My cell phone rings in the morning as I’m blowdrying my hair before work. I look at the number, and I’m not sure who’s calling. I’m tempted to assume it’s a wrong number and not answer. I’m running late. I figure if it’s someone I know, they can leave a voicemail. However, something tells me to answer.
It’s a friend of a friend that I’ve met with before. I’ll call her Laura. Her and her husband, Al, are in their early 70’s. He has Alzheimer’s. He was diagnosed about five years ago. The last time I talked to Laura, Al was able to work at a part-time job and drive.
When I answer the phone, Laura tells me that she doesn’t know what to do. Al has been declining quickly. He needs help using the restroom. He forgets to eat. The other day he didn’t even know how to open a door.
But that’s not why Laura called. She called because he didn’t sleep last night. He wandered around the house, disorientated and muttering to himself. At about 3 am, she tried to get him to come to bed. It was dark and he didn’t recognize her. He pushed her down on the couch and started to put pressure on her neck, as if he were trying to choke her. Laura mentions several times that he didn’t leave any marks on her neck. I’m not sure if she’s trying to reassure me or herself.
Then he shuffled off and went out onto the deck. Laura spent the next couple of hours watching him from the window. She was worried he’d wander off and get lost, but she was also scared to try to convince him to come inside.
“I don’t know what to think,” Laura tells me. “He’s a gentle guy and we’ve always had a great marriage. He’s never been abusive.”
I explain that this has nothing to do with whether or not he’s a kind and gentle person. It has nothing to do with their marriage. It has everything to do with Alzheimer’s.
I tell her that he’s scared. The rest of the world may perceive Al as being in his own home–a familiar environment in which he has resided for decades–with his wife of almost 50 years. However, Al’s behavior tells me that he wasn’t in a familiar environment with a familiar person. He was in a scary place where he was approached by someone he didn’t recognize.
The term aggression in relation to people with dementia makes me uncomfortable. When we say someone is aggressive, we generally mean that they are unprovoked (rather than defending themselves) and intending to use force to hurt someone. However, I would argue that aggression among those with dementia is almost always a result of fear.
The way that someone with dementia perceives the world around them often results in a feeling of being threatened. What does anyone do when they are threatened? They lash out. It’s a natural reaction. When people with dementia show aggressive behaviors, these behaviors often make sense if we consider how they might be perceiving the world around them.
I ask Laura a few more questions. I learn that Al used to be a hunter, and Laura came home recently to find that he pulled out a few guns and put them on the kitchen table. He explained to her that someone had been messing around in the garage, so he had to be prepared. It scared Laura enough that she asked her son to come and get Al’s guns.
“I’m pretty sure that no one was in the garage,” she tells me. “But I guess you never know.”
On another day, he was convinced that “the militia” was after him. He had a bunch of knives out on the counter. He had also kicked the dog a few times, which was something the “old Al” would never have done. It horrified Laura.
Laura keeps telling me that she doesn’t think Al would ever hurt her. (She’s more worried about the dog, she says.) I have to think that if she really believed this she would not have called me before 7 am. She’s scared.
I tell her that she needs to get Al a medical check up. I am particularly concerned that he may have a urinary tract infection, which is often linked to aggressive behavior in those with dementia. She agrees he needs to go to the doctor, but she has no idea how to get him in the car. She doesn’t think he’ll go willingly.
Then I ask her if she’s checking into long term care options. There is a pause. The kind of pause where you wonder if the call has been dropped. Or if someone has hung up on you.
Finally, Laura tells me that she can’t do it. She can’t even think about Al living in a nursing home. He’s been a good husband and she will take care of him at home. She says he deserves that, and she promised their kids that he’d stay at home. She insists she’s doing okay. I point out that she wouldn’t have called me if she was doing okay. Dementia caregivers don’t call me to say they are doing fine.
I tell Laura that Alzheimer’s is a cruel beast, and sometimes it forces us to make choices that we don’t want to make. Most people are not really excited about the idea of someone that they love going to a nursing home or memory care community, but sometimes it’s the decision we have to make. I’m concerned that he needs a level of care that can no longer be provided in home. And I’m concerned about her well-being and safety.
I tell her that she can’t continue to live like this. She’s not sleeping. She’s not eating. She says she’s sick to her stomach all the time. She’s particularly worried about him hurting the dog. She can’t have people over to the house because it seems to agitate him. And she can no longer leave the house because she’s not comfortable leaving him alone.
“I can handle him at home,” she says. “I mean, how long can this go on?” I have no idea if this is a question she wants me to answer or a rhetorical question. I answer anyway. I tell her it could actually go on for quite some time.
I give her some advice on community resources. I tell her not to be afraid to call the police if she has concerns about her safety or Al’s safety. We talk about support groups, but she doesn’t seem interested. I suggest she start checking into nursing homes and memory care communities. Although she earlier said she couldn’t do it, she says she’ll consider it. She might be appeasing me.
Then I hang up my phone and get back to drying my hair. I head to work and get on with my day. I’m not sure if what I said to Laura was even close to helpful. Yet I’m not sure what I could have said differently.
That evening I get a call from Laura. She tells me Al is in the psych ward. She is upset because she thinks they gave him too many sedatives when he arrived. In her words, he’s a zombie. She’s also frustrated because they used restraints when she didn’t feel it was necessary. A social worker told her that there’s no way she can take Al home. They need to talk about other options.
Yet, she also tells me she’s feeling relieved that he’s out of the house, and she’s excited to get a decent night’s sleep. In the next breath, she says she’s feeling guilty for feeling relieved.
I hang up the phone as my husband is getting home from the gym. I pour a glass of Riesling. We sit on the couch together and watch some mindless TV with our dogs. We both vent about work. We talk about the weekend plans we have with friends.
My mind drifts, and I wonder if there could ever be a day when my husband sees me as a stranger. Despite my experience with dementia, I can’t fathom it. I can’t wrap my mind around that possibility. It’s not something that could happen to us. Not now, not in five decades, not ever.
I can’t stop thinking about how cruel it is that fifty beautiful years of marriage must end this way for Al and Laura. I want Laura to have peace, but I can’t tell her how to get there. I can explain dementia, but I can’t help her make sense of it. Sometimes there isn’t a silver lining, and sometimes you come up empty in a search for meaning.