by Hugh Frank Smith
People often ask me: "How were you able to cope with your wife Rachael's long illness with Alzheimer's?"
I hope my answer will help other caregivers.
It was, of course, traumatic and emotionally draining to watch my wife of 53 years fade away mentally, then physically, before she died in 1997. Still, there were many bright moments filled with laughter and fond reminiscences of our life together. My wife's infectious humor, for which she had always been noted, remained with her almost to the end, and did much to ease the burden of her illness.
As her condition worsened, we tried to focus on her remaining mental and physical abilities and adjust to her new limitations.
For example, my daughters, Sunde and Melanie, and I found that it was very important
to continue talking with her as if she understood everything we said. We might simplify our sentences, but we never left her out of the conversation, and we always kept eye contact. She was always placed in the middle of whatever activity was going on at the house.
At one point, we gathered Rachael's sister Ruth and my sister Nan, then in their late 80s, and taped a long conversation with the three of them about their years on farms in the early 1900s. You could just see Rachael's speech become more animated as she began to talk about all the animals and people that had populated that period in her life. This was before cars, airplanes, radios, even electricity in many areas. It is a treasured oral family history, especially since times changed so radically during their lifetimes.
I often regret now that I did not have similar conversations with my father, who lived into his mid-90s, and could have told me so much about a way of life in this country that has vanished.
We found it especially important for Rachael to continue her usual routine as much as possible for as long as possible. Until the last two years of her 14-year illness she dressed early every morning for her round of barnyard chores. She often selected rather quirky attire, which amused all of us, and would usually tuck feathers into her belt or cap. She scoured the farm daily for feathers our flock of geese might have shed, and arranged them in vases around the house. She had her special goose, Goosey Goosey Gander, that she had raised by hand and who would come running at the sound of her voice.
Her colony of cats included her special pet, Hans, who spent more time on her lap
than outdoors. She also fed her favorite palomino horse, Apollo, along with our
border collies, Mark and Joyce, and her Plymouth Rock laying hens. She would proudly
exclaim: "Look how many eggs I got today!"
Even as her memory faded, Rachael never seemed depressed, and often she would laugh at herself when she said something ridiculous or outrageous. Rather than correct her mistakes, many of them humorous, we just went along with them. I even kept a log. For example, one evening she looked at me and asked: "How did I happen to marry you? I didn't mean to." We both laughed. Another night, after arriving home from a party, she looked at our house and asked: "Didn't we once live here?" I laughed and she quickly joined me.
I really think she often made comments like that just to elicit a chuckle. When she couldn't get to sleep one night, I suggested: "Why don't you count sheep?" Her reply: "We only have three." That was true; we had three sheep.
Visitors sometimes were subjected to careful scrutiny from Rachael. She looked at
one lady and then frankly asked: "Are those your real teeth?"
Most important, she remained at the center of our farm and our family throughout it
all. We found ways to treasure as much of the end of life as possible. As it turned
out, Rachael's sunny disposition throughout her life was her final gift to us. It
made Alzheimer's "long goodbye" more bearable for my daughters and myself.
[This story was first published in The Memphis Commercial Appeal on March 26, 2004, and is reprinted with permission.]
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