NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT

     I first dragged my girls to play piano at nursing homes when they were in middle school.  I wanted them to see firsthand what it’s like to get old–really old.  I also wanted them to know what happens to you if you can’t take care of yourself any longer:  Strangers do it.  Enough said.  At first, my oldest was intimidated by the bizarre behavior of those whose wits had failed.  While she played, one woman  kept yelling at her to, “Get out of my house.”  My youngest went squeamish at the smells and sights. 

     While those experiences had a sobering effect on them, it didn’t last long and that’s probably a good thing.  Why dwell on ones demise before one reaches the brink of all possibility?  As teenagers now, their lives are mostly all ahead of them.  They are navigating those chapters after, “The Preface.”  For those in the homes where they played Chopin and Bach, life is mostly all behind in the chapters before, “The End.”  

     What most of us seem to forget, though, is that ALL of Life’s chapters carry equal importance.  What good is the Introduction without the Epilogue?  How can you understand Chapter 27 if you haven’t read chapter 8?  The finest part of our stories ultimately comes at the Conclusion; that transfixing moment where all the tribulations and triumphs that made us human culminate.  Who were we?  How did we navigate our birthrights?  Ultimately, what did we offer this world where we make such a very, brief presence?  

     I cherished my children from the moment I knew they were forming inside of me.  My husband and I marveled over their first words, held our breaths at their first steps, dried their tears and held them close.  Someday, though, someone else will hear their last words, watch their final steps and hopefully, hold them very, very close.  We will likely not even be here when our girls reach the very age we are now.  I have done the math.  So, I have to hope that the world they are aging into will one day embrace the wrinkles, the mottled skin, and the dementias.  For it does not now and the gap between our young and old is very wide indeed.

     How to bridge it?  Take the kids to Grandpa’s.  So what if he is cantankerous and crotchety.  All the better.  Let them see how they don’t want to grow up.  Pay your kids to rake the leaves off, “Old Aunt Becky’s” porch.  Better yet, if your own parents are beginning to lose their grip, move them in with you.  Even in the moderate stages of Alzheimer’s many are finding it both cheaper and more rewarding than a nursing home.  At the very least, you’ve offered the example to your children.  There’s really no time like the present.  (Helen Hudson cared for her grandmother for 13 years when she had Alzheimer’s.  “Kissing Tomatoes,” is her story of those years).  http://www.helen-hudson.com

 

      

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ALZHEIMER’S & THE GIFT OF FORGETTING

     Only ONCE did Granny say to me during her Alzheimer’s years, “I think I am losing my memory.”  It was towards the end, in the middle of that period when she was wearing a diaper and I was re-instructing her on how to use a spoon.  She didn’t even know my name and my first instinct was to laugh.  Instead I replied:  “Yes, Granny.  You are.”  She paused and then added, “Well, I guess that’s God’s way of making me forget what might hurt me to remember.”** 

     Wow.  That moment literally changed my thinking about the whole Alzheimer’s saga; the nightmarish horror of watching a person go from themself to NO self.  Until then I was always on the outside looking in.  Now I had a tiny glimpse of the inside looking out and it seemed less frightening.  While memory brings me both joy & sorrow and while it is memory that has informed who I am, it was not mine at birth.  Alzheimer’s returns us to childhood, albeit in a convoluted way.  Of course the particular journey back differs for everyone. 

     In all, Granny’s journey was a gentle one, much like the man who swam next to me this morning.  Well, he wasn’t swimming exactly, just kind of grinning as he dog-paddled back and forth.  I guessed him at about 65, but the incessant grin was more reminiscent of a six year-old.  As I lapped him I kept trying to remember where I had seen him before.  I knew that it was not here in the adult lap pool.  Then it came to me.  He was the same man I had seen months earlier being held by the hand of a caregiver in the shallow end of the kiddie pool!! 

     For a moment I panicked.  I stopped to check on him.  Yup.  Still grinning with his head out of the water.  Suddenly, he stopped, and said to me, “Oh.  I thought you were my daughter.”  Before I could reply he said, “Or my daughter’s friend?  Or are you my …daughter….?”  As he kept trying to figure out who I was, I suddenly replied:  “Yes.  I am your friend.  We are friends!”  “Friends!” he grinned as he dog-paddled away.  As I left, I recognized his caregiver on the other side of the kiddie pool.  “Does he have Alzheimer’s?” I asked her.  “Why, yes,” she replied.  “How did you know?”   “Well,” I replied.  “There are certain things you don’t forget…..at least while you can still remember.”   (** Excerpt from, “Kissing Tomatoes,” http://www.helen-hudson.com.    

GRANNY’S ONE-SENTENCE MARRIAGE ADVICE

     The day I told Granny I was going to marry a young man I had met at a bus stop, she didn’t balk and exclaim, ‘You met him WHERE?’  She didn’t ask me what he did for a living.  She didn’t even ask me what he looked like.  She really only gave me ONE piece of advice:  “Remember, Dear, never expect a man to fill all of your needs.” * ‘Sure thing,’ I thought to myself.  That’s simple enough.  Right?  Wrong. 

     Though I didn’t know it then, I was walking into wedded bliss with a slew of needs that I didn’t even know I had!  It started with the toilet seat.  I needed it to be down when I stumbled into the bathroom in the dead of night and had to go.  I did not expect to suddenly be submerged in a porcelain basin filled with cold water!  I needed to be able to walk into the closet and not smell dirty socks.  I needed to know when I looked in the refrigerator that the carton of milk sitting brightly on the shelf actually had enough milk inside to pour a whole glass, not a measly, few, tiny drops.  The same went for the cereal in the cupboard.  For some reason, it never occurred to my new husband to put his dirty socks in the hamper or simply eat that last cracker and throw the box away.  He never even considered writing down a shopping list if he used up something.  In fact, of the hundreds of lists I have made over the years, he may actually have only taken a few of them with him when he’s gone shopping. 

     Last week we celebrated our 30th anniversary–not because we don’t still argue over stupid little things–not because we agree on everything–not even because we still love each other.  Last week we celebrated our 30 years together because we really know what it means to not expect the other guy to fill all of our needs.  That was the advice given by my grandmother, the one with Alzheimer’s, who lived with us for 13 of those 30 years.  (*Excerpt from, “Kissing Tomatoes,” http://helen-hudson.com)

HELEN HUDSON HERE: BABY BOOMER SANDWICH ON WRY

     I never made it to Woodstock.  I was too young, didn’t drive and lived in the Arizona desert.   I listened to the music though, with a volume guaranteed to blow out eardrums for miles.  Couldn’t get enough of the music.  Dragged the needle back, over and over, to replay my favorite songs.   Wore lovebeads, went braless and flashed the peace sign to total strangers.  Pretended I WAS Janis Joplin in the shower with the door closed.  And while my generation did sing its share of romance & heartbreak songs, the REAL message of that era was:  FREEDOM. 

     At Woodstock, Tim Hardin sang, “A Simple Song of Freedom.”  Joan Baez, AND Joe Cocker sang “I Shall Be Released.”  The Who cranked out, “I’m Free.”  Crosby, Stills & Nash even asked us to, “Find The Cost of Freedom.”  My all time fave was Richie Havens,” singing “Freedom” with a passion and abandon that shook up my insides.  But who would ever have guessed that those barefoot, pot smoking, long-haired, free love children would find themselves so unfree 40 years later? 

     Our generation is not only finding their own kids still at home but now are facing the prospect of Mom or Dad also moving into that spare room over the garage.  Why?  You might blame the economy for the 20 something’s moving back.  You might shake your fist at science for making sure we live longer but the truth is we really didn’t prepare for the prospect of aging.  Nursing homes have long waiting lists & the price tag is steep. 

     Every 70 seconds someone will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  No, it wasn’t the drugs.  It’s our high tech, lazyboy lifestyle and it’s catching up with us.  What to do?  Move pops into that spare room.  You’ll save a ton of ‘bread.’  The kids are ‘free’ to keep their music blasting.  He might be a bit hard of hearing but music is good for the soul.  Feel free to put some black light posters up in his room.  Visual stimulation is healthy for the aging brain.  Take him everywhere you go & listen to his stories, no matter how often he repeats them.  Nothing makes an old heart happier. 

Then, if you’re real lucky, YOUR kids will put up with YOU when you start telling those Woodstock stories over and over and over again.  I finally found the cost of freedom the day we moved Granny in with us and it was worth every, single penny.  (From “Kissing Tomatoes,” http://www.helen-hudson.com)  P. S. Just read that 20% of us should EXPECT to get Alzheimer’s.

CATS MAY HAVE NINE LIVES—WE DON’T

     Before we had our cat, Skitter, I thought that people who doted on their pets were complete idiots.   ‘It’s not like they can talk to you or do anything productive,’ I used to say.  But when my oldest turned six and that tiny ball of fluff arrived, I did an about-face.  I became downright besotted.  Even though I was the one who fed her, changed the litter and made the vet appointments, she was worth it.  The kids loved her and even Dad came around the day she plunked in his lap and began to purr. 

     After awhile I was certain that she understood me.  ‘We’ had conversations understood only by us.  I did all the talking but I was sure she listened.  Her ears even cocked towards the sound of my voice.  And get this:  I brushed her with my own hairbrush!  For 9 years, she followed us coast to coast, grew bigger, navigated puberty w/ my oldest and shred a few pieces of furniture in the process.   

     One afternoon I found her licking the dinner bell.  Odd.  The next day she wouldn’t eat & hid herself deep in the closet.  Once the vet diagnosed feline leukemia, the only hope was a blood transfusion.  He said she’d be in pain and likely wouldn’t hold on, so I let her go.  It was hard and haunted me for months.  

     Now my neighbor has a dog.  He loves strutting behind that highly groomed pooch.  Treats him like he’s the Crown Prince of Something.  Picks up his poop in a plastic bag as if he were gathering rare gems.  Calls him, “Buddy.”  Talks to him with such affection and kindness that the day he first spoke to me I was taken aback.  He’s not a very nice guy.  In fact, in 3 years, we’ve only spoken twice.  During our  last conversation, talk drifted to aging parents.  “My mother got that dementia thing,” he told me.  “Put her in a home and that was that.  Don’t know what all the fuss is about.  You can put ’em anywhere.  Doesn’t matter.  They don’t know where they are anyway.”  Wonder what he’ll do when Buddy gets old and loses his swagger.   (http://www. helen-hudson.com

THE “A” WORD

     When I was a teenager, you had your mouth washed out with soap if you used the “A” word.  Now I hear it almost daily, coming out of the mouths of baby boomers, but it stands for something else:  Alzheimer’s.  Statistics now say half a million people will be diagnosed with it this year alone.  As little as six months ago that ‘statistic’ was considerably lower.  What’s happening to us?  We’re losing our marbles at an alarming rate. 

     Somewhere along the road of “peace” and “free love” we got complacent.  We ‘did our thing’ and ‘found ourselves’ and now many of us, despite the transcendental meditation induced stupor of all things Beatle are losing those same ‘selves.’  The bell-bottom generation is bottoming out.  Some of their kids are already reserving spots in nursing homes and they’re not ‘gone’ yet.   So, when The Wall Street Journal (March 30) tells you things aren’t looking so good, you pay attention. 

     But I’ve been paying attention since 1982 when my grandmother moved in with my newlywed husband and me.  Granny, my best friend and Smith college graduate, was as loony as a tune the afternoon she walked through our front door carrying Alzheimer’s along with her suitcase.  She kissed tomatoes in the market, talked to the TV set when it wasn’t on and covered our house with Kleenex to protect us from evil spirits. 

     Within weeks of feeding her regular, healthy meals, insisting she exercise daily and getting her involved in the world again, she was beating us both at Scrabble.  It works.  Okay, so it took science & a slew of researchers the last 30 years to figure it out–but it works.  So before your kids start reading you nursing home brochures, do yourself a favor:  Flip off the TV.  Shut down the computer.  Push those last 3 doughnuts down the garbage disposal.  Walk out the door and start singing, “Here Comes The Sun.”  (Yeah, they’ve discovered music is good for us, too).   http://www.helen-hudson.com    

CAREGIVERS, UNSUNG YET SINGING

     It has been less than a week since my first post and so many of you are ‘out there.’  I heard from a friend my freshman year in high school.  She took her father out of a locked-care facility & brought him home:  “It was the greatest gift I could have received having my father in my life during his last years.  Sometimes it’s harder to care for a loved one than a stranger because the person you knew has changed so much.  Many feel embarrassment and shame at what is going on in their home but I always found the humor in what Dad was up to.” 

      A stranger writes:  “I feel so blessed to have my mother with me.  She may be forgetful and can’t do many of the things she once did but she IS enjoying life in the comforts of familiar surroundings.”     

     From a fellow songwriter on Facebook:  “My father had early onset Alzheimer’s when I was a teenager.  No one knew what it was then.  The first thing to leave him was his creativity.  I have written songs about it.” 

     One of our happiest memories caring for my grandmother was her almost daily rendition of “Happy Birthday.”  Because she had no memory, we often told her it was our birthday simply to have the joy of hearing her sing that familiar refrain to us.  (http://www.helen-hudson.com)