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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: A Merry Heart

Forgetful Jones (Facebook/Sesame Street) “A merry heart does good, like medicine, But a broken spirit dries up the bones” (Prov. 17:22, NKJV). We all have different ideas about dementia; I know I did before we began this journey. And truly, even as transparent as I try to be on my blog, I haven’t yet caught up to present-day except for some occasional glimpses. So this is that! Anyone who knows Tom, in past or present, knows about his trademark sense of humor. Although he has the typical anosognosia (“without knowledge of disease”) of many people with dementia and doesn’t realize the extent of his deficits, he does now know he has frontotemporal degeneration (FTD), and he does know his thinking has changed. He still jokes, although he’s often using lines he’s said for many years. But sometimes his comebacks surprise me, especially since his thinking seems to have slowed down a great deal in the past few months. Last spring, while we still lived in Florida, I made a casual joke about something he would “probably forget.” He looked at me very seriously and said, “I think this is something that is OK for me to joke about, but not OK for you.” Though this may seem like a double standard, I understand exactly what he meant. Many of us women are sensitive about our weight. It might be fine for us to joke about our own chubby tummy or thigh rolls, but we don’t prefer that anyone else do so. And it’s the same with dementia. I’ve been careful ever since to make sure Tom initiates the jokes and/or I only repeat things we’ve said multiple times. As a person created in the image of God, he is and will always be worthy of both respect and love. That being said, Tom has retained his sense of humor. I think I mentioned our joke about his “good ideas” once before. Somehow it has stayed with him that his ideas aren’t the best (to read more about this, see this post.) And so occasionally he will say to me, “I have a great idea!” knowing it may not be, or describe something silly that happens (like this week, when he failed to put the carafe under the coffeemaker and sent coffee all over the counter, then put the top back on incorrectly so that even more coffee spilled) as a “great idea.” I am thankful that having the privilege to work from home has prevented most of the other sorts of “great ideas” from happening. Something else he jokes about is taking his medicine. His short-term memory has become so very short that almost every day, I remind him...

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Snapshots of Dementia: 3 Lessons From Lincoln for Grandma (and any Caregiver)

Snapshots of Dementia: 3 Lessons From Lincoln for Grandma (and any Caregiver)

Tom meets his grandson, 1 month old. Dear Lincoln, You’re too young to read this although I’m sure, as advanced as you already are, it won’t be long before you are reading not only letters but entire books. First of all, I want to wish you a great  big HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Grandpa and Grandma love you very much and can’t believe you’re already 3 years old. As soon as you’re old enough (and hopefully no sooner), someone will tell you about the sad things that happened many years ago on this day. I want you to know that your birthday has given 9/11 new meaning for our family. We do remember the sad things, of course, but we also celebrate the wonderful ones—like you. And do you know what? That’s just who you are in our lives. Your joy in the world God has given us has helped change what might otherwise be a sad time into one of wonder and delight. Watching you play and laugh with Grandpa blesses me more than you can possibly know. You love him in a pure and powerful way that amazes, inspires and challenges me every time. He even told me once that he doesn’t have to worry about what he might say or do around you because he knows you love him no matter what. That is a huge gift to us both. I want to share with you three things I have learned from you, Lincoln. And all three of them help me do a better job taking care of Grandpa. 1. COMPASSION: Grandpa coughs a lot, and sometimes he stumbles. And almost every time you’re around when he does one of these things, I hear you say, “You OK, Gwampa?” Your heart of concern helps me not taking even the smallest or most-repeated issues for granted. Lincoln, Grandpa is always more OK whenever he is with you. 2. PRESENCE: You love nothing more than having Grandpa and Grandma come up to your room and play, or sit beside you on the couch or even travel with you on the iPad as you videochat with us. We love the pictures you color, the cards you “sign” and the crafts you make. But even at only three years old, you’ve already taught me: Presence is the very best present of all. 3. CELEBRATION: Grandpa and I still laugh about the day you told us, “I’m so amazing!” I’m glad you have so much wisdom at such a young age. You are amazing, Lincoln, because of an amazing God who loves you even more than we do and made you “in an amazing and wonderful way” (Ps. 139:14a, NCV). We need to...

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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: The Day the Music Died

Snapshots of Dementia: The Day the Music Died

Tom playing his first trumpet gig, c. 1969 We refuse to let this thief steal our faith, our marriage or our family, but he has already taken Tom’s ability to work, drive and play his trumpet. The above words come from my November 2019 Facebook post, the first time I shared publicly about Tom’s struggles with early-onset dementia. If you’ve read my recent blog posts, you understand why I referred to dementia as a thief. But how could it steal his trumpet playing? Isn’t that something he could do in his sleep? One would think so. Trumpet playing has been such a part of Tom’s identity that most longtime friends don’t think of him apart from his trumpet. He began playing in third grade at age 9. By sixth grade, he played his first nightclub job. And by junior high, he was one of three students marching with the high school band. Tom still has a T-shirt imprinted with “Band Nerd,” and no description seems more accurate. All-city, all-state; you name it, and he did it. The kid who used to listen to Herb Alpert albums a few notes at a time, write down what he heard and then play the songs didn’t even realize he had perfect pitch until a college professor identified it. But his favorite expressions of music always involved worship. Years ago, I remember a dear woman of God saying Tom had a special anointing when he played for worship that was far greater than his natural ability. I fully believe this statement. Over and over, I saw his playing touch people’s hearts in powerful ways. Tom playing his trumpet on a mission trip to Mexico, c. 2002 In May 2016, before we ever saw a neurologist, Tom was one of three lead trumpet players for a special recorded concert of the Florida Worship Choir & Orchestra. He had a busy few weeks before the concert and apparently didn’t practice enough. When the evening ended, he knew he had injured his lip. He iced it during the concert and on the way home. “I can’t play,” he said. “I’ll have to let it heal.” And so he did. For weeks. As part of his sixtieth birthday celebration, I gave him a summer trip to a trumpet camp run by one of his longtime trumpet heroes: Malcolm McNab, who played lead trumpet on thousands of movies and television shows. For Tom, this was the gift of a lifetime. But should he go with his injured lip? He called to cancel, but Mr. McNab graciously convinced him to come. And Tom was so thankful he did. Not only did he get to spend time with his college...

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