May 31, 2010

Keeping The Love Alive: Not The Brady Bunch

The words fell awkwardly from her mouth, but she told me, "I know you tried. You did the best you could do."....
By Sheryl Lynn
Alzheimer's Reading Room

My mother was able to live alone until she fell on Christmas Eve of 2006. I brought Eleanor to live with me and Laila, my dog, as soon as I felt she was strong enough to make the drive, thinking she'd be spending her remaining days in my home.

I believed I could handle this. It was important for me to take care of her. I'd helped care for my uncle during his battle with cancer, and I'd cared for my soulmate dog during her battle with kidney disease. I loved my mother and wanted to give her what I'd given to her brother and my dog. It couldn't be any harder to care for a mother recovering from a head injury, right?

(You're allowed to laugh at me, if you like. I can't see you.)

Laila and Eleanor enjoyed a great relationship before the fall. My previous dog, the one with kidney failure, trained my mother to worship her. Chelsea was gloriously alpha, and we were all secretly a little scared of what would happen if we didn't worship her. When gentle Laila showed up, a rescue dog wanting nothing more than to love and be loved in return, my mother breathed a sigh of relief in realizing this relationship would be much easier. They slept in bed together when we visited, and my mother quickly grew to love Laila.

That was pre-head injury, pre-dementia Grandma.

I felt Laila would be wonderful with Grandma. Laila was a healing dog. She'd lean up against clients who'd come to my home for complementary health sessions so they knew they were supported. She loved to be in service. It was her job, along with taking care of me. I'd brought Laila to see Eleanor in rehab while she was receiving therapy. She seemed OK with it, so I felt she'd be fine with Grandma coming into her home.

The drive to my home was punctuated by frequent rest stops and created enormous stress for Eleanor, but I kept telling her how happy Laila would be to see her when we arrived. My reminding her of happy Laila would be kept her from panicking during the long car ride. I carefully watched how Grandma and Laila interacted when I brought the two of them home. Eleanor was delighted to see Laila. "LAILA!!!" she happily exclaimed, holding her arms wide open so my dog could run into them.

Laila is unusually sensitive and knew something was now very wrong with Grandma. I saw her notice the new expression in Grandma's eyes, an early version of what later became her dementia stare. Laila was now scared of this woman who looked like Grandma but wasn't. The more Grandma tried to bond with her, the less Laila wanted any part of Grandma. She made it clear that she didn't want Grandma in her home. Grandma didn't understand why her Granddog was suddenly distant with her. She was sad. So was I. I was counting on my dog's easing my mother's transition into living in our home.

I hadn't had time to buy bedding for my mother, she came into my home that quickly, so I borrowed back the old comforter Laila had previously used for lounging. Bad move. Laila's smell was on that comforter before Eleanor came home. Now Eleanor's smell was on the comforter. Laila began peeing on the comforter to put her smell back where it belonged. Just for good measure, she began peeing on my bed, too. I knew she was telling me she was (literally) pissed off.

A friend suggested I get Laila a dog bed. I ran to the nearest pet supply store to buy the best dog I could find. I brought it home and placed it across the room from my mother's bed, hoping that if they both had their own space, they'd be able to be in the same room together.

Laila ignored her dog bed. Why should she use it? She was used to lounging on the human-sized furniture, not a puny dog bed. Eleanor kept inviting Laila onto her futon, hoping she'd cuddle with her as before. Laila wanted no part of any cuddle with this woman.

Eleanor remembered how it was to be a mother, teaching a young child how to function in the world. She thought she should show Laila what to do with her dog bed. Eleanor is small. It wasn't hard for her to curl up in the dog bed, pantomiming sleep. I knew she meant well.

Laila didn't agree. Now Eleanor's smell was all over this new bed, too. Laila wanted no part of this bed that now smelled like Grandma. How could I discipline either my mother or my dog? They were both doing the best they could do. I placed dog treats in the bed to get rid of Essence of Grandma. Laila grudgingly ate the treats and began to use the bed very occasionally as an easy chair.

My stress level soared.

Laila ignored Grandma. Except for meal time and walks, she spent all her time upstairs in my bed. She peed in my bed each day. I took her to the vet for a checkup, hoping to hear she had a UTI. She was fine. I knew she would be fine. It was deliberate peeing. She wanted me to know how unhappy she was with my mother's presence in her home.

I am an alternative healing practitioner and pulled out all the tricks from my professional bag to fix this growing problem. Nothing worked. Not homeopathy nor flower essences to calm her down. Not changing her food. Not communicating with her. Not using dog training strategies. Nothing worked. No matter how many animal behavior experts I asked, no matter how much I prayed, no solutions could be found.

I began to consider placing my dog in another home until I realized that my dog was lovingly showing me how stressed out I was from caring for my mother.

I wish I could tell you that I found my answer and everyone lived together happily ever after. Laila stopped peeing in the house when, months later, I finally returned my mother to her home. I wanted to be her caregiver for life, but I was unable to deal with the rapidly changing moods that accompanied the head injury. I didn't feel emotionally safe in my own home, and my latent post-traumatic stress disorder resurfaced.

I realized the best solution for everyone concerned would be to have someone else care for her. I slowly began to recover from all I'd experienced in caring for my mother, and Laila returned to being her well-behaved self.

I tried caring for Eleanor again a year later. The dementia had just been diagnosed, and I was even less able to care for her. The change in her environment caused her to become violent. And even though Eleanor now had her very own bedding, Laila went back to peeing on her bed and my bed.

Today, three years after her first stay in my home, I apologized to my mother for being so reluctant to place her in the Alzheimer's facility where she's now living. I'd previously had a belief system that said I was a bad daughter if I took her away from a home environment. She's now receiving loving care from people without post-traumatic stress disorder who have been trained to handle the ups and downs that go with dementia, and she's enjoying the interactions with other residents and the staff.

When she doesn't have a UTI, she's content for at least part of most days.

Who knew that would happen?

When we let go of the way we think things should be, we're suddenly available to receive our answers.

I'm part of her treatment team. With her doctor's permission, I'm still giving her the nutritional supplements that I believe are helping her. But she's no longer mine to care for. I've finally learned to love her enough to give up control.

Today, my wonderful Eleanor forgave me for all the mistakes I've made.

The words fell awkwardly from her mouth, but she told me, "I know you tried. You did the best you could do."

I so wish I could be Bob DeMarco successfully caring for his Dotty, or any of you successfully caring for your loved ones.

I admire you more than I can say.

Sheryl Lynn is the author of the upcoming book "The Light Is A Thank You," which chronicles the spiritual journey through dementia she has taken with her mother, Eleanor. She is the host of "Glow With The Flow Radio Show," currently on hiatus.

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Original content Sheryl Lynn, the Alzheimer's Reading Room