Oh, the places you’ll go

“You can pick him up now. There’s nothing left to test,” I was told by the busy neurologist on the phone.

He was referring to my late husband, Richard.

And he was talking about my husband’s fading memory.

The appointment was just a year after Richard’s initial dementia diagnosis. I’d been told by the doctor they would need several hours for testing.

Yet my cell phone was ringing in less than five minutes.

It wasn’t long after the call that I started considering eventual placement in a group home at the strong encouragement of Richard’s doctor.

I was in over my head, yet needed to be convinced that the quality of his care and his existence would be improved if he was to move.

One category on my wish list for him was the opportunity to go on outings which I knew would require a van.

The home that Richard eventually moved into had both, as well as a great activity director.

On my first visit to the home, I’d noticed museums were a favored destination on their calendar including the beautiful art museum where my husband used to work as a curator.

On Richard’s first outing back to the museum as a group home resident, the man with no memory somehow managed to get out of his wheelchair and navigate purposefully down several long hallways, and through a restricted area back to his old office.

The museum guards stepped out of his way and smiled as they watched their former co-worker, as did the teary eyed staff and volunteers from the group home.

And though that magical moment never quite had a second act, that group home van would eventually take Richard on many other magical adventures that would always put a smile on his face.

Concerts, apple orchards, theaters, fishing excursions, picnics, restaurants…

Richard’s play list went on and on.

Oh, the places he went.

Thanks to a van, his magic bus.

iPods, music and memories


Although the experience was a first for me, it wasn’t exactly on my bucket list.

I don’t go to movies much, but there was one I wanted to see before it disappeared from view.

I knew it wouldn’t be of interest to everyone, though it had been the audience favorite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

So after deciding to see a movie by myself for the very first time I drove over to a theatre that only shows independent films.

Buying my ticket, I noticed fancy imported chocolate bars for sale next right next to the popcorn. Had it been that long since I’d been to a movie, I wondered?

I quickly grabbed one, as dark chocolate always make for a good companion.

The movie I was there to watch was “Alive Inside”.

It’s a documentary that follows the story of a man with a vision about the healing power of music. He believes that an iPod personalized to the music taste of someone with Alzheimer’s or other memory loss can be a powerful and joyous thing.

The experts who were interviewed, and the filmmaker through his chronicles, quickly proved the point.

It seems personalized iPods can succeed where prescriptions often fall short.

I sure wish I’d had one for my husband packed with the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and all that opera music he loved so well.

In the theatre this afternoon, I counted just 16 people.

I’m sure most of them were family members and/or caregivers of someone one with memory loss.

But I know watching the movie resulted in a several valuable lessons for me:

-One great idea with tons of tenacity can truly make a difference.
-Even though memory loss is a tough subject, some joy can always be found.
-With an aging population and the predicted growth in memory loss, the more we know about creating happiness for those afflicted the better.
-Independent theaters who play movies that won’t generate a profit should be rewarded.
-Imported chocolate is always a better option than popcorn.
-And finally, when you go to a movie by yourself, you get to sit wherever you want.

And here I thought I was just going to a movie…

Sweet memories and sweet treats


On a bitter cold January day I received an invitation for a very special gathering. I was a bit reluctant to accept, yet I knew I needed to attend.

My husband Richard had passed away at Christmas the month before, and I’d been asked to join in on the memorial service being held at his group home. For residents and staff, it’s often difficult when one of their own passes on.

I knew it could be an emotional event for me. But I chose to wear a smiling face and left my house with some M&M cookies in hand. They were for the ‘other’ woman living in the group home who adores them, and who I knew adored my husband even more.

As I entered the home, I was quickly ushered into a warm, sunny room filled with yellow tulips along with staff members and residents. The staffers were already sharing their remembrances of Richard through their sniffles with tissue boxes ready nearby. A couple of them mentioned they’d wished they’d known him before the dementia masked his great wit and intelligence.

“I could always detect a twinkle in his eye,” one of them told me with a bright blue twinkle in her own.

Together we watched a DVD of touching photos assembled from the 2 1/2 years my husband lived in the group home. Many of the pictures were of holiday parties held for family members and their loved ones.

There were also photos of special outings made into the community. Richard was fortunate that he was able to participate in most of them, despite the severity of his dementia.

I saw pictures of pontoon boat rides on rivers and crystal blue lakes as volunteers helped the residents fish. There were shots too of them at their favorite Mexican restaurant and on journeys taken to theaters and apple orchards in the fall.

But I could see in the pictures that Richard’s favorite outings were those made to area art museums.

Before my husband was diagnosed with his illness, Richard worked as a curator in one of the museums he would later visit while in the group home. On one of his first outings as a group home resident, Richard traveled back to his former employer.

Shortly after arriving at the museum, the guards noticed Richard was starting to wander off from the docent leading the tour and from the rest of the group. He had risen from his wheel chair and was slowly entering a secured area. But the guards decided to bend the rules and let their old friend and co-worker go on inside.

The guards carefully followed Richard as he traveled down each of the long, dark hallways back to his old department. Richard finally entered, smiling at his former administrative assistant sitting right there before him. Just like always.

A few more stories about my husband’s museum visits were shared at the memorial service by a tall, kindly male resident who was Richard’s best friend at the home. He had always taken it upon himself himself to look out for him. The two of them communicated so well even though my husband only spoke a couple of words while living in the home.

“Did I tell you that you have my sympathies?” Richard’s friend asked me with a long face and a few tears in his eyes.

He had in fact asked me several times, but I was happy to hear the warmth and sincerity in his voice as he asked the question yet again.

Suddenly I noticed the emotional sharing of stories about my husband was getting difficult for the other woman who was sitting across the room. She looked visibly upset. I walked over and attempted to comfort her by saying how fortunate we both were to share Richard the last couple of years.

Soon the smell of coffee brewing led us all over to the dining room for ice cream as well which was a favorite treat of my husband’s while at the home. I also opened up the box of M&M cookies I’d brought for the other woman.

I slowly sat down next to her and patted her hand for a while as we both ate our treats.

I’m thinking Richard would have been happy looking at the two of us sharing bowls of ice cream and those cookies together.

I know for sure that lovely other woman and I definitely were.

Our smiles said it all.

Coping


Mom used to tell me the secret to successful aging is coping with loss. I’ve been getting some practice.

My husband Richard passed away a week ago, and Mom the year before. Dad and my brother are gone, too.

Each experience a bit different from the one before it.

As I cleaned out my husband’s closet and room today at his group home, one of the other residents shared his condolences wearing a long face and a sad expression. This man has always looked out for Richard, much like a big brother.

As Richard only spoke three or four words, his friend would often tell me how my husband’s day had been. Much like a interpreter.

He’d let me know if Richard’s face lit up when the piano player made her weekly visit.

If he’d spotted a hint of a smile on Richard’s face while he sat in a rocking chair on a sunny, spring day in the back yard.

Just how much Richard liked his grilled cheese, dill pickles, and tomato soup that day at lunch.

This man’s friendship was a true gift for Richard, and as it turns out for me as well.

I know Richard’s buddy is going to miss him. I will keep stopping by to catch up with him as much as I can.

But I have a feeling my visits with this old friend will be helping me most of all.

Greta in her glory


Old Grandma Greta had a great day.

She visited my husband Richard’s group home this afternoon, debuting her fall corduroy jacket. I believe Richard liked the visit. Maybe enjoying the corduroy even more than the dog this time.

He kept busy fingering the ribbed texture and soft feel of the fabric. Richard’s always liked it. He has an old brown corduroy jacket with patches on the elbows that he used to wear weekly.

Afterwards Greta shared half of her grilled hot dog with me, bought from the local fundraising wagon. Today’s charity was Meals on Wheels. The group has assisted several of my elderly relatives.

I was very thankful Greta was in a charitable mood herself today.

Because I was mighty hungry.

There’s beauty everywhere if I keep my eyes open

I believe there’s still beauty in my husband Richard’s life, in spite of his late stage dementia.

He savors home cooked meals from pasta to pot roast, finishing every bite.

He visits Monet and Matisse in museums, trips hosted by caring guides.

He glides across crystal blue lakes in sunshine on pontoon boat rides.

He listens to live music in his living room, lounging in his favorite chair.

He’s surrounded by loving staff, loving residents, and they’re respectful of each other.

Richard’s comfortable, cozy and content.

He is blessed. And so am I.

One good day


I started my day complaining to the tree company about my heavy old oak branch, bigger than most trees, still resting up on my roof. This fellow’s been sleeping there for 2 1/2 weeks now.

As I hung up, I received another call, this time from the nurse at my husband Richard’s group home. She reported Richard was ill and that it could be pneumonia. We reviewed the specifics of his health care directive in case he needed to quickly go to the hospital. She told me the staff was watching him carefully, awaiting X-ray results and a call back from the clinic.

I stayed at work, trying to focus, while I waited for an update. I had a strong passion for my purple yoga mat which of course was sitting where I’d forgotten it, next to my back door at home. On my lunch break I instead played with my iPad and looked at peaceful pictures of animals and flowers. Anything to try and calm down.

Before leaving work, the tree company called back to say it was looking better for the roof. And then I had my update from the nurse. Richard didn’t have pneumonia after all, but a nasty infection.

I drove to visit Richard shortly afterwards and fed him his dinner. I was so happy he’d started to eat again, and to find he was trying to talk a little. But this time he chosen two different words to speak, not the usual “Hi, yup, thanks.”

“Oh God,” he’d proclaim, each time his nose would start to run like a faucet between bites of his beautiful blueberries.

I smiled. Then I laughed, wiping his nose with tissues.

That’s what he always used to say when he was sick. I haven’t heard him speak those two short words for a very long time.

Oh God, its been one good day after all.

And I’m thankful.

6 pounds of attitude and joy

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I’ve heard dogs need a purpose in life. In Greta’s case, it’s keeping everyone in line. Especially Tucker the terrier (or maybe I should say terror). But she has a special second job as well. She brings cheer weekly to those who need it most.

Greta will visit my husband Richard in his group home tomorrow, dressed in her 25 cent pink tutu bought at a garage sale. She’ll bring smiles to many faces there. Greta always does, especially if she’s dressed up for the occasion.

Grandma Greta’s a senior citizen at 13 and has spent many hours napping on Richard’s lap. She first lived with a truck driver for 10 years who needed to enter his own care facility. Afterwards, she lived for a time with an active young family, but wasn’t happy with all the commotion. She’s napping these days at my house, usually right next to the computer.

Greta’s still spry when I take her for walks. Neighborhood children often ask how old my puppy is, in spite of her gray muzzle and heart murmur. When I tell them she’s 13, they’re always surprised.

Greta loves the car rides over to see Richard, as she’s a seasoned traveler from her years on the road. And her eyes are bright when she first spots him walking in the door.

Greta will briefly greet the other residents, then gently curl up once again on Richard’s lap. And Richard like always, will gently stroke her back.

Joy all around.

The visit

I’m careful as I climb the steps, then slowly enter the security code for the heavy front door. I’m even more cautious as I push the door open and walk into the group home, a place where my husband is staying right now while I work. Usually they’ll be someone on the other side, telling me they urgently need to leave. I may hear a sobbing 85 year old woman insist, “I have to go home right now and help Mom with dishes.” Or another, like my husband, might reach for the door knob but will not be able to communicate why. I often wonder, does he only recall the repetitive motion of turning the knob? Or is there still a distant memory, or destination in mind?

Traveling down the narrow hallway, several residents join me like a herd of sheep. We continue to move as a pack until we get to the living room. I greet those already seated with a nod, a smile, by name. I hand the M & M cookies to the staff for an afternoon snack, though one resident insists he gets his cookie now.

I find my husband cozy in a recliner and sit next to him, asking about his day. He doesn’t answer. Sometimes one of the other higher functioning residents will answer for him, but not this day.

My husband makes no eye contact with me or anyone else. He’s in his old world, a world far away. I continue to talk to him softly. I pat his hand. Rub his back. He falls asleep.

I quietly slip out, navigating back down the long hall, looking carefully over my shoulder as I enter the code to leave. But there’s no one behind me. My fellow pack members have dozed off as well.

I’m a little blue as I return home. I decide a nap is good medicine for me as well.