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.
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 if they were standards, shifting in and out of neutral in his quest for low numbers. And of course, he saw nothing unusual in any of this.
—Sweets. He prided himself on not eating lunch at work, but he had an entire drawer of candy pilfered from the receptionist’s desk jar. He kept a stash of candy in his dresser drawer too. He also became increasingly obsessed with Wendy’s Frostys and would get one (or more) whenever he could. Some of his obsessions have changed through the years, but our local Wendy’s already knows him very well.
One of the things I had always loved about Tom was that he never did things “just because.” He thought differently; he looked at Scripture differently; and he made decisions differently. The creative in me responded to that and appreciated his heart and his character.
But the fact that he had always been different, even quirky, also kept me from researching these odd behaviors. I really thought they were just “Tom being Tom.” Our kids did too.
Of course, until the spring of 2019, I hadn’t heard of frontotemporal degeneration (FTD) or the behavioral variant. I didn’t realize patients with this condition often exhibit ritualistic behaviors, obsessions, and unusual changes in diet. If I had, I might have done more than watch and pray.
Now, when I see him exhibit the same behavior again and again or become agitated when one of his current obsessions can’t happen, I know it’s not just “Tom being Tom”—it’s his disease. And that way of thinking, along with a strong faith, has sustained me as I watch him changing before my eyes—even when some of his behaviors have broken my heart.
More about that next time.
OCD behavior comes into play in some other types of dementia as well. Have you noticed something like this in a loved one? You may want to consult with a medical professional. If your loved one has dementia with obsessions and you feel comfortable sharing, please tell us what you noticed. Your story matters.