories on infant drownings when I was with the Miami Herald years ago.
  • Time magazine remembered that onetime actress Teresa Wright - she died recently at age 86 - was fired by her studio for refusing to pose in a bathing suit. Imagine.
  • “In the family sandwich, the older people and the younger ones can recognize one another as the bread. Those in the middle are, for a time, the meat.” Author Anna Quindlen wrote this about her late grandparents
  • What’s wrong with this picture? Liz Smith, 82, earns more than a $1 million a year writing gossip columns. Most free-lance writers can’t earn a decent living. Aside: Before she became the gossip doyen, Smith was a fine magazine writer.
  • Here’s a worthwhile contribution from 90-year-old reader George Sturman of San Diego: “Life is a concert/ Full of song and dissonance,/ Without a program.”