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Haunted House

When an old house creaks, it may be haunted or not.

“Your house is spooky, Grandma.”  The statement did not come from one of our younger posterity but from our 23-year-old grandson Brian.  Several years ago, before Ken contracted Alzheimer’s we had asked Brian, recently returned after a four-year stint in the Marines, if he would stay in the house while we were on vacation; look after the dog, take in the mail, water and cut the grass and keep everything ship-shape until we returned.  We also agreed to pay him a tidy sum for his efforts.  He happily accepted.  When we arrived home we found that he had been more not here, than here.

“I just couldn’t stay in your house after the first night,” he explained, expounding on every creak and groan he heard or imagined. “I think it’s haunted!”  I turned to this brute of a man and asked, “How old are you, Brian?  How tall?  And how much do you weight?”  If he looked a bit chagrined, it didn’t change how he felt.  “You house is spooky,” he repeated “really spooky.”

He then proceeded to detail his night in our so-called chamber of horrors.  “This place has bumps in the night, stuff moving in the shed next to the house and in the wood pile and in the backyard,” he confided.

“Probably a cat,” I explained. “Or it could have been a rat – or a possum,” none of which eased his mind.

“The floor creaks,” he continued, “like someone is walking.  So do the walls and I can hear the roof in the family room going snap, crackle, pop, and I believe there is something living in the attic making a rasping sound.”

Reliving his night of terror seemed to add to his vivid and out-of-control imagination.  He had verbally tagged everything except the foundation and windows, but I couldn’t really remember any of the strange sounds except the time when we did have mice in the attic.  Explaining to this gentle giant that our house was an older home and no doubt had settling noises, I also acknowledged that after a hot day the flat roof on the family room addition contracted making it sound like the bowl of Rice Crispies he described.   That wasn’t enough.  Unconvinced, Brian insisted the house was haunted even though I pooh-poohed the whole idea.  He did, though, express regret for abandoning his house duty, but assured me that the dog had been cared for as were the yards and mail – all accomplished during the safety of daylight.

Perhaps the sounds were there and Ken and I had just grown used to them so we didn’t notice, but our conversation reminded me of another dark night and an unexpected noise from long ago when our children were young, the house was fairly new and there was no Emergency 911.

I believe both Ken and I were awakened at the exact same moment by the click of a door latch as it snapped into its slot, and then nothing.  That one sound had brought me into wide-eyed wakefulness.  Lying in our bed I could feel that he too had heard the noise and was no longer sleeping – hardly even breathing – yet I managed to murmur, “Did you hear that?”

“Someone just closed the kitchen door,” he whispered back.  “We have a burglar in the house.”

“Call the police,” I uttered.

Quietly, he reached over and picked up the phone setting it on the floor to muffle as much sound as possible.  Feeling the rotary wheel he placed his forefinger into the “O” and pulled it to near full circle until it stopped, and then he let it go. The clicking as the dial returned to its place almost matched the thumping of our hearts.  “Operator,” a woman answered.  “Someone is in our house.  Call the sheriff,” Ken said, barely audible.  Within seconds a man’s voice was heard, “Sheriff.”  Ken quietly explained our situation and gave him our address.   We were assured that a squad car was on its way even as we spoke.  Ken hung up the phone and we lay there staring at the shadowed ceiling.

On the clock possibly a minute and a half had lapsed since the kitchen latch had pulled us both from our slumber when suddenly I exclaimed, “The children?”  Leaping silently from my bed I rushed to the boy’s room.  From the light cascading through their window I could see that all was well.  Slipping down the hall with Ken close behind I opened the door where our girls slept.  One bed was empty.  “Julie is not here,” I declared.  Adrenalin pumping and as quiet as the proverbial mouse Ken cautiously opened the kitchen door and tiptoed into the darkness armed with a baseball bat which he had picked up from the boys’ room.  Bravely, he called, “Whose there?”

“Daddy?” a small voice returned.   “Julie?” Ken questioned, “Is that you Julie?” he repeated placing the whiffle-ball bat on the seat of an adjacent chair.

Snapping on the light we saw our frightened little girl, ghost-like in her nightgown, peeking around the darkened corner.  “I had to go to the bathroom,” she explained.  “Why didn’t you use this one?” Ken asked pointing to the one right across from the bedrooms.  “I didn’t want to wake you,” she continued, “so I used the one in the laundry room, and then I heard noises so I stayed in there.”

Tucked back into her bed with an extra kiss, we said goodnight to our sleepy child and returned to our bedroom.  Ken picked up the phone a second time and dialed the operator who connected us once again to the Sheriff’s department.  Apologizing and asking that the car racing to our house be canceled, Ken explained, “There is no intruder.  It was a child.”  “Whose child?” grumbled the officer.  “Ours,” said Ken sheepishly, “and she’s fine.”  With that I could visualize the sheriff smiling as he said to Ken, “Have a good night.”

As the fall of another year edges its way into earlier darkness causing the evenings to become longer and longer – especially after the caregivers leave –I find that it’s really a good time for me.  At the end of the day Ken is very tired.  Alzheimer’s seems to sap his energy so he is soon asleep and I have several hours of free, uninterrupted time.  I write, or catch up on bills, or do other busy work, or treat myself with a CD to watch.  Then it’s off to bed where I read until sleepiness blurs the print. I can lose myself in a good book.

The house is silent.  Every so often one of the cats will gallop down the hall before jumping up on the bed – a familiar thumping.  Turning the page I hear another sound.  Pausing to listen I ask myself about the bumping coming from the shed, a thud as a log tumbles onto the bricks from the woodpile.  “It’s probably a neighbor’s cat,” I say to me, “or a rat, or a possum.”  I listen to the relaxing of our half-century old house as it yawns and settles in for the night.  If Brian were here I would say, “No, Brian, the house isn’t haunted; like me, it’s just tired and our joints creak.”  But if I do see an apparition I will take the advice of psychic Silva Brown from one of her books, “Just tell the ghost to take the first door on the right and go home.”  Then I’ll add, “And on your way, please don’t let the latch click.  It might wake up Ken.”  That’s when I close my book, move the cat, turn off the lamp, snuggle under the covers and go to sleep.

Photo courtesy of  country-boy-shane http://www.flickr.com/photos/shanegorski/

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B movie Poster

The theatrics of a 'B' movie can be likened to Alzheimer's patients.

Ken and I are from the era of double features, short subjects, news reels and cartoons: the old Hollywood when studios had the last say about which mega star was contracted for the lead role in the latest “Big” movie.  Other hopefuls were sent down to the “B” studios.   Those were the days of block-buster pictures with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, or John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, and the low budgets with – who remembers.

Not only were the unknown actors soon forgotten (unless they became STARS), but so were the “B” movies.  However, a few of the ploys in the plot, seen time and time again, were snickeringly remembered.   Actually, a few have become legendary. The one I recall most vividly, used by the good guys as well as the bad guys, was a scene where a captured person stood with his hands high above his head facing in the direction of a door – opened or closed – it didn’t matter.  The guy holding the gun was in charge, and could either shoot his captive (bad guy), or handcuff him and cart him off to jail (good guy) depending on the script.

Sometimes, though, just as the final chip was down the captive would say something like, “Look out behind you!”  and the gun holder would glance behind him – just long enough for the captive to reach forward grab the gun and take charge.  Or, there was someone actually there to relieve the gun from the gun holder. The scene was used so often in “B” movies it became laughable.  That must be the part Ken remembers.

Dear Ben is so faithful in his caregiving duties, and Ken is usually so unappreciative. “Ben is your friend,” I croon as the three of us head for the shower.  “Him? He doesn’t know anything,” Ken replies.  “And you, you don’t know anything either.”

Before long Ken will slip into the imagined scene.  He looks at Ben and threatens, “You’ll get yours.  Just wait till my friends get here.”  Then he calls out through the open door.  “Get him guys,” or, looking at Ben, “Watch out behind you.”  I can’t help but giggle a little, telling Ken that people don’t fall for that line any more, but I know in his limited mind it makes sense to him. He can also take on a military roll: standing near attention he glowers at Ben and says, “You are dismissed.”  Never an officer I ask myself, “Where’s that coming from?” Probably some old movie he had seen before he met me.  Other times he’ll look directly at me, nod his head toward Ben and say, “Call the police.”

Or he can be very angry with me wondering who I am and why I keep bouncing in and out of his mind, he’ll request, “Hand me that ax, I’m going to whack off her foot.”  “Ouch!” I tell him.  “That’s not very nice of you to say things like that.”  Puzzled he responds, “What did I say?”  Like pushing the wrong button on my hand-held calculator all kinds of jumbled and incorrect numbers appear on the screen.  His mind seems to break down information and then scrambles it, sending thoughts and words in every which direction.

Ken’s Alzheimer’s is now very advanced, but I can sometimes read him through his eyes or changes in his facial expressions.  He can also be very cunning – liked a frightened, trapped animal.  So he doesn’t hurt any of us during clean up and shower time, his hands are temporarily restrained, but it is amazing how quickly he can “throw” an elbow into Ben’s or my ribs, get a knee high enough to make a definite impression in someone’s groin area, or bring up a foot for a well-placed kick.  Whether it’s a calculated plan or an instinctive defense I’ll probably never know.  “Whaaaaattttt?” he questions when caught in the act, followed by “I didn’t do anything.”  “You punched Ben with your elbow,” I tell him.  “I didn’t do that,” he insists, his eyes looking innocent.

Yet, there are times when Ben is helping him and he’ll take on a new roll and say, “I appreciate everything you do for me.  Thank you.”  That could be from any of Jimmy Stewart’s movies. Ben responds with a smile and says, “You are welcome, Sir.”  Good manners don’t last long.  Other times when Ben turns his back Ken will scrunch up his nose and stick out his tongue.  I’m surprised he doesn’t give him a loud, spit-filled raspberry to go with it.  Instead he’ll look over at me and wink as if he knew exactly what he was doing.  With Ken’s threats coming from the “B” movies, the niceties spoken by STARS such as Cary Grant, and  those naughty mannerisms are probably coming from his watching too many “Our Gang” comedies when he was a kid.  That favorite was later adapted to TV and became a beloved half hour for our kids after being edited and relabeled as “The Little Rascals.”

Of course we don’t know how much memory Alzheimer’s is covering when we observe parts and pieces of the past sneaking out through the tangles and plaques covering his brain.  It’s all such a puzzle with impossible pieces to fit together, but moments like this can make an interesting and funny happening.  That’s why we take comfort in learning to laugh at some of Alzheimer’s silly situations — so much better to laugh than cry.

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dead tree

The bleak reality of a dead tree can compare to the desperation of mental illness which can leave patients and caregivers filled with unbearable sadness.

Since the beginning of time there has been evidence of humanity’s battle with mind disorders with very little being done about it other than placement of the ill in insane asylums.  Inmates were treated not much better than wild animals with horrible, unspeakable atrocities performed in an effort for institutional control.  Ignorance abounded up until well through the last century with the mind still a mystery and most medical people, caregivers and family categorizing the victims as just plain “crazy.” It’s only in the past 50 years that the medical community has made even a scratch on the surface of what ails the brain.

As citizens of the world we have a long way to go in accepting the fact that mental illness is an illness.  In my humble opinion, we in the Alzheimer’s community, or I should say we who have loved ones under the Dementia Umbrella are a little more aware of mental illness than many – at least in our little corner of this colossal disorder.  Like cancer, there appears to be as many varieties and degrees of severity of being mentally ill as fish in the ocean.  What’s unfortunate, if that word is appropriate, mental problems don’t show in the same way as, say, a broken arm, chicken pox, a black eye, a surgical procedure, or poison oak, and when we see that someone is sick or injured, we are immediately concerned and sympathetic, usually asking — sometimes shrieking– “What’s wrong?” or “What happened?” 

When I watch my husband as he sleeps, he looks just like the Ken I have known most of my adult life even though he is in the advanced stages of AD.  For all outward appearances, he is the same person he has always been until he awakens and you engage him in conversation or touch him without notice.  It’s then you recognize something is very wrong.

 In the early stages not everyone knew Ken was ill, even in the middle stages his AD often went unnoticed in casual settings.  All the while his brain was being covered with slime and abnormal structures known as plaques and tangles which are a buildup of deposits of a protein called beta-amyloids, but no one can see the damage this activity does to the nerve cells.  He is ill, but the illness is invisible. There was no bloating, no swelling, no water retention, no pain, no rash, and no sudden weight loss. 

Family and some friends have known about Ken’s AD right from the beginning, and we continued with our social life never feeling any rejection or that we didn’t belong.  I have been blessed with support from many, but that’s not always the case. AD and other mental illnesses still carry a stigma often manifested with family embarrassment and apology, denial, intolerance and skepticism if not down-right disbelief that a sickness exists.  Mental illness is far more extensive than what lies under the Dementia Umbrella.  Other troubled victims suffering from any number of mental disorders can be dismissed, even by those who are close, with remarks such as “Grow up.” “You would feel better if you tried.” “Forget it.” “Let it go.” “Get a grip.” “You can remember if you make the effort.” “You’ll be all right.” “Quit whining,” and often the topper, “Get over it!”

The Oprah Show has done a wonderfully informative service in presenting various examples of  mental illness, particularly people in depression.  Caught on tape by her rescuer’s police car, one woman was saved when the officer grabbed her arm as she went off a bridge, her momentum nearly pulling him over the side with her.  Fortunately, another officer, who had just arrived on the scene, was able to hold him while the two pulled the intended victim back to safety.

Months later, as Oprah interviewed the woman and they viewed the tape, the survivor, so engulfed in the blackness of depression at the time, remembered nothing of her attempt to end her own life.  She had no idea how she even got to the bridge, although she had been told she drove herself.  There was no memory of getting into the car, getting out or climbing up on the rail of the bridge. In therapy and healing she lived to appreciate her husband and family, and to thank the officers who pulled her from the brink of death.  Dying was not what she wanted – only help.  That’s what most of those suffering from mental illness want.  All the while they are grasping and wallowing in despair, they are crying out for help even though they resist.  I was able to share that Oprah episode with a friend whose despondent daughter, to all appearances was happily married and the mother of a 7-year-old, was pushed over her edge with unrelenting pain into black depression.  She was not rescued.

Years ago I had read that if someone talked about suicide, they wouldn’t do it.  It’s my understanding that the thought is different today.  If they threaten, it needs to be reported to their doctor because such a threat is very real and possible.  As I have mentioned before I am not a medical person, but I do relate to mental illness and the complex mystery of the mind, no doubt because of Ken, his parents, my own mother, and for a short time Auntie Mary.  It is out of concern that I offer my thoughts about what I observe and read.

While perusing an article from the “Alzheimer’s Reading Room,” I was troubled (which prompted this post) when I read about an Alzheimer’s patient being arrested and put in jail.  He and his wife live in Winnipeg, Canada, our neighbors just north of the United States boarder.  Bob’s wife, his full-time caregiver, had been showing him a family photo housed in a metal frame in an effort to stimulate his memory.  Not recognizing her as his wife, Bob pushed the supposed intruder away.  She fell on the corner of the frame causing a cut on her chest requiring a hospital visit and 8 stitches.

At the hospital, police were summoned. The disoriented and confused husband, was examined,   given a medical clearance, arrested, charged with aggravated assault and jailed where he languished for more than a month despite the family’s protests.  Eventually, the media exposed the problem and intervention for his release from prison was made by a local politician

Authorities made the stipulation, however, that 69-year-old Bob not be allowed to return to his home under the care of his wife, but must be placed in a government-designated care facility.  Reluctantly, the family agreed. Bob was transferred to an inadequate care facility (inadequate in that the personnel was not trained, nor was the facility equipped for combative AD patients).   Unsupervised, he attacked another patient.  The older patient, an 87-year-old man, struck his head in the fall and was seriously (if not fatally) injured.  The family of the older patient was outraged insisting that Bob should be in jail and politicians should mind their own business.

The comments below the “Reading Room” article were a consensus:  Tragic.

Mental illness is tragic – no matter what form it takes.  AD is tragic.  The death of my friend’s daughter is tragic.  Suicide is tragic.   

I can see the cast on a person’s leg, the rash from poison oak, the fading yellow-purple of a bruise, scabby dots from chicken pox, the stitches of a surgeon following an operation, the weepy, even blood-shot eyes from a common cold are obvious, and I have felt (and seen) the devastating almond-shaped lumps from another friend’s terminal cancer; tangible evidence of physical illnesses we can see and sometimes touch.  We show our concern, our love and reach out to comfort and help those who are sick or broken.  Yet, we can be so unbelieving and distant when it comes to mental illness.

Right at the beginning of Ken’s AD, our younger friend, who helped us with yard work was, for a time, doubtful about Ken’s illness.  I don’t recall what Ken said, but Steve’s puzzled response was, “He’s putting me on.  Isn’t he?”  So normal was Ken’s appearance – looking robust and healthy — that what he said had seemed to be a joke – faking — unreal.  That combination of real and surreal somehow clouded the seriousness of his embryonic illness – making it appear suspicious – an act.  A remark from a sick mind coming from a healthy body was beyond comprehension.  Yet it was true, and in the same way other forms of mental illness are often viewed with cruel skepticism.

Probably, everyone has felt depressed at one time or other, but with a healthy mind it’s temporary.  Caregiver’s, especially the spouse caregiver, also experiences this kind of sadness and depression from time to time.  It’s when that depression continues with no relief over a long period of time that it becomes what the medical community terms “clinical depression.”  Danger: the victim needs professional help. Numbers of people suffer from depression and countless other forms of mental disease, and it’s all very real even if it can’t be seen.

 In any event, we, as part of humanity need to be more aware and more understanding of our fellow human beings as they are pulled into the many illnesses which plague mankind.   When we reach for their hand it should be for assistance through whatever misery they might be experiencing.  No matter what the illness – physical or mental — the words from our lips should always be, “What can I do to help?”

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