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Snapshots of Dementia: And Now, the Moment We’ve All Been Waiting For

Snapshots of Dementia: And Now, the Moment We’ve All Been Waiting For

Photo by Jack Sharp on Unsplash It took us forever to reach this point in mid-September of 2019. In fact, it took not only the visits over three years to neurologists Nos. 1, 2 and 3, but also a 50-plus page questionnaire/application, prayer and what the brain clinic in South Florida said would be a long wait. But only a few days after I submitted the paperwork via certified mail, the clinic called with a sudden cancellation. Could we come in just a few days? You know my answer. As I drove the three-plus hours from Orlando, I prayed this would be that long-awaited moment: The diagnosis that said yes, Tom has dementia. The diagnosis that said yes, it’s FTD (frontotemporal degeneration). The diagnosis that would move him closer to qualifying for disability payments. I decided to travel the distance to neurologist No. 4 because we had reached a stalemate. After two tries, our insurance wouldn’t approve the PET scan neurologist No. 3 said she needed to differentiate between FTD and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Already struggling to cover our bills without Tom’s income, I wasn’t about to pay the estimated $5,000 cash for the scan. So I decided to visit one more neurologist—this time, one recommended by the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration. I hadn’t known to check their list earlier because, until neurologist No. 3, I hadn’t known about FTD. After a slight GPS-induced detour, we arrived for our longest neurology visit to date. I found the team: — Thorough: The group, which included a dietician, physical therapist, nurse practitioner and social worker, met with Tom and me individually and collectively. The exam included neuropsychological testing as well. — Knowledgeable: I knew more about FTD now than I ever had, but this team knew more. That might seem obvious, but it had not proven true with doctors prior to neurologist No. 3. —Caring: This was the first appointment where anyone expressed concern for my mental and emotional health. Just having someone express empathy for our journey meant a lot.  The team members were more empathetic than the doctor, who seemed distant, even rude, but I happily accepted knowledge over hand-patting, especially when receiving the latter from anyone came as a surprise. After all the exams and discussions, the entire team met with both of us to give us what they’d promised at the start of our appointment: A diagnosis. In brief, here’s what they said: 1. Tom definitely has dementia. He shows marked impairment in several tested areas, in memory but also in logical sequencing and other elements associated with executive function. His 2019 MRI also shows marked shrinkage from the 2017 one, particularly in the frontal area of...

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Snapshots of Dementia: It’s the Little Things

Snapshots of Dementia: It’s the Little Things

Photo by Danielle Rice on Unsplash Over the past several months of my somewhat irregular “snapshots of dementia” posts, I’ve written about lots of big things. Our painful journey toward diagnosis. Job losses. Wounds to our marriage and our family. Asking Tom to stop driving. And more. But I’ve also noticed that with dementia as with many areas of life, the little things often have just as much impact as the large ones. Consider the following as not a list of my favorite things but rather of the little things that touch my heart as I watch his early-onset dementia, frontotemporal degeneration, steal so much from my husband. — Open Doors: Tom’s short-term memory has become so short that he rarely remembers to close doors or drawers. You may recall that much earlier, we had to put special hinges on our front door to close it automatically because more than once, he left it standing open when he left for work. Now I can trace his path through our home by the doors and drawers he leaves open. Praise God for a refrigerator with an alarm! — Press Pause: Sometimes I find Tom standing in our hallway, a blank look on his face. Although it passes quickly, I know this means he’s started to go somewhere or do something and forgotten what he started out to do. I can hear some of you saying, “But I do that all the time.” Yes, but probably not fifteen or more times a day—and within only a few seconds of starting the activity. — Delayed Departure: My experience as the mother of five has prepared me well for my current stage of life. As a mom, I had to plan to leave 10 or 15 minutes earlier than the actual departure time because someone wouldn’t have their shoes on or another would need to make a bathroom stop. Even if I tell Tom, “We have to leave in a few minutes,” his broken brain can’t translate that to the steps he must take to be ready to go. In fact, if I give him only two things to do, he will usually forget one of them. These days, we exit more slowly and often have to make a trip or two back inside before our true departure. — “You’re So Smart”: Tom often makes this comment multiple times a day. “You’re so smart” because I could log onto the library website. “You’re so smart” because I knew how to install an app on my phone. “You’re so smart” because I remembered what I had planned for the weekend. What touches my heart here? He never used to say, “You’re so smart” because...

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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: 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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