Stories and thoughts about family and life

The second childhood

on November 16, 2013

I remember a lady with whom I used to work, speaking about her mother-in-law who was living with them and had Alzheimer’s. She referred to it often as “her second childhood.” I was about 15 years younger at that point, and while I could sympathize with her situation I didn’t really get what she was saying. My perspective is rapidly changing.

I’ve come to see life as a mountain range. You spend the first few years of your life climbing the first hill, the middle years (hopefully a long period) traversing the top of the mountain range with a few ups and downs but generally at the same level, and then your senior years coming back down the mountain and regressing back to essentially the same state you were as a toddler. I had heard several stories of people dealing with this, but honestly had always thought it was a bit of an exaggeration. I mean, these are people who have a whole lifetime of experience–surely they don’t lose all of that. But they do, and that’s what makes the trip down the mountain so dangerous, and so unexpectedly painful.

I have also felt really guilty about thinking some of the things that are happening are funny, but I’ve had to realize that the same way I share funny and cute stories about my kids, that with in-laws who are now on many of the same levels, they are going to repeat many of the same things. Sometimes it’s really funny, and sometimes it’s just sad and miserable. The humorous parts help us through the ones which aren’t, though, and I’m trying to just see the humor when it’s there in everything.

Thus, we’ve learned the past couple of weeks that my father-in-law has been making bizarre phone calls while he has been in rehab (I’m learning that this is actually common for people in the hospital on pain killers). We suspect that he’s dreaming something and then wakes up and acts on it. For example, my husband received a frantic call from my father-in-law a couple of days ago, saying that my mother-in-law had “lost it” and had called him saying Frankenstein was in her apartment and she needed someone to come kill him. Now, if we had all stopped to think about it, my mother-in-law has been with a 24 hour caregiver for the past couple of weeks, so the likelihood of her making a call like that was exceptionally slim. But in the moment, you just react. My husband dropped everything and drove like Mario Andretti to the apartment to find my mother-in-law and her caregiver, joyfully watching “The View” on TV. We chalked that up to just a prank call until my father-in-law did it again, this time calling an uncle to come and get him out of the hospital. This has prompted several new conversations around the telephone, and that it never occurred to us that you might not want your loved one to have a phone too close at hand.

Paul was moved to the nursing home Thursday afternoon. Friday morning at 3 a.m., we received our first phone call from the nursing staff, saying Paul had fallen out of bed. He was fine, and they weren’t really sure what happened, except that they found him on the floor. When we questioned Paul Friday night, he had woken up at 2:30, decided he was tired of lying in bed, and that he wanted to stand next to the bed. He had been given orders not to get out of bed (his legs aren’t strong enough), but decided to anyway, without calling for help. We had to have a talk about following the rules, which was quite reminiscent of conversations with my 10 year old about consequences.

My mother-in-law was worked up about someone having come in during the night and “messed with” her CPAP, taking one of the straps off and replacing it with a string. She was so upset about it that we had to take the headset and show her that it was actually alright and looked like it always does. She decided that he must have come back and fixed it during the day. Although, she did remark that it worked better with the string.

Helen was also upset that when Paul fell, the ambulance was over three hours away! This elicited quite the excited response from both Louis and me, as we struggled to figure out why an ambulance was called if he was okay. Being new to the nursing home policies, we weren’t sure what order everything would happen, and maybe they had decided afterward that they needed to transport him somewhere for x-rays and then bring him back. After questioning her for several minutes, and explaining that we thought they had a portable x-ray unit, we discovered that’s exactly what happened. There was no ambulance, and they had to call someone in for the portable x-ray unit, which did take a couple of hours.

We’re having to learn to take everything with a grain of salt, and ask 10 additional questions with each story. We’re only at the beginning of this journey, and the nursing staff has been more than helpful explaining things, and helping calm us when we come out with some crazy question or trying to investigate the latest “happening” about which we’ve received information. The nurse was very gentle with us last night as we were trying to explain how upset Helen was that Paul’s oxygen mask was not replaced after they had taken him out of the room for the x-rays, and that we wanted to know what happened. We found out he was never removed from the room, and hadn’t even been out of bed except to be moved to a wheelchair to sit for a bit today, and they had ensured his oxygen was moved with him. Paul seemed to have no recollection of having his oxygen off either.

As we drove home last night, we discussed how anyone who has a loved one in a nursing home would ever know if anything was really not going on properly unless your loved one was not mentally impaired at all. Helen was increasingly agitated when we wouldn’t remove items that had been left in the room when they moved Paul in, despite us explaining those were his things and needed to stay with him. They have given him a sling to use in a portable lift they use for him (until he can walk again), and it took a rather terse 5 minute conversation to get her to understand that he needs those items and they belong in the room so they’re handy when they’re needed. We finally agreed to take one of the blankets with us so she would let the rest of it go. Life has become somewhat of a negotiation. In those moments it’s hard to see any humor at all. Those are the sad moments that just make you want to cry.

I think a lot of a conversation recently with my sister-in-law regarding advice from her preacher about how quickly people deteriorate when already slightly incapacitated and then their world is changed. I’m honestly a little nervous about the next few months. I’m thankful they’re no longer living on their own, but I think we’re still in for quite an interesting ride. Hopefully we’ll move to a point where it’s more humor and less sadness.

I have been so thankful for my own parents, who have endured this journey with us, and tried to offer kind advice and a listening ear whenever possible. I’ve been able to ask them several “how would you want to hear this” scenarios and it has given them pause to think about their own situations, and what might happen to them. I told my mother a couple of weeks ago that the hardest part has been parenting the parents, and that since Louis and I were married so young we both “grew up” with these two sets of parents. It’s heart-breaking to see this all happening, and it’s hard to suddenly take charge and have to say “this is how it’s going to be.” We’re in unfamiliar territory with no map. There is not a “Dr. Spock” or “What to Expect” book that can adequately prepare you for these kinds of situations. They vary as wildly as the individual, and their personality has a huge role to play in how they react to each thing.


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