This week I started wearing the monovision contact lens that I got three years ago. This is the lens that you wear in one eye to correct for reading while leaving the other eye free to focus on things in the distance.
I tried this lens years ago but found it unacceptable. Everything was at once blurry and sharp, and I couldn’t tolerate the tiniest bit of blur in my vision.
I realized it was a mental adjustment—I would have to learn to choose the sharpness of one eye over the blurriness of the other at any distance until all I saw was sharpness. But I was impatient and gave up on the adjustment period, resorting instead to donning and doffing reading glasses when in need.
Now my close-up vision has gotten so bad that when I tried the monovision lens this time, my mind was quite happy to accept the gift of semi-sharpness without the need to scout around for glasses. It took a very short time, in fact, for my brain to adjust and see all things in focus at all distances.
Remarkable how the brain can do that.
I learned a similar lesson in life with the attitude of gratitude. I was going through a very stressful, heart-rending period when nothing seemed to be “working” for me. One day I plopped down on the floor and began to say “thank you” for every part of my life. It was a turning point in my stress level. I began to see not problems but challenges; not curses but blessings. And what a difference it made!
Alzheimer’s and other devastating diseases, I’m noticing, can be lenses that change the way we see life; they change what we think is important; they bring into focal clarity the gift of family, friends, community, connection. I’m amazed as I surf the blogs written by sufferers and caregivers to see the softness that takes over when anger ends. I’m amazed, for example, with Michael J. Fox’s attitude toward his Parkinson’s, calling it a “liberating” gift. I’m touched by the may bloggers who share of the immense struggle of caregiving and the eventual gratitude it produces in them.
It’s always a choice the person makes to see disease differently. Or rather, to see the value of the person despite the disease.
In this season of Thanksgiving, it is good to see the change that Alzheimer’s and other diseases have brought to our self-centered culture.
So, thank you to all of you who write and share of your struggles, forming a new community that chooses to rise above bitterness and embrace even the bleakest, darkest days of life for the goodness they produce.
The Gift of Alzheimer’s
This week I started wearing the monovision contact lens that I got three years ago. This is the lens that you wear in one eye to correct for reading while leaving the other eye free to focus on things in the distance.
The other night I watched the movie Limitless. I thought it was a typical heart-pounding thriller with a touch of fantasy—in this case about a guy who discovers a drug that turns him into a genius. I thought the plot was moving toward the inevitable crash he would suffer when his supply ran out (as happened to everyone else in the movie whose supply ran out).
Then came the twist at the very end that made me laugh out loud. OMG, what Pretty Woman was to prostitutes, Limitless is to drug addicts and the whole drug industry.
If you’re smart enough, it says, you can make the perfect brain drug; you can take the last dose of the perfect drug to a lab and figure out how to reverse engineer and reproduce it; and you can figure out how to tweak it downwards in a perfectly safe manner (all within very short time periods); then you can wean yourself from a phenomenally addictive drug; and finally, you can train your brain to retain all the benefits of said drug once you have weaned yourself off it.
HA HA HA HA HA.
I think the whole problem I have with the drug industry is that, except in this extreme pharmacofantasy, it is additive rather than subtractive. You add one drug to treat a condition, then you add another to deal with the side effects of the first drug, then you add an nth drug to deal with the side effects of the combination of all the previous drugs.
Why not start with subtraction?
What are we injesting that we should cut out? Sugar? Preservatives? Smoke? Alcohol? Pesticides?
How often/much are we eating that we should cut back? Are we inhibiting certain enzymes—such as the anti-aging SIRT1—that only activate during fasting hours?
Maybe less is more?
Let’s start by removing the offending substances first, because once you start adding, it’s not you who benefit. It’s the industry that initially did have your brain in mind but now needs you to need them more and more.
How much time is enough time? We know we are mortals and we know life is but a breath. In light of eternity, we calculate that 100 years passes as quickly as twenty. Yet, given anything less than 100, and we say we’ve been “cut off.”
My big, strapping brother-in-law lays in the hospital right now, fighting for each new minute after a two-year battle with brain cancer. He is tired, and he is ready to rest. We would prefer the doctors find a cure and make him bounce back, but we want to let him go.
Throughout this whole battle, Ken’s mind worked around his brain to bring humor and gratitude to his situation. He firmly believes God’s purposes can be worked through the worst tragedies, and it is amazing to hear how his concerns were always for the eternal perspective he could bring to the waiting room, the surgery room, the recovery room.
Ken’s life may be cut short in our view, but it has been a life well-lived, and that’s more than a lot folks can say. Socrates said that an unexamined life is not worth living; an anonymous person added that an unlived life is not worth examining. I can vouch for Ken that he’s had a life worth examining.
April 26, a.m.: Ken had a brain hemorrage last night and is on life support. Awaiting a family gathering to let him go.
April 26, 7 p.m. Goodbye Kenny. From someone who was present at his bedside: ” just wanted to write and let you know that Ken’s passing was beautiful in the midst of family and hymns and Scripture. The more that Daniel read and Ruth recited the easier his respirations…and soon he just passed on.”
We already miss your booming laugh, your exhuberant living, and your unwavering faith. Save us a place at the banquet table, and we’ll see you in the morning.
This weekend I picked up and devoured Dr. Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—a fascinating collection of clinical tales of neurological aberrations accompanied by philosophical and social observations regarding the people affected by these aberrations.
One of the first things that hit me as I read these tales was remorse over my inadequate caregiving of Dad in the past three years. I mean, the very first case in the book reminded me very much of Dad—his inability to tell the difference between his foot and his shoe; to interpret a picture or the furniture layout of any room; to distinguish between his body and a chair across the room. But whereas Dr. Sacks’ response to these aberrations was fascination, interest, and kindness, mine was a struggle against exasperation, irritability, and impatience.
Why couldn’t I marvel at (instead shake my head at) Dad’s description of his back pain as an imaginary horizontal tube about a foot in front of his abdomen? Why did I only nod in shame when doctors asked, “Is your father’s mentation… always… this… shot?” instead of pushing the observation beyond the superficial to the interesting? If I’d only read this book or studied neurology before taking care of Dad! I feel like a parent looking back on her inadequate parenting skills and feeling remorse over the damage it may have caused.
Dr. Sacks laments the tendency of neurology to focus on “deficits,” leaving the soul out of the doctor’s concern. This echoed my own feelings expressed in the post Regarding Disabilities and Questionnaires. We are so concerned in medicine and social services to define what’s wrong with the patient that we miss seeing the desperate starvation in front of our eyes: the individual’s need for affirmation—for having someone notice what’s right with them. Thus, the simplest of all medicines or disability benefits is left completely out of the picture in professional delineation of care: making use of what’s left of the damaged self to make positive human connections.
From his chapter, “The President’s Speech,” I learned one way to use what’s left of Mom’s mind to connect more effectively with her. Like the patients in the aphasiac ward, Mom too has lost all language while retaining extraordinary function in the area of intonation, body language, inflection, and facial expression. I’ve always sensed that she could “read our body language.” Dr. Sacks’ confirmation of this ability has made me more aware of how I use those meta-verbal cues in communicating with Mom. The smile I get in response is more valuable than any drug-induced ability to tell what date it is.
One of the most fascinating passages in Dr. Sack’s book tells of a man with Tourett’s who, when given Haldol in the smallest of doses, ceased to exhibit the excesses of Tourett’s and became disastrously dulled—both physically and mentally—causing him as much distress as had his Tourett’s dysfunction. It took three months of counseling and “preparation for healing” before the man was again willing to try a tiny dose of Haldol. As Dr. Sacks put it, “The effects of Haldol here were miraculous—but only became so when a miracle was allowed.” Scandalous! Was Dr. Sacks milking the placebo effect for all its worth? I’ve always wondered why doctors don’t deliberately incorporate the placebo effect into the real medication to multiply its effect. Now I know: some do (what’s wrong with spending three months preparing a patient for healing?).
It’s easy to see why Dr. Sacks is considered an exentric. His methods go beyond the cut and dry. They touch the soul. I think I like this.
The topic of fasting and Alzheimer’s has been on my mind lately because, well, Alzheimer’s is always on my mind and because recently a friend of mine got on this diet where you’re supposed to eat six small meals a day to trick your body into not storing fat.
Since intermittent fasting has been shown to slow body and brain aging, I wonder (the fat part aside) what this continual eating is doing to the brain.
From Psychology Today (2003):
It has been known for years that sharply restricting the calorie intake of laboratory animals increases their life span. But a new study by researchers from the National Institute on Aging found
So, the music itself was great. Plus, Greg was a gem of an entertainer, weaving funny little stories throughout his performance, making us laugh and shout out responses. Very audience-attentive.
Which brings me to the point of this post.
See, when Greg first came out on the stage, he sat in front of a rickety old pump organ that was set up next to his keyboard (just two of about sixty eight instruments he played that night). And he told us the story of how he went out to buy a computer that day and ended up buying this antique organ instead. A 1911 organ to be precise.
Now, the whole time he was relating his organ-acquisition saga, I was thinking of Mom, because this was the exact kind of organ that Mom played in church down in Brazil for many years. And I was picturing Sunday afternoons when Mom would fold up the organ (or have one of us kids do it), hoist it into the van and drive it to one of the favelas around town for a Bible club. I pictured snotty little kids running to the van, touching the organ as it was set up, and singing their lungs out at the sound of Mom’s squeaky playing.
At the end of his story, Greg paused, looked at the organ, and said, “I’ll have to name her.”
Well. It didn’t take two seconds for me to think of the perfect name for that organ. So I shouted out “Ruth!”
And it didn’t take Greg two seconds to feel it in his bones that the name fit. He chuckled, muttered something about my timid voice (I thought I’d shouted), and agreed that the organ should be named Ruth.
It made my day. Made my niece’s day, cuz now her Greg Laswell has an organ named after her grandmother (hmm. Is there any good way to reword that sentence?).
But this story means even more to me for the irony in it. You see, Greg sings a lot about trying to forget. Trying to forget a love. Trying to forget the pain of a lost love. And here he is now, lugging around a little pump organ whose namesake–Ruth–wants more than anything else in the world to remember. Too weird. One is cursed by memory, the other by the loss of it.
Anyway. I have to thank Greg for a fun night that will only grow in significance as I retell this story.
And you have to keep an eye out for Greg. In case, you know, he turns out to be somebody. Like Ruth.
More on the brain’s default network:
The default network in the brain is considered a “second brain” because it turns on when the rest of the brain is at rest, and turns off when the rest of the brain is at work. Normally, that is. As people age, the default network is less and less capable of shutting down when the mind is concentrating on some difficult cognitive task as it would do in a younger adult’s brain. Since the default network uses 30% more resources than the rest of the brain, you can see how the resources available for cognitively challenging tasks decreases as we age.
In Alzheimer’s, you get the extreme case of this aging effect: the default network doesn’t shut down at all when it’s supposed to (same as in Schizophrenia–which is probably why they use antipsychotic drugs meant for Schizophrenia in Alzheimer’s patients) until that part of the brain eventually dies.
The default network is not very developed in children. It gets more active as we grow into adulthood. That makes me wonder if language is the software that runs the default network. Think about it: the default network is the part of the brain that sorts, categorizes, and edits/deletes memories, and language is the software that sorts, categorizes, and edits/deletes meaning. With language also comes prejudice, and prejudice does not exist in the very young. Also, in Alzheimer’s the default network eventually atrophies, and language ceases (just further argument that the default network is inextricably tied to language).
All of which brings me to the point of this post. Last week there were articles all over the news saying that having more than one language guards you against the worst of Alzheimer’s. Mom spoke four languages and fell prey to Alzheimer’s in her sixties–with no family history of early Alzheimer’s. Dad spoke three
Here’s what happened: I’m not a “from scratch” web coder, so I installed what’s called a “theme” for my niece’s website and used it as a springboard to create a look that would capture her life and style.
A lot of work goes into designing the look of a website, but it has to pale in comparison to all the work that goes into creating themes, or “platforms” on which creative designs are based. By the time I get my hands on designing a website, all the hard prep work has been done, and I’m presented with a lovely spring board that allows me to jump and flip and fly wherever my creative juices lead.
Memory can be wonderful and cruel all at once.
It’s been almost a year since Dad died, and I’ve discovered that it takes a year to fully recover from the exhaustion of caregiving. It takes a year to recover fully enough to crave the chance to do it a second time over—to do it right this time.
Last Thursday was one of those gorgeous days that make your spirit soar. It was just warm enough, just breezy enough, just relaxing enough, just full enough of good plans that I wanted Dad here to enjoy it with us. I was in the middle of a supermarket parking lot when that thought came to me, and it was the beginning of a four-day breakdown.
Why can’t I be given a second chance? I’ve got all my energy back now, and I swear if I’m allowed, I’ll show Daddy all the tenderness that I had no time or energy to give him before. Why did he have to die before I recovered my ability to love him?
It was a catch-22 I battled with all weekend.
That Thursday evening I drove over the mountains to attend the licensing of a young preacher. I took advantage of the lonesome drive to listen to a book on tape my niece lent me. The title was “My Life in the Middle Ages.” It was supposed to be funny. Turns out the first two CDs were all about this guy’s father’s declining months. It was about death; about tying up all those messy loose ends.
Of course I bawled my way through that. When I couldn’t take it anymore—when I thought I’d better get my face in shape for the licensing ceremony—I popped in an Ingrid Michaelson CD. Quirky, upbeat Ingrid. Problem is, I’d never really listened to some of those songs before. About the fifth song on the CD is about the inevitability of death. “We are all snowmen, and we’re going to melt one day.”
The same message is being pounded into me over and over.
We’re all snowmen, and were are going to melt one day. It’s the norm. It’s not a devastating tragedy.
But the point of it? The point of living and dying and leaving others behind to bawls their eyes out?
Here I was, the daughter of a preacher, going to the licensing ceremony of a young, vibrant, new preacher, and I wasn’t getting it.
The point of living and dying, it slowly sunk in, is to pass on the baton. The best thing we can do is to spend ourselves living, then die and offer the lessons of our lives as rich mulch for the next generation.
It made me think of all the lessons I absorbed from Dad’s life. Like:
– Nature is awesome
– Don’t spend what you don’t have
– Prayer changes things
– God is gentle
– Invest in people on the fringe of society; they’re the ones who will remember you
It was a good weekend to mourn and know that there is good in all of this.
From now on, when mourning strikes, I will try to add to the list of lessons learned.
And I will think about how my life will have an impact after I—like all of us will—eventually melt.
Like the title of this blog says, there are things to be learned from all kinds of dementias. Here is a particularly astounding thing to learn: severe autism does not necessarily mean the sufferer is mentally retarded. This video will shock you into looking beyond the outward appearance of those who cannot communicate and into the soul.
Sometimes I wonder how much like this girl my mother is. How much does she really know about what’s going on around her?
Yesterday I asked my sister—who is visiting from abroad—what signs of Alzheimer’s she sees in herself. She rattled off some memory problems such as forgetting names of acquaintances or not being able to place someone’s face when out of context. Nothing particularly Alzheimersy, just decreased mental sharpness.
She then asked me if I was experiencing any unusual mental hyperabilities and went on to explain how she seems to have gained a fantastic ability to call up words she didn’t even know she knew.
Funny, I told her. I had this post saved as a draft when she asked me the question. The answer is yes, I’m experiencing this very same thing, and am curious to know if there is a name for it.
Is there such a thing as hyperphasia—the flip side of aphasia? The term hyperphasia exists, and it’s defined as an uncontrolled impulse to talk. But that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m referring to the mind’s sudden ability to pull up obscure words when common words won’t present themselves. Words so obscure that we had no idea we knew them.
I’m well acquainted with aphasia—the “tip of the tongue but it just won’t come” nature of language loss. I’m also familiar with another embarrassing result of gradual mental decline: the mind’s tendency to call up words similar in shape, but wholly different in meaning from the one the user wants. Try Googling “fairy schedule” next time you want to cross the Puget Sound to see what I mean.
But what is it called when the mind calls up unknown words that perfectly fit the context they were intended for? Does neurology study mental surfeits as well as deficits?
I told my sister that I’ve had arguments in my head over this new ability. One night, for example, I went to bed, and as I lay my head on the pillow a picture of our living room doorway came to mind, and with it the word “transom.” I immediately questioned myself:
“Transom? What’s that?”
“It’s the big piece that spans the top of the doorway, dummy.”
“How’d you know that?”
“I don’t know. I just know that it is.”
“You’re probably thinking of Hansom. And I think that’s a horse carriage, not a doorway.”
“No, I know hansom is a carriage. Transom is the door thingy.”
With that, I got out of bed and looked the word up in the dictionary: a horizontal crossbar in a window, over a door, or between a door and a window or fanlight above it
“OK, you were right.”
My sister laughed and said, yes, that’s exactly what goes through her brain.
So my question is, what is this newly acquired hyper-phasia called? And is it common to everyone as their minds begin to deteriorate?
It's just one doctor after another these days…
We barely got to the clinic and we were both already exhausted: Dad from getting dressed, fed, squeezed into a jacket, compressed into the car, ejected from the car, and hung in a wheelchair. Me from doing all that to him without the cooperation of his muscles. We didn’t even want to go into the clinic. I told Dad that what we should do is write a children's book about aging and how fun it is. Dad laughed. I said we could describe how you get to ride around in a cool scooter—even inside the house. And how you get to have cool leopard print all over your skin without paying a cent for it. And how if you get skin cancer on your ear, you have to have a chunk cut off (like Dad) and then you can fit right in with the folks at Rivendell or Lothlorien.
I really see some potential there.
Might as well take this big old lemon and make lemonade.
(P.S. If you have any more ideas for the book, let me know)
Funny how that commercial for Pristiq antidepressant gets it wrong. The last thing in the world we Alzheimer's victims (on both ends) need is a big old hand winding us up even more! Yikes! A better image would be seeing that key spin in the opposite direction, letting that purple-clad lady relax completely. Now there’s a pill I'd buy!
It’s ads like that that take me back to Princess Bride and Wesley’s pronouncement: "Life is pain, highness! Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something." A lot of people have to put up with a lot of pain. It's not just us.
So perspective helps some.
Here are some other things that help:
We already know that a Mediterranean diet helps stave off signs of dementia, but who wants to eat flavorless vegetables all the time?
If you think you have to sacrifice that deeply satisfying taste of butter and meat that you don’t typically get in a vegetable-rich diet, you don’t know Yum Sauce! This sauce is of Japanese origin and is full of protein, B-complex vitamins (B1, B3, B6, B12), and antioxidants—and best of all, it rounds out the flavor of anything you put it on with a “meatiness” that will satisfy the carnivore in you.
The dish pictured here is a prime example of a Mediterranean diet with a Japanese twist: a bed of baby spinach leaves with sauteed butternut squash, topped with Yum Sauce. Use this sauce on any steamed vegetable, over rice, or even on salad, and you’ll be on your way to fighting memory loss!
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup nutritional yeast
3 packets of lemon or orange-flavored vitamin C
2 Tbsp soy sauce
4 Tbsp almond butter or peanut butter
2 cloves crushed garlic
1/2 cup black beans with juice
1 tsp cumin powder or curry powder
1 tsp white pepper
Throw everything in a blender and puree until smooth. Store in a refrigerator for up to one week.
This past week has been a little brutal on my ego. My fictitious self (the me I hold in high regard) has seen its reflection in various external realities and has taken a mortal blow.
At least I hope it has.
You see, I’ve had to acknowledge all in one breath that I’m not as clever as I thought I was; I’m not all that kind or thoughtful of others; my conversation skills have dulled; and my hair isn’t really red (all this self-revelation is partly due to reading Crazy Love—a book that spoons out truth about the self in a cod-liver-oil kind of way: nasty; painful; healing).
I’ve been thinking a lot about my hair in particular, perhaps as a metaphor for all the other traits I have to face up to in myself. My hair—which appears rich and red and full to others—is actually flimsy and almost entirely white. If you look close enough and run your fingers through the root system, the truth is quite apparent: I’m somewhere between grizzly gray and snow white. And as metaphor, I’m thinking it’s time to go white once and for all. It’s time to stop covering up the truth.
Just one thing holds me back: the stigma of white. No, not that elegant, brilliant white, but the mousy salt-and-pepper white. It’s terrifyingly old. I know the difference it would make at the supermarket, at the realtor’s office, at a job interview. I’m young; I should not have to place myself in the old category just yet. Lushious red gives you youth and authority. Mousy gray, and it’s an uphill battle to convince others you can still think. It’s ridiculous that pigment can make the world go ’round, but there you have it.
I know you’re wondering why I’m talking about hair in a blog about dementia, but you’ve probably sensed the connection. Aging has enormous stigma in our culture, and everything in us resists revealing anything that might indicate we are aging. Particularly for those of us who are aging prematurely.
My struggle with hair has atuned me to the struggle in the early-onset Alzheimer’s community. I follow a group on Facebook called Memory People comprised of people of all ages who have been diagnosed with some kind of dementia, their caregivers, and other supporting cast. Some members are open about their dignoses and are brave enough to face public scrutiny; others accept their diagnoses but keep it somewhat private; and still others straddle the cover-up fence: should they reveal something that isn’t fully blown yet but could have as devastating results as if it was? All of them long to live truthfully, but all also know the stigma of dementia and the costs incurred in making their mental status known. As with pigment, we are valued for our synaptic connections. Why would anyone want to expose their deficits and risk rejection?
It makes my stomach turn. What kind of society have we become? When are we going to change the way we value each other? When are we going to free ourselves from the layers of untruth that we spend a lifetime building up? When are we going to trade all our lies in for Truth and finally be set free?
It’s a very painful fact that I miss Dad and that I wish I had spent more “being time” with him instead of dividing my time between being and being productive. As I’ve mentioned before, in hindsight, all you want is to be near the one you’ve lost just a few more minutes. Nothing else matters but being in the person’s presence and having them know you are there.
I want to do this with Mom, but Alzheimer’s presents a huge problem. Whenever I see Mom sitting alone, it kills me because she looks so terribly alone. So I go sit with her, and on a good day—most days—she is riveted with my presence. But the second I leave her sight—to fling clothes from the washer to the dryer; to use the bathroom; to make a cup of tea—she is completely alone again. And in those moments—from her perspective—she has always been and always will be alone. There is no memory of my having been in her presence all morning other than a few moments of necessary “productive time.”
I hate this disease. There is no sufficient quality time you can give someone with Alzheimer’s. As a caregiver, it feels like there is no neutral status for you as a human being: you are either benevolent or malevolent; sacrificial or selfish; worthy or worthless.
Alzheimer’s isn’t a one-man disease; it does a pretty good job of spreading the pain around.
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