“How long do you intend to keep caring for Mary Ann at home?” he asked.  “Until I can’t handle it any more.” I answered.  Then the hardest of all, “How will you know when that time has come?”

Since we live in a world of denial that provides us the emotional and psychic room to live each day without constant dread, those questions are not often asked and answered.  First of all, I don’t know the answer.  I have intentions about how I intend for this story to end, but I have no answers to questions about how the future will actually play out.

Two days ago I was asked those questions with which I began this post.  Today I experienced to some degree elements of the answer I gave.  As I have said in earlier posts, my intention is for the two of us to stay together here at the house at least until one of us dies.  My intention is to use as many resources as I can locate and afford to help make that possible.  That intention is not just an intellectual decision about how I intend to proceed.  That intention lives in insides.

With that said, I had to answer the question rationally.  I intend for Mary Ann and me to be together here at the house until I can’t handle it any more.  The question that has to be addressed, the hard question is, how will I know when I can’t handle it any more.  I stumbled around some as I tried to answer that hard question.  The two things that came to mind are hallucinations that get out of hand and grow into a steady stream, and the inability to get any sleep.  The two are related.

Today was an example of those two problems converging.  Last night Mary Ann was up multiple times, as many as a half dozen in an hour.  Almost every one of those times, there were people, or raccoons or other visual images not actually present outside of her mind.  The lack of sleep during the night meant that the hallucinations came in a constant stream this morning when she got up.  She asked if we were the only ones in the house, implying that she thought we were not the only ones.

By the way, yesterday, as she was eating the last piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie with ice cream (pie she had eaten with great enthusiasm for the two days before), she decided that the filling in this last piece of pie had somehow changed into tomato sauce. She ate the ice cream, but left most of the huge piece of pie. I am afraid of the day when I can’t get her to eat enough food because of what her mind is seeing.

Today, she grabbed the bedspread as I was folding it at the foot of the bed preparing for her nap.  She said there was a sheet of stamps or stickers stuck to it.  The bedspread was right in front of our eyes, she had her hand on it, convinced that she was pulling off what was stuck on it.  She told me to turn on the bright lights on the ceiling fan over the bed so that I could see the sheet of stamps.  When the light went on, she reluctantly admitted that they were not there. On the way to the bedroom tonight, she stopped and told me to get rid of “that” and then stepped over something that was not there on the floor in front of her.

This morning, when the hallucinations were at their steadiest, Mary Ann simply could not sit down for more than a minute or some fraction thereof.  She would jump up to go to one spot or another to get a good look at or pick up whatever it was she saw.  I had to jump up every minute or fraction thereof to grab hold of her gait belt so that she did not fall.  Once she was so dyskinetic when she jumped up that it was all I could do to untangle her feet and help her sit back down before she fell into a couple of tables next to her.  The activity was so steady that I could do nothing but follow her from one hallucination to another, or one task she had in her mind to do, pretty much always losing track of whatever it was by the time we got wherever she was leading me.

If hallucinations came at that pace constantly, I would soon be completely unable to cope.  The lack of sleep impacts both of us.  The less she sleeps at night, the more she hallucinates, the stronger and more vivid and more frequent they become.  The less she sleeps, the less I sleep.  The less I sleep, the less able I am to cope with the hallucinations.  They compound one another, lack of sleep and hallucinations, and my capacity to cope.

Here is how my inability to cope expressed itself this morning.  I told Mary Ann that I had been asked about how long I could keep her at home.  I told her that my answer included two things that could make it impossible, lack of sleep and streaming hallucinations like the ones that we were dealing with this morning.  It was cruel to say that to her.  I have no excuse.  My frustrating inability to cope with the constant following her to one thing and then another, after having a very poor excuse for a night’s sleep was the context, but I chose to say those harsh words. She has Parkinson’s Disease Dementia!  She didn’t choose the disease!  She didn’t choose the hallucinations!  She didn’t choose the frustrating behavior!

I guess there was a part of me that hoped the words would get through to the healthy part of her mind that has some ability to control her actions.  What she said next, broke my heart.  “Then what would happen to me?”  Usually, whatever I say just bounces off with no reaction.  This time it broke through.

I need say just how hard it was to actually write for all to see those last paragraphs revealing what I said to her.  I am ashamed and embarrassed.  I can only hope that someone reading this post has been there and said things of which you are not proud also.  I have chosen to face my own flaws head on without pretense, since it is just too hard to pretend to be someone I am not. My hope is that facing the flaws head on, will allow me to grow into someone better able to cope, a better Caregiver.

In answer to Mary Ann’s question about what would happen to her, I immediately told her of my intention for us to stay here together until one of us dies.  I told her I would use paid help here at the house to help do the care when I could not handle it by myself.  I told her that if I die first the kids would take care of her, keeping her close to them.

All I wanted to do was to get her to stop hopping up, responding to the various things she saw. She did stop hopping up, and I was able to get my shower done, make the beds, write an email or two and finish getting her ready for the Public Health Nurse’s visit.  I don’t know if what I said had any impact in that change in behavior, but even if it did, I feel no less guilty about being so harsh.

It is at times like this that I am very grateful to have a God who has openly addressed our flaws and stolen from them the power to ward off the Lord’s love of us.  That is why the song is called “Amazing Grace.”  The power of that gracious love is transformational.  It frees us to face our failures.  At the same time it challenges us to grow and change, cradled in the arms of that love.

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It was a terrible sounding crash.  I had just gone into the kitchen to take my morning vitamins.  She had had breakfast and pills, was dressed, had been to the bathroom, was watching a television program she likes.  Normally, that is a safe time to walk out of the room for a moment.

Not this time!  It sounded horrible.  I ran out to see what happened.  She was not hurt.  That is the most important thing.  The table lamp was glass, gratefully, it had not shattered when it went flying.  Everything on the end table was spread out on the floor, the phone, a thick ceramic coaster was broken in half, a few other items that had been sitting on it were here and there.  The speaker on the stand next to the table had fallen to the floor.  None of it hurt her.

The end table itself was broken into pieces.  She wasn’t hurt.  That is the important thing.  It is just an end table.  Why did it upset me so??  People are more important than things.

It is odd that some things carry more symbolic significance than the thing or the event itself.  My Dad made the end table.  He was not much of a woodworker, but for at time after he retired he made a number of things out of some beautiful Black Walnut boards. There is a history that is embedded in that table.

My Dad grew up on a farm, but worked in an office his entire career.  Throughout my childhood, we went for rides looking for the perfect piece of property in the country to buy.  When I was eleven years old, he found it, twenty-six acres of woods and creek with a few tillable acres on the other side of the creek included.

One day when Mom and Dad were out there puttering, the weather changed.  They headed into a little seven by ten foot structure made of a few boards and some screens for staying out there on occasion.  When the storm ended, there were at least twenty full sized trees that had blown down, Oak, Ash and Black Walnut.  Three of them had fallen on three sides of that seven by ten, flimsy box they were in during the storm.

Those trees were cut into three-quarter inch thick boards and then dried at a local lumber yard.  The Oak and Ash trees became board and bat siding on the house they built to move into when Dad retired.  The Black Walnut boards provided paneling for the basement and end tables and book cases and lamps and candlesticks, a coffee table, and other items that reside in the homes of their children, the five of us, no longer children since now we range in age from 66 to 80 years old.

It is just an end table.  It’s demise is a reminder that nothing in the house is safe.  The fall itself is another reminder that we are out of control here.  I reacted with loud questions, “why didn’t you push the button?”  It sits right by her hand.  I come and help when that electronic doorbell sounds. She has been fainting numerous times a day in the last couple of weeks.  I have asked again and again and again that she push the button, that she let me help her when she is walking.

Seeing Mary Ann lying on the floor, seeing the broken table, a lamp that could have broken and cut her, carried with it the painful reminder of how close we are to not being able to sustain this here at the house.  I couldn’t stop it from happening.  She wasn’t hurt, the damage was not to her, just to material things.  I won’t tie her in the chair, but short of that, there is no way to stop her from putting herself and our fragile life here at risk multiple times a day.

A Volunteer came over shortly after this happened.  She has taken the table to friend who will look at it to determine if the pieces can be put back together in some form or another.  We will see.  Then I lunched with a friend who has finally had to move his wife to a nursing home because he could no longer do the very things we are trying to do here.  The challenges of sustaining that arrangement at the nursing home are also daunting.  It is difficult to find the boundary between being able to manage at home and needing to move to residential care.  It is analogous to the plight of the frog in the water on the stove, heating up until he boils, never realizing the danger until it is too late.

While I am physically able to care for Mary Ann here, I will do so.  The one dynamic that complicates that detemination to care for her here is the ability emotionally to do it.  I released some frustration by talking loudly about my feelings when I saw what happened.  Talking with a friend with similar circumstances helped.  Sitting for an hour in my beautiful spot on the hill, watching deer(among them twin fawns), listening to music, thinking, praying, all helped.  Thinking about and now writing this post helps.

As always, the hardest part of an event like this morning’s fall is handling the fact that I am not the sweet, thoughtful Caregiver who is always nurturing, helping without a word of complaint, the Caregiver I should be.  I shouldn’t give a rip about an end table.  She didn’t want to do it.  Later in the day she said, “I am sorry I broke the end table.”  It just happened.  I can’t blame her, but, just as she can’t keep from popping up to walk when at some level she knows she can’t do so without putting our current life at risk, I can’t keep from reacting in that first moment with frustration knowing that it didn’t have to happen.  I need not to pretend that I don’t have feelings of frustration and bury them in that pretense. Trying to do that really would make me crazy.

On the positive side, once its over, we just get on with whatever needs to be done.  My loud talking provides an immediate safety valve release of frustration.  We return to a loving relationship.  The glass lamp is now at the other end of the couch in a place she very rarely goes near.  There is a floor lamp taking its original place.  For the moment in place of my Dad’s table there is an end table that I made, a simple one that should be easy to repair if broken.  I will begin a search for something to put there that has no corners into which she could fall, something with room for the phone and a few items to reside.

It is just an end table, but at the same time it is a symbol of much more in our system of survival here, physically and emotionally.  The table is broken, we are not.

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.