If you are a caregiver to someone with dementia you are a keen observer. Or you become one. Before diagnosis you may have been that person who would not notice the nose on your own face or anyone else’s for that matter. Dementia brings out the sleuth in you though as you become the keenest observer of your loved one. You have to be.
My Bert has Alzheimer’s disease and the best way to monitor changes and give care is to observe. It is the caregiver who must see the changes, decipher the small ticks, make sense of the seemingly minor blips that occur when least expected. You can only discover them by constant observation and comparing over time and remembering what was as opposed to what is.
Here is a tip. Keep a journal of observances and take it with you whenever you go to see your medical professionals – family physician, geriatric psychologist, mental health counsellor, memory clinic, case managers. Record every change and new behaviour. The importance in recording is that it will act as a sign post to what comes next. Alert Day Programme staff for your need to know how your loved one spent his day and any new behaviour noticed. The more you record and document the decline and note the specific changes of your loved one, the better able you will be to work with your health team to enable them to provide the best care to both of you.
I give my Bert some towels and ask him to take them to the laundry room. He takes them, looks at them, turns to go then appears puzzled. He holds the towels, walks to every door and around the dining table, comes back to the kitchen, sees the door across from it, opens it and puts the towels in the laundry room. This was a first. I record it. Is this a blip or did a few more cells die? Two days later this is repeated. Then he tells me he is going to the bathroom and he wanders around before finding it. Now I know a few more cells have died. My Bert is getting lost in our apartment.
Blips are easy to deal with as they are usually a onetime occurrence. Usually you can decipher what caused it. As example, my Bert saw a snake in his shoe just once. Thank goodness. A snake appeared in a show he watched before going to bed. You can ignore those oddities for what they are, blips. Cause and effect are clear. On the other hand, dying cells manifests themselves in inexplicable behaviours that indicate deterioration and clear progression of the disease. You can tell when brain cells die as the new behaviour becomes his norm, or when previous everyday knowledge is lost.
As is always the case nothing is as simple as it appears. Can blips recur and still be a blip? Yes. For the last six months my Bert has been going on a trip. First, on our way home from his ‘club’ he asked me if the suitcases were packed. Then two weeks later he woke me up as he was looking for the passports. A month later, in the middle of the night he saw some friends outside the bedroom who were travelling with us. Next there were two people sleeping with us in bed which he called ‘the deck’. Just last month he wanted to know if I had gone to the bank for the travel money. These are not blips to me.
Travel has always been important to Bert and me. Now, as soon as we meet anyone, old friend or new the first thing he tells them is that we have travelled all over the world. Ask him a question of which he is not sure and he will tell you: ”My wife and I have travelled all over the world.” The question might be: “What time is it, or, where do you live?” Answer: “My wife and I have travelled all over the world.” Blips and dying cells are my most non-professional designation for changes and oddities of living with a person with dementia. This obsession with travel is neither of those. I call this hard wired memory recall. I know my Bert well enough to realize travel is such an integral part of his life that this will be one memory that endures. In this case there is no blip nor have any cells died. Rather the cells are being kept vital by the hard wired, happy memories of travelling the world.
The Meander: The only thing predictable about dementia is its unpredictability. I hope any recurring hard wired memory is one that brings happiness, encourages communication, and enhances social interaction. I will pack suitcases, get passports, buy foreign exchange, and travel with invisible friends every day if my Bert wants me to do so. After all by next day, or next week I may have to start all over again. Not a problem as long as my Bert is happy.