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Snapshots of Dementia: Desperately Seeking Diagnosis

Snapshots of Dementia: Desperately Seeking Diagnosis

Photo by Raman Oza from Pixabay In a previous episode of “As the Journey Toward Diagnosis Turns,” Tom’s most recent neurologist (No. 3, in case you’re counting) had requested two things to help her solidify Tom’s diagnosis: a PET scan of his brain and the records from the neuropsychologist. Insurance denied the PET scan, but the doctor wanted us to come in anyway. I fought the early-morning Orlando traffic only to discover that the neuropsychologist hadn’t accepted this most recent neurologist’s form, so he hadn’t sent the records. Instead, we had to fill out an additional request. As soon as we completed and signed it, our neurologist’s office faxed it back, believing Tom’s records would arrive soon. We waited. And waited. And ended up having to reschedule because the records still hadn’t arrived. In fact, the neuropsychologist’s office had stopped answering the phone when our neurologist’s office called. Throughout this season of my life, I have had some amazing and supportive medical personnel who have assisted us. But I have also experienced the frustration of dealing with a system that somehow works against rather than for the patient. Why should our health records not be our health records? Why should we have such a difficult time obtaining them to share with another health professional? Fast forward to a few weeks later, another denial of the PET scan by our insurance and another visit to the neurologist. This time, she had the results of the neuropsychological exam. I wasn’t convinced they would help her much, since that practitioner had told us Tom’s only issues were ADHD and shame associated with some of his poor choices. But of course, we were glad to have another appointment. This time, they did another preliminary memory test, and Tom again charmed the nurse’s assistant. I couldn’t tell if he remembered our previous visit or not, but after a brief physical exam and a few more questions, the neurologist explained her dilemma. After reviewing his records, she felt even more confident that he had frontotemporal degeneration, behavioral variant (and by now, I’d done enough reading to agree with her). But she hesitated to make a firm diagnosis without “proof” via a PET scan (I’ve since learned from other FTD spouses as well as medical reports that PET scans do not always provide such proof.) Since our insurance wouldn’t pay for it, we could either wait until Tom turned 65 and get it via Medicare (at that time, nearly two years away), pay for it ourselves (at approximately $5,000) or remain undiagnosed. It may not surprise you that, with my newfound advocacy for my husband, I chose the fourth door: Another neurologist. By this time, I...

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Snapshots of Dementia: More Puzzle Pieces

Snapshots of Dementia: More Puzzle Pieces

Photo by Fabiran Kühne on Unsplash Clearly life has gotten in the way of blog posts, and that will happen sometimes. But as I return to the blog, I want to dive back into our journey toward diagnosis (I’m really not trying to make it take as long as the actual journey!).  You can find the most recent segment related to diagnosis at this link. In that previous post, I discussed a visit with the third neurologist we saw in our effort to discover what was going on with Tom’s health/memory/behavior and other problems. By this time, I had made some big decisions, most especially the ones that involved selling our home and moving to be closer to family in the upstate of South Carolina (here, we’re closer to our two oldest daughters, one a few minutes away from us and one in Atlanta, only two hours away). I knew that no matter what the doctors said, something was definitely wrong with Tom. I knew he had lost three jobs in quick succession and that we could no longer allow him to drive. And I knew I couldn’t count on him to lead and provide for our family in the way he had for so long. But I still needed help to get a diagnosis. I hoped it would be a path toward disability benefits if, as we thought, he could no longer hold down a job. And I especially needed a diagnosis because I hoped doctors could stop or slow down the disease. This third neurologist was the first one to mention FTD, or frontotemporal degeneration. I’m a writer and editor by profession and also by identity. That means I’m the type of person who will research and read everything I can on any given topic. I’ve already told you more in these posts about FTD than I knew at that point, now about a year and a half ago. But here are some of the key characteristics that stood out to me in my very early research on the topic: —FTD typically strikes younger people (the age range for onset is 21-80, but the majority of cases occur between 45 and 64.) Tom had just turned 63, and I’d suspected problems since well before he turned 60. —FTD is frequently misdiagnosed. Enough said. —FTD is less common and less known than Alzheimer’s. —FTD has no known treatment or cure. This site says, “no current treatments stop or slow the progression of the disease.” And that’s one of the reasons I want to keep writing. As we raise awareness, we can also advocate for research (it’s happening, but slowly) and work toward a brighter future for others faced...

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Snapshots of Dementia: 7 Facts I Wish I’d Known (Before I Learned by Living)

Snapshots of Dementia: 7 Facts I Wish I’d Known (Before I Learned by Living)

Pixabay/Gordon Johnson Much of what I’ve shared in these snapshots of dementia so far has a connection to my own ignorance. Of course, you don’t know what you don’t know. So while I don’t blame myself for what I didn’t understand, I sometimes wish I could have a do-over—for Tom’s sake and for my own as well as our family and friends. If a do-over were somehow possible, here are a few of the things I wish I’d known earlier on. 1. Dementia is not a natural consequence of aging. Because one of my grandfathers showed signs of dementia in his 80s and people said, “That’s what happens when you get old,” I honestly thought his age was the primary factor (even though nothing like this happened to my other grandparents, who all lived into their 80s or 90s). I wish  I had known more about Grandpa’s problem and even tried to help him more. I think what I saw in him contributed to my misperception (which, I have learned, is common). 2. Dementia is not one but many diseases. Like most people, I’d heard of Alzheimer’s. I knew a little about Parkinson’s Disease, which has related dementia. But I certainly didn’t know about the wide range of dementia disorders, symptoms and problems that exist. Some of the most common in addition to Alzheimer’s include Lewy Body Dementia, vascular dementia and the type my husband has: frontotemporal degeneration or FTD. 3. All dementias are not created equal. This is a corollary to No. 2, because each disease has its own characteristics and qualities. Because Tom’s dementia is still classified as rare (rare enough that many neurologists and other medical professionals seem to have little knowledge of it), I write partly to inform others. I had no idea, for example, that dementia could cause drastic shifts in behavior, personality and ability even at a fairly young age (many FTD patients are much younger than Tom, who, I now believe has shown symptoms for some time). I didn’t know, and as you may have read in the blog, neither did most of our doctors, apparently. 4. Dementia involves more than just memory loss. As explained above, dementias vary from type to type. They can also vary significantly from person to person. Pre-diagnosis, my main perception of dementia was that people who had it grew older, forgot things and became confused. I did not, however, realize that dementia symptoms could include things like loss of the sense of smell (no, this is not the COVID-19 temporary loss); a slowing down in overall thinking; obsessive-compulsive behavior; swallowing issues; apathy and withdrawal from social relationships; language loss and so much more (these are all...

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Snapshots of Dementia: Driven to Distraction, Part 2

Snapshots of Dementia: Driven to Distraction, Part 2

Photo by Khorena Sanders on Unsplash Author’s Note: This post is part two of a two-part series. Check out part one at this link, then pick up the story below. For one of the first times ever, I posted a brief summary of my concern on the Facebook support group I had recently joined for spouses or partners of those with frontotemporal degeneration (FTD). By this time, my kids and I had looked at the symptoms of FTD, behavioral type, and been amazed. After months and years of trying to find out what was wrong, here was a disease that looked like a perfect match. Why had no one mentioned this before? We’d have to wait for more testing, but it certainly looked like this was a possibility. I may write more about this later, but this group was rapidly becoming an information source, sounding board and source of encouragement for me. And this case, it was a lifeline. I shared the various driving-related incidents that had occurred and that we still didn’t have a real diagnosis or definitive answer. But to a person, everyone who responded (and there were more than 40 who did) to my question said: Do it now. Don’t delay. Keep him from driving no matter what. I read stories of accidents, of liabilities, of spouses who were still driving and had major problems. I read of doctors who refused to say the FTD patient needed to give up their license, only to have an accident occur. But mostly, I read what I’d already read on this site: Our story. And I knew it was time. I shared all this information (what had happened with their dad and driving, what our former pastor had said, what the other spouses had said) in brief with the next set of reinforcements I called in: Our children. I am sure I sounded at least somewhat irrational (after all, by this point, I probably had sleep deprivation.) But I could not in good conscience keep letting Tom out on the road. Or could I? I knew I needed the wise counsel of those who also loved him and wanted his best. I didn’t want to mess this up. I don’t actually remember which of our children I contacted, but I do know they all agreed to “talk amongst themselves.” The conclusion? No, Dad should not drive. Yes, they should help me tell him. Our two oldest daughters suggested they initiate a Skype call with Tom and me (this was before Zoom had reached its present-day popularity). “After all,” said one, not quite tongue-in-cheek. “He’ll know we must be serious if the two of us agree.” We made the call....

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Snapshots of Dementia: Driven to Distraction, Part 1

Snapshots of Dementia: Driven to Distraction, Part 1

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash Before we could return to neurologist No. 3 for the second time, a crisis occurred that forced our family into a huge decision. At this point, Tom was still driving. In fact, he was driving for a ride-share company. Sounds crazy for someone who might have dementia, right? Well, yes. And no. Think about it. He had lost three jobs in quick succession. Where could he find work? He loved to drive. And although he struggled with directions now, God and GPS cover a multitude of sins. Add that to the fact that no doctor had diagnosed any specific problem beyond depression, and you’ll see why (although I did have concerns) Tom remained on the road. I discussed Tom’s driving with my adult children (for a while, I had noticed him following more closely than he should) and they agreed that removing driving privileges would be difficult. When necessary, maybe a doctor could make that decision, but not right now. That was our plan. So yes, I’ll go ahead and say it: We were wrong. And I apologize to anyone I may have unknowingly scared or hurt because we were not more proactive. And I pray—and fear—for all of those who may be endangered by those still in the diagnosis or pre-diagnosis process with a disease like Tom’s. I’m convinced; there are many still on the road who should not be. Here’s what happened. Tom was driving for the rideshare company and quite happy to do so. I wasn’t as happy, because he was staying out for longer and longer periods of time. He had a certain daily financial goal, and he would stay out until he reached it. No. Matter. What. Of course, I didn’t know then about the obsessions his type of dementia (frontotemporal degeneration, or FTD) causes (read more about that in this post.) His desire to work and the low pay rate played right into this. The more he drove, the more he wanted to drive. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, I now know he didn’t have the logic or understanding to think, I’m tired. I should stop driving. I need to go home. For him, it truly was all about the money. He was so happy to contribute to our family finances again that he would drive. And drive. And sleep at the side of the road. And drive. As days and weeks passed, I became more and more concerned about his hours. I had more than one serious talk with him where he would promise to “only” work eight hours. Of course, he never kept those promises. At the time, I thought he...

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