Some days are good

This is an update to my previous post regarding my mother’s condition; after a two-month-long deterioration, my mother stabilized, and then began showing awareness of her surroundings again, and responding to us on some days.

As anyone who has lived with a dementia patient knows, there are good days, and there are bad days. Before March, while my mother was generally inactive and not talking, there were days when she’d nod, smile, and say a few words. She would clasp my hand and kiss it.  She smiled.  Once in a while, she’d surprise us with a full sentence that made sense. Such good moments were what brightened the caregiving and brought smiles to our lives.

Those good moments reduced and then vanished around March this year.

My mother stopped uttering even a Yes or No and she no longer nodded or shook her head or clasped my hand. She barely opened her eyes when fed, and often refused to open her mouth. She did not wince or show any pain reaction. She did not react even when the technician jabbed her for a blood sample. It usually takes multiple jabs to take out a sample from her, and they have to poke around the needle in her flesh in a way that seems like sheer torture, but she slept through that entire process. The test reports were within acceptable ranges, and the doctor could not find any problem when he examined her. But she was fading, and we could not reach her as she sank into some world of her own.

We continued to talk to her, hold her hand, try and coax her, but at times it felt as if we were intruding, because it was not clear whether she preferred our presence or wanted to be left to her silence. We also kept trying to tweak things in ways we thought she would be more comfortable–wiping off her sweat, making her drink ORS when it seemed hot, and so on–but it was mainly guesswork, because she was not complaining or wincing or showing any happiness or unhappiness.

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Keeping her happy: Challenges of late-stage dementia care

My mother has slipped down some more on the incline of deterioration in her late-stage dementia, a slipping so gradual it is difficult to register it as it happens. But it was just two months ago that she enjoyed the story I was telling her every day and then the frequency tapered slowly, and now it has been several days since she indicated she’d like to hear the story. She sleeps most of the time, often not opening her eyes even when we feed her.

Around two months ago, when asked a question, my mother sometimes nodded or shook her head, or turning her face away. Once in a while (if the question was very simple, like, “Are you feeling cold?”) she’d even say a word or phrase (Haan) in response while nodding. She would nod vigorously if I asked her whether she wanted me to talk or to tell her a story, but sometimes she’d shake her head to indicate she wanted to rest instead.

We deciphered (hopefully correctly) her choices and her moods by asking simple questions and watching her body language.

When not sleepy, she enjoyed company and people talking to her , though it was often clear she did not fully understand the content of what was being said. For example, I don’t think she understood the details of the story (and it was always the same story), but she understood that someone was telling her a story, and showed her liking for that companionship and affection.

Now, it is increasingly difficult to understand her desires because most of the times, she does not respond (through words or even body language) when asked a question.

After her last round of blood tests and checkup, the doctor told us she is doing well as far as the physical parameters are concerned, and that the minor imbalances (the sort she has often had before) were within acceptable range and not sufficient to explain the change we were seeing. He agreed that she is declining in terms of her responding. “What can we do?” I asked. He explained that such gradual deterioration was natural given her dementia, and there was nothing to be treated as such. “Keep her happy,” he said.

I don’t think we human kind are very good at being happy. Or keeping others happy.
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A year later: One year of care for a bedridden mother

Last October, my mother became bedridden, a consequence of the progression of her dementia. Frankly, I had always dreaded the possibility of taking care of someone so fully bedridden, and everyone I knew dreaded such a state, too. With a year over, I guess it’s time to share how she reached the bed-ridden state and how home care for this has been this last one year.

Looking back to the months before she became bedridden, I am surprised we didn’t realize how much she was deteriorating. She was facing obvious problems while walking; she would not lift her legs, even on being prompted. She would drag a leg only after a lot of coaxing, not lift it. Sometimes she would move the same leg twice; for example, she would move her left leg twice while the right leg stayed back, and we had to yank her upright or she’d have fallen. Every trip to the bathroom was an ordeal for her and for us, and soiling became common. She reduced speaking, and barely showed any interest in anything. We hoped she would improve, and kept trying to talk to her, playing games, and so on, telling ourselves that she was tired.

On a day in late September, while sitting in a chair she fell sideways at a strange angle and bumped her eye on the chair’s arm in a contortion a circus performer would have envied. The eye turned alarmingly bloodshot; frightened, we called the doctor who prescribed eye drops to start on and then came for a visit. She examined the eye with her torch and told us she didn’t think there was any deep injury, but recommended we get my mother checked up the next morning by a specialist who would have the right equipment to do a proper check. So next morning, there we were, at a hospital, my mother in a wheelchair, flanked by us.

Everyone at the hospital was very nice to us. The attendant who pushed the wheelchair talked sweetly to my mother, the receptionist talked sweetly, the nurse, the doctor, the doctor’s intern, all were extremely helpful. My mother looked piteously at them and held out her hand; by turns, they took her hands and squeezed it reassuringly.  We confirmed that the injury was superficial, and that nothing needs to be done, and came back.
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Ramblings on love, hate, and a life worth living

February has been a mixed month for my mother, the most painful part being when she went down with fever but could not tell us where the pain was. Being a dementia patient in an advanced stage, she cannot communicate her problems to us, which means we have to be detectives. Much investigation and deduction was attempted, without success, medication given to control the fever. Two days into the problem, she broke and swallowed a tooth–ouch! She broke another tooth again, the next day. Ergo, a tooth infection. Fever’s under control, and a dentist was requested to make a home visit to assess her dental status 🙂 A major project is now to be planned–a trip to the dentist to remove another tooth that is tethering on a breakdown, and to clean up the stuff left behind by the two not-so-neatly broken teeth. That she is fully bedridden makes the challenge more, well, challenging. Ah, well.

But what’s prompted me to write this blog is something quite unrelated, actually, a few unrelated things, that happened these last two weeks.

Firs, I’d like to share a memory dating around seven years ago. Seven years ago, I was still naive about dementia and how it affects people, still thinking increased memory loss was like losing ten keys a day instead of one. My mother was in her own denial mode, unwilling to admit to any memory loss. The world around her (as I can see in retrospect) bewildered her, and she was not going to tell anyone that. She was a fighter, she was. Often I saw her writing with a fierce concentration in a diary, and snap it close when I entered her room. One day, she left it open near her breakfast tray, and there it was, written with a red pen, written so angrily that the pen had torn through the paper. There were many broken sentences on the page, and I stopped short when I saw my name. She had written that she hated me, written it again and again and again, and written about others she hated, and at the end, there was: I hate hate hate the world.
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Palliative care in dementia

In a support group meeting I attended in December 2009, I was introduced to the concept of Palliative Care and how it may be applied to a patient with dementia.

The thrust of palliative care is ensuring the patient’s quality of life, and keeping that in focus while taking decisions such as how aggressive medical treatment should be.

A few years ago, I had assumed that medical intervention is a must. If one has an infection, an antibiotic course is inevitable. Last year, in September, my mother’s lab results showed a urinary infection, and the doctor started her on an antibiotic, based on the culture report. It did not work. Again, based on the fresh culture, a new antibiotic was given. Again, no effect.  Medication for the infection was discontinued finally, on advice of the specialist, after confirming that my mother was not exhibiting any symptoms of the infection (asymptomatic infections are often not treated).

While we were lucky that the infection was asymptomatic and treatment was not necessary, the incident still left me shocked. I had not envisaged a situation when, despite the sensitivity report showing the antibiotic was suitable, the medicine would not work. It had not occurred to me that medicines worked only because the body processed them in a way that allowed them to work…that the body can reach a point where it cannot use the medicines fed to it. Suppose, I thought, the infection had not been asymptomatic? Would the treatment have become increasingly aggressive? What is the trade-off between suffering symptoms of a disease as against the stress on a tired, aging metabolic and excretory system which is plied with stronger and stronger medication?

As my mother becomes frail, I can see a number of such trade-offs that will need to be made. She already has swallowing problems, and these are going to increase. Aspiration pneumonia is likely to occur. She is bed-ridden, and though we are using an alternating-pressure air mattress, we are apprehensive about bed-sores. Then, there are other infections, like chest infections, that can occur however well we guard her. There may be a stage when she cannot swallow enough food to sustain her. For all these situations, there are aggressive approaches,but these do not always work, and sometimes they worsen the situation by introducing other problems.

As a lay person I know very little of the trade-offs, but I am keen to understand enough so that when a doctor suggests something I can ask the right questions and understand how the treatment helps, and how it may not help. The concepts of palliative care as applied to dementia seem relevant and worth studying, and I am searching for comprehensive documents that discuss these.

My blog entries of my experiences of looking after my bedridden mother(she is in late-stage dementia) are available here: Late stage care (Caring for mother).

Resources to understand late stage care are available here: Late-stage dementia care page of Dementia Care Notes


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Decision making for dementia patients

As I mentioned earlier, one of the most frightening parts of caregiving for me is taking decisions on behalf of the patient.

In most aging, the elder takes his or her own decisions, but in the case of dementia patients, decision-making is the caregiver’s responsibility. Is the patient in pain or not, and should I call the doctor? What, exactly, is paining, and how much? Did the patient’s pain reduce with the medication? If the doctor offers a choice, should antibiotics be given or not, if the patient may not benefit from them? How aggressive and invasive should treatment be? Should the patient be hospitalized?

My current phase of caregiving may require tough decisions that my mother can no longer participate in, as she just does not understand anything. There is so much confusing information around, so much “there is no right answer” type of advice, so many pros and cons to weigh.

Let me illustrate with an example.
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Moving forward as a caregiver, accepting new realities

I use this blog as a means of introspection, mainly with respect to my caregiving role and its impact on my choices and attitude. As January draws to its end, so does my month-long one-blog-a-day exercise it is time for me to consolidate my thoughts and get ready for the year stretched in front of me.

A number of my blogs so far have described the current status, and examined the past to see what  I did, and what in hindsight), I would do differently if life pressed rewind. And it now makes sense to see what lies ahead to incorporate all I discovered about myself into my future.

One lesson I have learned is that there are no easy answers for what is right or wrong, but being better informed about the various option, and their pros and cons, will allow me to make choices I remain comfortable with, even in hindsight. So yes, I will read up more on topics that are relevant now.
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Bioethics and dementia

Just saw this site, Nuffield Council on Bioethics, and read their work on dementia.

I have only one word. Wow!

Sometimes, someone catches every thought you have or could have had.

Every section, every point, every sentence resonated. I wish  could make this compulsory reading for…oh, well, everyone, because dementia and caregiving is something that affects everyone. Anyone can get dementia, anyone can be thrust in the role of a caregiver. And even if not, there are people around you who are patients or caregivers, and they deserve a life, too. What I loved about these reports is that they address a wide range of impacts. They don’t just talk about the patients’ right, they acknowledge the carer, and they acknowledge the role of society in it all, even that of shops and restaurants a patient may visit (or should be able to).

Dignity. Ethics. The right to life fully, despite the condition. The dilemmas and difficulties. The carer’s own life, and the balancing act. How every case is different. How difficult it is. How it hurts. What can help. It’s all there.

I thought I would place a summary here, but I can’t do justice with a summary, so go ahead to the Nuffield download page and have a look yourself….

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Palliation

A support group meeting I hope to attend will be including an expert who will talk on palliative care. I am really looking forward to this meeting. Such meetings provide me a forum to share my experiences and insights with others, and also get input from them. There’s nothing as effective as interacting with fellow-travelers on this caregiving journey, where we get a compassionate and helpful environment to understand how we can handle our roles effectively.

The meeting is particularly welcome right now because of my changed caregiving situation.

Around three months ago, my mother slipped into a bed-ridden state. She nods and smiles occasionally, but does not talk, except for a word or two–around five words a day 😦  .  She cannot prop herself up on bed, or turn sides without assistance.  As I, along with the medical and nursing resources available to me, examine ways to improve her situation, I am also trying to adjust to this new reality. Stuff that was priority a few months ago seems trivial, or at least, not important in my immediate context, and I am redefining my life.

One casualty along the way has been my blogging. It is as if I had decided that I will blog only when I am free to do so, and when I am feeling good and relaxed enough to compose something. I suspect that’s not going to be likely for a while, and so I am wondering whether I should blog anyway, even if the posts are small, to share my current caregiving situation and the thoughts it brings to me. I haven’t decided yet, but perhaps there is a merit in sharing this part of my life as it happens…

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