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Snapshots of Dementia: ‘But He Seems So Normal’

Snapshots of Dementia: ‘But He Seems So Normal’

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay “But he seems so normal.” “I can’t even tell there’s anything wrong.” “He’s still so funny!’ “Are you sure?” I’ve heard all of these statements and more in our journey to and beyond Tom’s diagnosis with early-onset dementia (in his case, frontotemporal degeneration, or FTD). I don’t blame anyone for saying these things. Tom looks normal. He can still carry on a conversation. He still dresses, bathes and feeds himself (granted, he needs lots of reminders these days.) He still has his trademark sense of humor. In other words, he’s still very much Tom. And yet as I’ve shared, his dementia has stolen so much of his life. He can no longer hold down a job, drive or manage finances. Other than a few simple songs, he can no longer play his beloved trumpet. He has trouble making even the simplest of decisions. And the online golf game he loves? I’ve had to not-so-jokingly ban him from calling himself “stupid” or “moron” the many times he fails to make a shot. And as I’ve also shared, Tom has made other “terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad” decisions that have hurt himself and our family. For a season, he withdrew in large part from his relationships with me and with our children. Although he has declined in his cognitive ability in multiple ways, few are immediately obvious. His short-term memory seems to get shorter all the time. On average, he “loses” objects at least five times a day, often convinced they are gone forever and amazed when I easily find them. His appetite for sweets, always strong, has become voracious, and before a recent surgery, his obsession with walking (something he rarely wanted to do prior to this year) had increased so much that we were walking anywhere between 14,000-18,000 steps a day (yes, I’m thankful that so far, the last two seem to balance each other out!). And yet no one who saw him for a few minutes or even a couple of hours would know any of this (unless, of course, they’d been reading these posts). So yes: “He seems so normal.” And before my experience with Tom’s dementia, I know I looked at other dementia patients and thought the same thing. Oh, the disease must not be as bad as they thought. She seems so normal. Dementia is like many other disabilities in that it often remains hidden. Some of you have praised my transparency now. But in the three-plus years it took us to obtain a diagnosis, I kept very quiet. I shared my concerns with a tiny handful of close friends and our children. After all, the doctors kept saying...

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Snapshots of Dementia: Tom and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Idea

Snapshots of Dementia: Tom and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Idea

Photo by William Hook on Unsplash Sometimes, dementia has a humorous side. Tom and I have a running joke about his “good ideas.” Part of him realizes he doesn’t always make the right choices, but not enough to keep him from making the next wrong choice. One dementia spouse described it this way: “The part of him that says, ‘That’s not a good idea’? That’s gone. If you’ve been following these posts, you may have noticed a few of these “good ideas,” some much more serious than others. Here are a few more: —One day, I came home to a horrible smell. He couldn’t tell me what had happened, but I quickly figured out that Tom had poured nearly a quart of gasoline down our kitchen sink. Our son had drained the gas from a scooter he was repairing, and Tom decided we needed to get rid of it. (Besides the judgment problem, this incident helped me realize he had lost his sense of smell, also courtesy of his disease.) —Another day, I came home to find scraps of one of my thin acrylic cutting boards in the trash. When he couldn’t find the pan he wanted, Tom had used the board as a baking pan for a can of cinnamon rolls. He knew something was wrong, but when I asked him about it, he couldn’t even name the “pan” he had used. (He also said the rolls tasted fine!) Just as with the gasoline, God’s grace prevented a fire. —One memorable evening found me typing away in my upstairs office when I heard a sound no one wants to hear: a scream, then a crash. I must have skipped several stairs in my hurry to reach a moaning Tom, now lying on the floor of our two-story great room. Determined to put up a new television antenna he’d received for Christmas, he had climbed to the top of our 12-foot ladder and stood on top. When he still couldn’t reach the window ledge where he hoped to place the antenna, he began to make his way back down and, as he said, “only” fell from the eight-foot level. The emergency room doctor was amazed that he ended up with no broken bones or other serious injuries. I was too. —Last August, while we were staying with our friends awaiting the sale of our home, Tom locked himself out of his cell phone, something that has happened multiple times before and since. Convinced it was broken, he wanted to visit the cell phone store. The problem? I was at work, and the friends we were staying with couldn’t take him to the store till later that afternoon. An adult...

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Snapshots of Dementia: Tangled

Snapshots of Dementia: Tangled

“They told me they would take care of it,” Tom told me the other day. “Who? Who would take care of what?” It took at least three or four more questions for me to pull enough from him to know what he meant. He had called our pest-control company to see if they could return to our home to take care of a problem. Because he often rambles or talks in circles now, I try to listen in on calls like this when he insists on making them. This time, he had gone to the other end of the house. But what he did in this brief conversation is something that’s happened many times in the past few years. I call it “beginning in the middle.” He starts partway through what most people would consider a normal train of thought. It’s as though he assumes I know what he is thinking before he says it. And through the grace of God, sometimes I’ve learned to do just that. A few months before we moved, I was at work, and Tom sent me an email that “began in the middle” and thus made little sense. But God, the revealer of mysteries, helped me interpret what he meant and give the answer he needed. Tom didn’t think anything unusual had happened. But by this time, I did. Of course, before I knew he had frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), I couldn’t figure out why these communication mixups kept happening. And although I suspected something was wrong, I didn’t see how these strange episodes fit into a pattern of anything. Except they did. I don’t ever see the term “tangled” on a list of dementia characteristics, but that’s how I picture his thoughts. So often, they seem hopelessly tangled, the way a ball of yarn looks after a kitten gets hold of it. Sometimes a piece breaks free, and we can follow it for a long while. Other times, one tangle only leads to the next. I believe this “tangled” problem relates to the loss of executive function I mentioned in my previous post. It’s one of the reasons I believe Tom can no longer hold down a job. The more his symptoms increased, the more tangled his thoughts and behaviors became. And it seems almost everything he touched (bill paying, taxes, work, and more) became tangled as well. Back when he still handled our finances, he never wanted to set our mortgage in Florida up on automatic payments; he preferred to pay the bill himself every month. But for at least two years, I often found him scrambling to pay it at 11 o’clock p.m. the day it was due, then running into...

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Snapshots of Dementia: Magnificent Obsession

Snapshots of Dementia: Magnificent Obsession

“What are you doing?” I asked my husband as he carefully scooped out the potato casserole, left over from our Easter dinner and still in its original glass baking pan. “Just putting it into the right size container.” “Why? The kids are still here, and we’ll eat a lot more of it by tomorrow.” No answer. He continued scooping. Whatever, I thought. Never mind that the cornflake topping is now in the middle. It’ll still taste good. But I still wondered. (I did a lot of wondering back then.) Why does he care where the leftovers are? He’s never been interested in kitchen tasks.   As the weeks went on, I realized it wasn’t just the holiday leftovers he wanted in smaller containers. If I accidentally left more than an inch of room at the top of any leftover, he would find a way to go behind me and cram it into the next-size-smaller container. We’re spending more money washing all these different containers than we save by eating leftovers, I told myself. “It’s like you’re obsessed with this!” I joked one day. No answer. Of course he wasn’t obsessed. Or was he? I wouldn’t discover the answer until nearly two years later. By this time, I had noticed this same obsessive behavior in the following areas (not an exhaustive list): —Hair. For a year or two, he obsessed over getting his hair cut. Within a week or two of a trim, he would insist he needed another. I could barely get him to wait a month between haircuts. He could never seem to style his hair the way the barber did (his regular barber, a family friend, even mentioned this to me), but the super short cut during this phase meant he didn’t have much to style. —Bananas. We had the blessing of staying with friends for about four months while we waited for our home to sell. The husband gave Tom a new nickname during this period: Banana Man. I bought bananas; they bought bananas, and he still ate every one in sight. I know this phase has ended because last week, he went through only one bunch. —Gas Mileage. We owned a Prius and liked it so well that we bought another. But having a hybrid seemed to multiply Tom’s long-held concern for saving money. He had always been an aggressive driver. Now, he became a maddeningly slow one. He would compete with himself to get the most mileage on his daily trips to work and back. At one point, I realized he didn’t even want me to drive “his” car because my mileage record didn’t match his. Eventually, he drove our two automatic cars as...

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Snapshots of Dementia: Show Me a Sign

Snapshots of Dementia: Show Me a Sign

“Watch carefully.” “Keep a list.” “Keep a journal.” That’s the traditional advice given to people who suspect a loved one shows signs of dementia. Even after Tom’s surprise party and the revival of my concerns, I didn’t keep a record of his struggles. My nagging thoughts came and went. And his previous diagnosis of adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) didn’t help. I remember telling myself and at least one neurologist, “Maybe this is just what aging looks like in someone with ADHD.” But a day came when I did start keeping a list. This lasted only a month or so because it became almost like the situation when someone says, “I think this milk might be spoiled. Could you check it?” I find myself unable to taste or smell anything but spoiled milk—even if it’s perfectly fresh. When I was looking for dementia, I found all sorts of problems. And it hurt to think I might find symptoms and signs where there were none. So I stopped keeping my list and even deleted it. But I do still have notes here and there along with memories, which at this point are more intact than not. Dementia is a diagnosable condition made up of many small elements. I noticed the following signs in what I now call the “early days,” when I still wondered whether something was wrong: —Distractibility/lack of focus: My husband seemed to move away from a task and on to another more quickly than in the past. He left more things unfinished and undone. I knew this was true at home, but eventually, I realized it was also affecting his job. —Hesitancy in speech: Tom’s speech became more and more halting. I realized how much he struggled for words one night when, during a choir rehearsal, he mentioned a previous mission trip to what he (after a long pause) called the “left side of Canada.” As people laughed, I cringed—and added this to my mental list. —Forgetfulness or inattentiveness: Our dear next-door neighbor messaged me more than once to ask if we knew our garage door was open. No, we didn’t, but yes, Tom had forgotten to close it when he went to work. Two or three times, he left the front door of the house wide open as well. People grew accustomed to reminding him multiple times about nearly everything. —Exhaustion: He would come home from work so tired he could do nothing but sleep for a couple of hours. He would get up for a short time and then go to bed early. Normal aging, or a sign of a problem? I had no idea. —Withdrawal from social situations: Tom had always been a...

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Snapshots of Dementia: Surprise!

Tom and Marti at his surprise party, March 11, 2016 When Tom turned 60 in March of 2016, our family threw him a major surprise party. I wanted to make it special because I’d never really held a big party for him before, and his father died at age 59 of a massive heart attack so we all saw this as a milestone birthday. The evening included family, friends, food and (no surprise to anyone who knows Tom, a longtime professional trumpet player and worship pastor) a music theme complete with vinyl records lining one wall, note-shaped balloons atop black-and-white balloon towers and a musical staff where friends could write their own notes on (you guessed it) notes! I would never have pulled off such an incredible party without huge help from all of our children (forever kudos to our daughter Kristen, party planner and decorate extraordinaire). We scheduled it two weeks before his actual birthday because our two youngest daughters, both still in college, had spring break on successive weeks, and the weekend in between was the only time we could guarantee they could both attend. However, I could have pulled off the surprise element on my own. Even then, Tom’s mind did not hold onto dates and events. For at least a year before this, I had begun to wonder what might be happening with him. That night, I only needed one small lie to get him to the nearby church venue. “Remember? It’s David’s (a mutual friend’s) birthday, and they’re having a surprise party for him. I asked you, and you said we should go.” Of course, no one had invited us to this nonexistent party, and we had never discussed anything about going to the church. But I knew he would think he’d just forgotten one more conversation. Everything happened exactly as I thought, and we walked into the fellowship hall as scheduled. What happened next gave the party a personal subtext I’ll never forget. As we stood at the door with all our children along with many friends calling out, “Surprise,” I watched Tom turn and stare. Turn and stare. Stare some more. He looked at me. “These people don’t even know David,” he said at last. I stood on tiptoe, gave him a hug and whispered, “This party’s for you, baby. It’s your surprise party!” Only then did the understanding come over his face. But for the next 10 minutes or so, he still seemed in shock. Later, he said he was so surprised that he couldn’t process it all. And I don’t doubt that a bit. But what I also believe was that his brain was already showing definite signs of decline,...

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