Thursday, August 25, 2016

All Roads Lead to Home

When Jim returned from Vietnam, he was stationed at Fort Riley, and we spent about a year and a half living in Manhattan, Kansas. With barely enough money to get by, we often took drives in the country for entertainment. We explored the back roads, and often toured tiny towns that were barely blips on the maps. Not that it mattered to us, because we never used a map. 

Jim had a good sense of direction, and eventually, we’d wind up at the small apartment where we lived. He always said, “All roads lead to home.”

One summer day, we headed down this long, winding road through the middle of nowhere just to see what we could see. Our car didn’t have an air conditioner, so we drove with all four windows down and breezy hot air gave us the illusion of bearable heat.

After driving for about an hour, we rounded a corner to see a big sign that said, “Dead End.”

“Wouldn’t you think they would have put that sign several miles back?” I grumped. It didn’t help that I was pregnant and couldn’t seem to get comfortable. Jim, on the other hand, handled the situation by merely turning around and going back the same road.

Life’s bumpy road has significant, unexpected detours, and dead ends, that change the course of our lives. My life’s journey, of course, was forever altered when Jim developed dementia.

Sometimes, when life gets about as bad as it can possibly get, it takes a turn for the better. I had to remind myself of better days ahead last Saturday when I went to a memorial service for Linda Newkirk, a woman who became my mentor, champion, and my friend.

On the drive over, I thought about Linda and the positive influence she had been in my life. When I came up with the idea for Alzheimer’s Anthology of Unconditional Love, Linda was the Executive Director of our local Alzheimer’s chapter.

In my memories, I could still see her smile and appreciated her wholehearted support of the project. She, Joetta, and another staff member selected the stories. Linda helped me promote the book and offered her encouragement throughout the entire process.

Because of Linda, I had the audacity to believe I could gather up slice-of-life stories and publish those stories in a book. Publishing the Alzheimer’s Anthology was one of those pivotal moments that launched more than a book—it launched a new and exciting chapter of my life. 

During an invitation to share memories, several individuals spoke about how Linda had been a positive influence on their lives. Her sons talked about how much courage she showed in the face of a terminal illness. Her main concern during her last days was not that she was dying, but her worry that her family would be devastated. Linda was a woman of strong faith, and she rested easy knowing that God was good, and He would hold her in His loving embrace.

I felt compelled to share my memories of her. The enormity of losing a woman who had done so much for me threatened my composure. My voice was a little shaky as I fought back the tears, but in a couple of minutes, I paid homage to the pivotal role Linda played in my life. I don’t remember my exact words, but I ended with “I will never forget how she completely changed my life, and I’ll never forget her.”

Throughout life’s journey, we encounter people who have more confidence in us than we have in ourselves. Because of them, we have the courage to leave the familiar path we’re traveling, and go into the unchartered territory of a new direction. We take a chance on navigating the route without an itinerary or a map.

I left the memorial and headed home with gratitude in my heart that Linda had been part of my life’s story. With her radiant smile, dignity, encouragement, generosity, and kind heart, she provided a living example of how to walk through this world. Through courage and faith, she demonstrated that she knew the way to her Heavenly home. She broke the chains of earthly tribulations and embraced the joy of God’s amazing grace.

Copyright © August 2016 by L.S. Fisher

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Stave off Alzheimer’s One Dance at a Time

Going to line-dancing exercise class was one of the best decisions I’ve made in the last year. It was by chance that I saw Ruth Dale’s offer of free line-dancing classes. I commented that it sounded like fun, and she encouraged me to try it.

At an SBW meeting later that same week, a few of us decided to check it out. Friday rolled around and I worried about my ability to learn a structured dance. When I was in high school, I was loved to dance, but was mostly a free-form dancer. Or as my dance partner at a school dance observed, it looked like I was stomping on bugs.

First day of class, I caught on to a few basic moves—left vine, right vine. Some dances were easy to learn—the cupid shuffle. Others were more challenging for me—the watermelon crawl. The dance we learned this week—the wrong way—sums it all up.

I’ve been working especially hard on this dance since, “You’re going the wrong way,” was one of the few phrases Jim could say after dementia stole his language skills. This phrase was always directed at me, and it usually meant I hadn’t understood what he was trying to tell me.

Sometimes, I admit, I was actually going the wrong way. I like to do some heavy thinking while I drive. My radio is always on the Blend, and the music relaxes me and sets my mind in fast forward. This morning, I was indulging in some creative thinking, and as a result, I took the scenic route to the dietitian’s office.

The dietitian, Angela, is another good decision I made this year. She helped get me back on track after a two-year hiatus from healthy eating and regular exercise. Now, I have a second chance to get back on track after basically wrecking the train.

I give Angela credit for helping me “Fuel Up Right,” one of the Alzheimer’s Association’s “10 Ways to Love Your Brain.” Eating a balanced diet lower in fat and higher in fruits and veggies is a piece of cake. Ooops, no cake. Bad cake. Oh, well, maybe occasionally a sliver of chocolate cake.

What I’ve undertaken isn’t really a diet and exercise plan. It’s a lifestyle change. Behavioral strategies are an excellent way to reduce risk of Alzheimer’s. A new lifestyle is my ticket to a healthier me—body, mind, and spirit.

1)      Body: Since I joined line dancing and pay attention to what goes into my mouth, I’ve lost eleven pounds. That’s not as much as I want to lose, but it’s a darn good start. I feel better, stronger, and healthier than I have in a long time. According to my physician, dancing builds stronger bones and improved muscle tone.
2)      Mind: Learning new dances exercises my mind. Brain stimulation helps stave off Alzheimer’s. My brain is on overdrive as I try to remember the steps to a complex dance. Ruth likes to challenge us with new dances. The variety of the dances keeps the class fresh, interesting, and, best of all, fun!
3)      Spirit: Line-dancing exercise classes have given me the opportunity to make new friends. We have laughed, cried, and prayed together. We’ve danced together in class and out-and-about. I’m so blessed to know these happy footed gals and guys!

Line dancing applies to several of the Alzheimer’s Association’s “10 Ways to Love Your Brain.” I’ve got “Buddy Up,” or be social, covered with my new friends!

Another way to improve brain health is to “Break a Sweat.” Well, this happens every time we dance. Tuesday evening, I complained about the room being cold when we first got there. By the time we finished dancing, I was fanning myself. Go figure.

“Stump Yourself” involves challenging your mind. I’m challenging my mind one dance at a time. Biggest question when Ruth tells us what dance we will be doing is, “How does that start?” After the first few steps, the brain usually, key word usually, kicks in.

How about “Take Care of Your Mental Health”? Depression is linked to mental decline. It’s impossible to be around my line-dancing friends and be depressed. In fact, that is the perfect place to go when things aren’t going right. Dancing and listening to music are two things that put me in that happy place before I can count to four.

Life isn’t all about dancing, or is it? Yes, I think it might be!

Copyright © August 2016 by L.S. Fisher

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Nose Knows

I was sitting in church a few weeks ago and caught a hint of an unusual scent. I tried to decipher what it could possibly be, and thought I detected a hint of vanilla mixed with a light floral fragrance. It seemed odd that I caught only a whiff of the pleasant smell, and then it was gone. After church, I made a trip to Walmart. As I rounded the canned vegetable aisle, there was the same scent—illusive, and a little bit creepy, to tell the truth.

Nice smelling ghosts aside, this phantom smell concerned me. I had heard that smelling something that wasn’t there could be a sign of something going wrong in the brain—tumors and dementia at the top of the list. Phantosmia, olfactory hallucination, can be deadly serious.

I loaded my groceries, jumped in my car, and turned on the ignition. The air conditioner kicked on, and I breathed in the fragrance again! That’s when it dawned on me—the unusual smell was from the new body lotion I’d put on my arms that morning. Well, I was relieved that I’d solved the mystery and dodged that neurological disorder bullet in one fell swoop.

We are surrounded by odors, pleasant and unpleasant. Some of our strongest memories are tied to smells. Harold and I were in the shop working on his latest project when I caught the smell of freshly sawed lumber. Immediately, I thought of Jim and me building his mom’s house and then ours. By building, I don’t mean hire a contractor. We didn’t have money for that! We strapped on our tool belts and went to work. Jim could smack a nail a few times with his hammer and drive it home. I “Lizzy Borden-ed” my nails. About forty whacks later, I’d be there too.

Scents are a time machine. A recent article I read talked about how our noses are important memory tools. Our sense of smell can stimulate the brain to remember. The article in the newsletter said, “Although someone with severe-stage dementia may seem beyond all interaction, you may be able to reach in and connect through smell.”

Odors can be used to influence mood. Aromatherapy can stimulate different moods or emotions. Some scents, lavender, for example, are soothing and can be helpful for insomniacs. Peppermint and rosemary are believed to be stimulating. Peppermint might also remind a loved one of Christmas. For me, wintergreen makes me think of being sick—Pepto-Bismol.  In fact, the very smell makes me queasy.

What about those candles or plug-ins that smell like sugar cookies? That brings back memories of my mother-in-law Virginia preparing dozens of sugar cookies for care packages to family members. The trouble is, those scents make me hungry! And the smell of cinnamon drives me insane for Virginia’s cinnamon rolls.

The smell of crayons or a freshly sharpened #2 pencil will bring up mental images of the first grade. I didn’t go to kindergarten so first grade was my introduction to a schoolroom. My older brother, Tommy, ever helpful, dropped me off at the room. He tried to prepare me for my new experience by telling me the pencil sharpener was at the back of the room.

All was well, until I panicked when I couldn’t figure out exactly what the pencil sharpener was supposed to look like. I started crying. Of course, they went and got my brother to calm me down. He later said that I cried every day of first grade, but I think that is an exaggeration.

We can smell our way back to our younger years, or even our childhood. Wouldn’t it be great if we only remembered the happy smells and not the icky ones? Sometimes, we don’t get to choose which memories our sniffer triggers, because the nose knows our oldest and most deeply rooted memories. 


Copyright © August 2016 by L.S. Fisher

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Truth Is…

Living near Whiteman AFB, I see stealth bombers and fighter jets on a regular basis. I was walking my dog a few weeks ago and a pair of fighter jets flew overhead. It made me pause and think about how I had no fear of bombs raining down from the sky. The truth is I feel lucky to live in a country where we don’t worry about our enemies dropping bombs on our homes. 

Lately, I’ve seen more hate than I’ve ever seen in my life. It is true that during the Vietnam War protesters were on the news every night taking out their frustration on those drafted into fighting. The death and destruction of war invaded our homes. During that turbulent era, reporters reported the news during a thirty-minute or one-hour broadcast, then they were finished until the next day. Now, we have twenty-four hour politically biased TV pseudo-news, the Internet, and social media. Constant exposure whips some folks into a lather.

The truth is hate doesn’t solve anything; it just increases the problems. If you aren’t part of the solution, you may well be part of the problem. Do you really love your political candidate more than your own family? If you do, I find you to be a scary person with messed up loyalties. Do you really think you can change someone’s mind by throwing a hissy fit every time he disagrees with you? Tantrums might be cute in a toddler, but ridiculous in an adult.

The truth is that it’s easier to believe lies, innuendoes, and gossip than to seek the truth. Lies destroy lives. This is especially true in politics. Baseless rumors dressed up as memes on social media are shared with thousands or millions without regard to the human being targeted. Apparently, sharing this crap is more important than how offensive and reprehensible it is to family and friends.

The truth is life isn’t fair. Never has been, never will be. Bad things happen to good people and bad people prosper. Jim was a good man and, if the world had been fair, his life would have never been cut short by dementia. If life were really fair, lightning bolts would strike down truly evil people who have gone beyond redemption.

The truth is cruelty should not be tolerated. Cruel people are ugly people from the inside out. When we support cruelty, or give it a wink, we are responsible for our own actions or reactions. Selfishness damages the hearts of people who love you. Lately, I’ve witnessed feuding among family members causing pain for their mother, unkind “dramatic” actions spewing anger at a friend, and treating a person with dementia as if he is no longer human and can’t be hurt.

The truth is we are all human regardless of religion, nationality, race, sexual orientation, political party, or economic status. Each classification has good, bad, and indifferent people. There is an ultimate danger in lumping everyone with a common denominator under a single umbrella of hate or dehumanization. On the other hand, you can’t put your trust in someone for the simple reason he falls within one of those categories. Bad people do bad things without regard to your preconceived opinion. Good people come from all walks of life and diverse backgrounds.

The truth is love hurts. We like to think that love equates happiness, but just as high as the highs, the lows are not only low, they can be rock bottom. Love can be a weapon, a bargaining chip, or the most unselfish act in the world. How you use love defines you as a human being. I’ve discovered throughout my life that either you love someone or you don’t. Infatuation is not love. Lust is not love. Admiration is not love. Saying “I love you” is not love.

You don’t have to look far to see what love is: 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

At least with the people we love, each of us should strive to become less judgmental when they believe differently than we do. The truth is this would be a scary world, indeed, if we all thought alike. Thoughtful and respectful differences are a good thing. We need to become truth seekers.

Copyright © July 2016 by L.S. Fisher

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Beauty Is More than Skin Deep

When we went to the Pettis County Queen Contest, we certainly hoped that contestant #3, my granddaughter Whitney, would win. I was probably more nervous than Whitney when she walked out onto the stage, sat on the barstool, and began to play her ukulele and sing, “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” Whitney had never performed in front of anyone other than immediate family.

After hearing the first few notes, I knew she was going to nail it. Tears blurred my eyes as I thought of how proud her Grandpa Jim would have been of her. I can only imagine the pride he would feel to have a granddaughter inherit his natural music ability.

After she was crowned Miss Pettis County, Whitney was interviewed for the local news. She told the Sedalia Democrat reporter that she felt Grandpa Jim’s presence throughout the competition, and especially during the talent.

I knew she was thinking of her grandpa when she answered her on- stage interview question: “If you could change or create a new law, what would it be?” Her response was “I would enact a law making access for funds for early onset dementia patients more easily accessible.” She went on to explain that dementia is an incredibly expensive disease.

Early onset dementia affects the entire family. From an early age, our grandkids knew their grandpa had a disease that affected his memory.

When Whitney was not quite two years old, she was old enough to know that grandpa couldn’t go outside by himself because he could get lost. One day when Whitney was staying with us, we went next door to visit Jim’s mom. Jim was restless and pacing, and casually worked his way toward the door. Whitney spotted him and jumped into the doorway spreading her arms and legs to barricade the door.

“No, Papa Jim!” she said with all the authority she could muster. Jim stopped in front of her, turned around, and sat down in the recliner.

Whitney has a passion to be a volunteer and advocate for Alzheimer’s. She has walked with Jim’s Team at the Memory Walk/Walk to End Alzheimer’s since she was a toddler. She has gone to the Alzheimer’s Forum in Washington, D.C., twice to advocate for Alzheimer’s research funding and legislation to help persons with Alzheimer’s and their families.

Whitney was only seven years old, when her grandpa died. If early onset dementia had not cut his life short, Grandpa Jim would have taught Whitney how to play the ukulele, and she wouldn’t have had to learn from a YouTube video. He would have loved to sing harmony with her and played along on his guitar.

We are all proud of Whitney! We know her beauty is not just skin deep. She is an accomplished young woman with a bright future. She just graduated high school and enters college in the fall as a junior.

In the meantime, she has queenly duties and appearances to make. Volunteering at Child Safe’s Color Run this weekend will be a breeze after her obligatory duties at the Smithton Fair, including wading into a mud pit to catch a pig and dress it.

Next month during the Missouri State Fair, Whitney will compete in the State Fair Queen Contest. We’ll all be there to cheer her on to victory. When Whitney walks onto the stage holding her ukulele, Grandpa Jim will be present in our hearts and minds—bursting with pride and grinning from ear to ear.

Copyright © July 2016 by L.S. Fisher

Thursday, July 7, 2016

When Things Go Wrong

Last week, I was getting ready to go to my Alzheimer’s board meeting and decided to take the dog outside before I left. As I walked past the tubs of tomato, sweet potato, and pepper plants, I noticed another of those pesky Japanese beetles crawling along the grapevine that twines across the lattice work.

We’d been trying to get rid of the beetles for weeks. They had skeletonized the grape leaves and I could swear they were eyeballing our tomato plants.

After reviewing information from the Master Gardner’s, we had tried a couple of recommended ideas to get rid of them. One of the recommendations  was to pick them off. My first reaction had been “Ewwweee” but after a couple of weeks, that didn’t seem to be a bad idea.

I never thought about the beetle squirming in my hand in a bid for survival. When I went to throw it down, I whacked the back of my hand on the handle of the dog leash. Hard! It puffed up like a bad case of rheumatoid arthritis. Well, I iced it, had it x-rayed, put in a splint, and looked at by an orthopedic doc. Verdict was that it wasn’t broken and the tendons were where they were supposed to be.

My hand was a small reminder of how difficult life can become. We never realize how great something is until things go wrong and it doesn’t work right.

When things go wrong, we can easily be persuaded to pay more attention to what is wrong than what is right. I know how true that was as a caregiver. It was a constant struggle to schedule substitute care while I was at work. Sometimes I had to remind myself that I was so lucky to have a big family and people who were willing to go the extra mile to help me keep Jim safe. But things went wrong—he wandered away, he was stubborn, he paced, he scared some of the hired help.

I can still remember Jim’s frustration when he couldn’t find the right words, or when he made a grocery list and later noticed he had transposed letters. When his mechanical brain quit functioning correctly, he remembered how to take the vacuum apart, but not how to put it together again. His musical knowledge slipped away and he couldn’t remember song lyrics or what chords to use.

In the category of things going awry, no one has ever been exempt. Even people, who seem to lead golden lives, have catastrophes. To make it worse, those who live in view of the public often have their personal disasters plastered all over the tabloids, Internet, or even mainstream news where armchair quarterbacks nationwide critique their failures.

Just recently, parents have been skewered over the flames of self-righteousness for not being watchful of their children. People expressed their outrage toward the mother of a three-year-old child who wound up in a guerilla pit at the Cincinnati zoo. Fortunately, that child lived and no charges were filed against the mother. Another child was allowed to wade in a lagoon near a Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and was attacked and killed by an alligator. The child was too young to read the “no swimming” signs, and the parents did not realize the danger in ignoring the warning.

Before we are too quick to judge, I think maybe we should consider the times when things could have went wrong, but didn’t. Our lives can be upended in a heartbeat.

People can have life changing injuries in an accident. My accident was small, but not having the use of my right hand for a couple of days created more problems than I would have thought possible. Signing a check left handed may have been the highlight. Heaven knows what the bank is going to think of those scribbles!   

More than a week after the hand-whack-gone-wrong, my hand still hurts and remains swollen. I still have two fingers that don’t always do what they should, which makes typing incredibly challenging.

Less than a month ago, I didn’t even know what a Japanese beetle looked like, much less that one would be responsible for an injury. Until things go wrong, we don’t know just how good things were! 

Copyright © July 2016 by L.S. Fisher

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Alzheimer’s and Veterans

When Jim joined the army and went to Vietnam, my biggest worry was that he wouldn’t come home. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when he got off the plane in Kansas City, never expecting that part of his mind would always remain in the jungle. He had PTSD before it had a name, but even though we didn’t know what to call it, we knew its insidious nature.

Jim went through years of depression. He spent time in a stress unit, trying to deal with the dark feelings that brought him down to lower and lower levels. Jim would sometimes tell me, “You would be better off without me” trying to prepare me when suicide seemed the way out of the living nightmare brought on by PTSD.

The final insult to Jim’s quality of life was when dementia played more havoc with his brain. The odd thing about dementia is that as it robs a person of short-term memory, long-term memory seems more recent. One day in a restaurant, Jim began to sob uncontrollably as he vividly recalled an incident from Vietnam.

I always believed that Jim’s tour of duty had much more to do with his dementia than the VA would ever admit. Researchers agree that a definite link exists between PTSD and dementia.  A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense concluded that veterans with PTSD are 77% more likely to develop dementia than veterans who do not have it.

I’ve been an advocate for Alzheimer’s research for several years. Currently, I am the Alzheimer’s Ambassador for Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler. When I visit the Congresswoman or her staff, I always know they are listening. I’ve often been pleasantly surprised when she goes beyond my expectations.

Today, I read Congresswoman Hartzler’s newsletter and saw an article, “Expanding Alzheimer’s Research.” She proposed an amendment to the FY2017 Department of Defense Appropriations Bill to increase funding for Alzheimer’s research. When proposing the amendment, Hartzler said, “Alzheimer’s is a heartbreaking disease devastating lives, crushing families, and potentially bankrupting our nation.”

In her newsletter, she said, “Studies show our soldiers are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s due to the nature of their service. Focusing research on their conditions can not only help prevent this disease from ravishing our veterans, it can also provide hope for millions of Americans at risk or suffering from the disease.”

The amendment supplements the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program of the Department of Defense Health Program by an additional $5 million, bringing the total to $20 million. The amendment to the Department of Defense appropriations bill passed on the House floor (282-138) earlier this week.

I am deeply grateful to Vicky Hartzler for looking out for our veterans and the more than five million Americans who currently have Alzheimer’s disease.      
Copyright © June 2016 by L.S. Fisher

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Brains Matter

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. The Alzheimer’s Association has released a document listing truths about Alzheimer’s disease. I’m familiar with all the truths, and I’ve been sharing them on social media.

The truth I want to focus on today is that Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. Age is a risk factor and our odds of getting the disease go up as we grow older. Alzheimer’s progressively destroys the brain, relentlessly stripping away reasoning, memory, and personality.

I’ve never really worried too much about my brain as long as it clicks along doing its job efficiently and effectively. Sometimes, I get frustrated when I can’t retrieve an important fact or detail at the time I need the information. At other times, random memories, or thoughts, pop to the forefront, and in my haste to share, I start in the middle of a conversation. It takes awhile for me to realize no one else has a clue as to what I’m talking about, and I need to start at the beginning.

One thing I’ve always noticed is that when I’m stressed, I do not think clearly. While I was reading up on brains this Sunday morning, it became clear that I’m not alone with this problem. Research shows that stress, especially long-term stress or PTSD, affects the white matter of our brains and can cause damage.

Unless white matter does its job unhindered, our brains can’t retrieve all the information stored in our gray matter. The gray matter is where our memories, emotions, speech, and sensory perceptions are stored.

I found a clear example of how white and gray matter work together to make our brain the wondrous organ it is. The gray matter of our brains can be compared to a series of computers and the white matter compared to the network cables that connect the computers together. I found this much more helpful that all the scientific explanations of neurons, glia, and long words that I could never pretend to pronounce.

I’ve always suspected there was a big difference between early onset, or young onset, Alzheimer’s and the effect of the disease on older persons. WebMD had an article that talked about how early onset Alzheimer’s can damage the white matter of the brain and how this damage can be undetected. Early Onset affects several parts of the brain and can begin with reasoning, planning, and problem solving, but Alzheimer’s later in life may first be noticed as memory loss.

Research shows that a healthy diet, exercising your body and brain (puzzles, anyone?), and social interaction help keep your brain doing what brains should do. The bottom line is that our brain matter matters!

Copyright © June 2016 by L.S. Fisher