Saturday, November 28, 2009

Let it Glow

Black Friday is theoretically the biggest shopping day of the year, but I did my share of helping the economy during my Branson trip. Friday, I slept late and spent the day leisurely dragging out my Christmas decorations. I usually start with my Old World Santas, but this year began with the nutcrackers instead. With careful arrangement, most of the nutcrackers fit on the shelf above my entertainment center.

It was a beautiful day and ideal weather to string the lights on the back deck. Last year, the day of our family get-together, a friend and I wound the lights around the railing wearing gloves and heavy coats.

Once the tree was up and the fiber optic bear lit, it was time to relax with a spot of tea and flip the switch for the lights. I’m still a far cry from the Griswolds, but this as glowing as lights get around my house.

It’s not like me to decorate for Christmas this early, but for some reason, I was compelled to begin on Black Friday. I’ve enjoyed a leisurely vacation this week staying close to home. I worked on my manuscript, but didn’t push it too much and opted for some much needed downtime.

Several years ago, we de-stressed Christmas by changing our tradition. When we have our family gathering, each adult brings an inexpensive gift to exchange. I buy educational CDs for my grandchildren and a few small gifts.

When I was unloading the Christmas totes yesterday, it was bittersweet. I found the tiny Christmas tree I used to put in Jim’s room at the nursing home. I came across a framed snapshot I always set out during the holidays. It is a picture of Jim, me and our oldest grandson sitting on the living room floor in front of the Christmas tree. Jim is wearing his denim jacket, Vietnam Veteran’s cap, and dark sunglasses. The picture is not dated, but this outfit was his hallmark of early dementia.

One year, when I put photographs in a box to clear the shelves for decorations, Jim took them out of the box and set them back on the shelf. He didn’t want me to change things, he wanted familiar family pictures.

Pictures freeze a small moment in time. Can I remember what I was thinking at the moment the camera snapped? Maybe not, but the look we share is filled with love and happiness.

This will be my fifth Christmas without Jim. Christmas is probably the hardest holiday for people who have lost a loved one. From childhood we build high expectations of what Christmas should be and are disappointed when it doesn’t reach the level we anticipated. Once we understand that the greatest gifts are not wrapped in shiny paper and topped with bows, we are free to celebrate the real gifts in life.

This year, I look forward to the holiday season with an inner peace and joyfulness I haven’t felt for a long time. My joy has nothing to do with shopping, buying or receiving presents. It has to do with family and friends, to love and be loved.

A picture perfect Christmas needs snow and glistening trees. One Christmas refrain is, “Let it snow!” A heart perfect Christmas needs love and hope. When I flip the switch and the house is aglow with Christmas lights, my expectation is that the brightest glow will be in my heart and on my face.

Here’s to wishing your holiday refrain will be “Let it glow!”

Monday, November 23, 2009

Everything Changes

Last weekend evolved into a whirlwind of shows and shopping. A girls’ weekend—friends spending time together in Branson.

Visiting Branson and Silver Dollar City is a metamorphic experience for a native Missourian. Our little moth has changed into a glitzy butterfly, and the razzle-dazzle masks the charm of small town Branson. When I was a student at Hard Work U, Branson had a four way stop and two or three small country music theatres. Dick’s Five and Dime was there, but instead of being a tourist attraction, it was just a place where you could buy inexpensive items.

Silver Dollar City has changed from a small local attraction with a train ride, the Fire in the Hole and a few pickers and grinners to an extravaganza of professional shows, thrill rides, lights in every tree, bush, hollow, building, structure, and a five story Christmas tree—four million lights in all.

Branson is always bittersweet for me because Jim and I spent a lot of time there, especially when his dementia made our trips to Colorado much harder. Being a musician himself, Jim loved the music shows. His favorite performer was Tom Brumley and the highlight of each Branson trip. We had season passes to Silver Dollar City and enjoyed taking our grandson with us when he was little. I’ll never forget the weekend when he and Jim went into the restroom and I waited and worried about what was taking them so long. While I vigilantly guarded the door, they walked up behind me. They had exited on the other side of the building and my four-year-old grandson led his grandpa back to me.

I have more memories of Silver Dollar City and Branson than they have Christmas lights. This weekend, I added to those memories. The production of A Dickens’ Christmas Carol was performed by a talented troupe that would have done Broadway proud. As if that wasn’t enough, my friends and I experienced Cathy Rigby as Peter Pan. The show had so much magic that we all went home with pockets full of fairy dust and determination to never grow up.

Branson and Silver Dollar City have both become unrecognizable—different, but still hold the magic of a lifetime of memories. Where my dad used to fish is now a multi-million dollar shopping area known as The Landing. Streetscaping with gaslights, fountains, Christmas lights, old fashioned trolleys and street performers give it the look and feel of other upscale “old town” shopping centers scattered throughout the United States.

I’m sure a lot of tourists feel like they’ve taken a step back in time when they visit Branson. Sometimes I feel like I’ve leapt into the future and don’t really know this place at all. Branson is like a rock star with countless facelifts to deliberately remove the flaws and accidentally erase the character that made it unique.

The hills don’t look anything like they did forty years ago, but then neither do I. Everything changes. How we react to those changes determine whether we continue to enjoy life or groan about the “good ole days.” I don’t know about you, but I intend to find as much joy as I can while I pass through this world.

Branson is most definitely filled with entertainment choices and great places to eat. Even with my determination to be flexible, I’ll admit that slow moving traffic, elbow to elbow shopping, and trolling for a parking space is annoying. Spending time with friends and enjoying world class entertainment adds to my treasure trove of happy memories.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hugs Are Better Than Drugs

In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to attend some outstanding Alzheimer’s training. I also read two good books about dementia.

In late October, I went to the Alzheimer’s Association Heart of America’s Train the Trainer, Building Creative Caregivers. Last Friday I went to the Mid-Missouri Chapter’s program on genetic studies. No matter how much I learn about Alzheimer’s, I pick up new information at each program I attend and from each book I read.

At the Building Creative Caregivers training session, I received a thick workbook. As I began to read through the details of all the modules, I came across reference to The Best Friends Approach to Alzheimer’s Care by Virginia Bell and David Troxel. The book goes hand in hand with the “Person First” module in the Train the Trainer manual.

I sat on my porch this afternoon reading the book. I found “An Alzheimer’s Disease Bill of Rights” to be a logical set of guidelines. In the detail, for “To be free from psychotropic drugs, if possible” I saw the statement: Hugs are usually better than drugs. I wholeheartedly agree with that statement.

The Best Friends Approach is written with professional caregivers in mind. It is a way to provide care based on meeting the psychological as well as physical needs of a person who has been diagnosed with dementia. Family caregivers know the history and preferences of their loved one, but when professionals treat everyone the same, they are denying our individual natures and preferences.

It is important to minister to the soul and spirit as well as the physical needs when a person faces the challenges of dementia. Bell and Troxel liken Alzheimer’s disease to a long trip in a foreign land where we can’t speak the language, know the customs, or understand how to use the phone.

When caring for a person with dementia we must concentrate on what they can do rather than what they cannot do. Can they still enjoy a walk? A drive? A cup of coffee where they can watch birds gather at a feeder? Jim was a musician and never lost his love of country music. He had a personal tape player with headphones. When the tape ended, Jim had to rely on someone else to turn the tape and play the other side. How easy would it be now to fill an IPod with someone’s favorite music?

At the Mid-Missouri program this week, one of the staff members asked me if I had read Still Alice. She told me she had just finished the book and thought it was excellent. I bought the book from Lisa Genova last March at the Alzheimer’s Association Public Policy Forum. I had heard a lot about the book, but when I realized Genova based the fictional story on her research of early onset Alzheimer’s rather than personal experience, I figured it was another glamorized story about Alzheimer’s with no basis on reality.

I read Still Alice in a few days. Genova makes Alice seem like a real person and you can feel Alice’s confusion and grief as the disease brings an end to her familiar life. The journey for Alice and her family are realistic. The conflicts between love and loss, selfishness and generosity, denial and acceptance have been experienced by millions of families when they realize their loved one cannot be cured.

Yes, the past few weeks have been filled with learning. Last night at support group, we showed “Momentum in Science Part I” from the HBO Alzheimer’s Project. Although I had watched the film before, I learned from it. It was interesting to see the relationship between brain disease and overall health.

Much has been learned about Alzheimer’s disease, but so much of it is still a mystery. As scientists seek effective treatment, we must provide the best care possible for those who have the disease now. With a best friends approach, we can provide person first care to improve quality of life whether a person lives at home or in a long-term care facility.

Hugs are indeed better than drugs and a lot less expensive.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Turtles, Tunnels, and Denial

Turtles, our slow-natured friends, are the beneficiaries of a government sponsored windfall. Plans are afoot to provide a $3 million tunnel for Florida turtles to allow safe passage beneath the busy highway.

We wouldn’t want turtles to be hit by cars and become unwilling missiles. Does the so-called expert that says this happens think turtles are a top-secret weapon of mass destruction?

I will admit that living in rural Missouri, I’ve run over my share of turtles. I’ve seen others that met with a sad fate while simply trying to cross a country road or state highway.

I hate to hit a turtle. I’ve never seen one become a missile, but I’ve certainly heard the sickening “plop” as the shell crunches. It makes me feel bad to know I’ve unwittingly killed a living creature. Sometimes, I’m lucky and straddle the little slowpokes and spare their lives. Other times, we are both unlucky.

Jim created his own turtle/terrapin crossings. When he spotted one of the little fellows in the road, he stopped the car, got out, and carried the docile creature across the road. Hopefully, he saved as many lives as I took with my carelessness.

One day my son had hitched a ride home from school with one of his buddies. They saw a turtle in the road, and Eric told his friend that his dad helped them across the road so they wouldn’t get hit by a car. Eric’s friend was so inspired by the story, he pulled over and jumped out of his vehicle. As he reached for the turtle, instead of hiding in his shell, the turtle viciously snapped at the hand that was trying to save him. All turtles are not created equal in the humble department and the Good Samaritan has the scars to prove it.

Just think how long the crossing takes when the turtle stops and pulls in all appendages and sits there all snug inside his shell thinking he is safe. Instead of the shell providing a safe haven, it just means he is in harm’s way longer.

It’s easy for us to see that the turtle is in denial of the danger lurking around the next corner. We understand denial because it is an all too human emotion.

I heard a story of denial at lunch yesterday. A group of us attended a luncheon prior to an educational program about the genetic studies being done on Alzheimer’s disease. I sat next to a nurse who provides counseling for families dealing with Alzheimer’s. She mentioned her own denial when her mother first displayed symptoms of dementia. Logically, she knew her mother’s behavior couldn’t be explained away, but emotionally, she grasped at hope born from denial.

When you are in denial, you are inside the shell with the turtle. It makes the world feel safer, but it can put you and your loved one in harm’s way. While you are in denial, a family member with dementia may continue to drive when they shouldn’t. You may leave for a few hours and return to an empty house because your loved one has wandered. Your denial makes you a turtle in the middle of the road with a speeding car fast approaching.

Wouldn’t we like to keep our loved ones safe? I’m sure that if $3 million would keep our families safe, we would be willing to pay it if we had it. The key word is “if”. A certain faction of our society thinks no amount of money is too much to keep the world safe for small critters, but don’t worry about how the money is being taken away from our fellow humans. How much safer could the highway be made with $3 million? How many human lives could be saved with the money used to “protect” turtles?

The problem is turtles cannot be kept safe by a tunnel. Perhaps the turtles will be safe while they are in the tunnel, but the big dangerous world exists on both sides. No amount of taxpayer’s money will keep the turtles safe. No living creature lives in a vacuum and no tunnel could be big enough or long enough to protect life except for a fleeting moment.