Feb 2, 2012

Nine Suggestions To Get You Through Winter

The whole point is to bear in mind that living our lives as fully as possible requires us to venture outside now and then, even if it’s winter. I’m convinced that this is as true for Mom as I know it is for me.

By Pamela R. Kelley
Alzheimer's Reading Room

We live in the north, where the winters are long and dark and snow-filled.

Our Alaskan environment is ideal for those of us who love the outdoors, who are mobile and active, who can keep the wood stove blazing and lose ourselves in a good book.

It’s more difficult for those of us who cannot do any of those things, particularly due to the complications imposed by Alzheimer’s Disease.

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Because we can’t change our latitude or our climate, my mother and I have figured out ways to get through the long winter without succumbing to crippling cabin fever. It would be easy to give in – our January this year carried an average temperature of 2 degrees Fahrenheit. We’ve accumulated 92 inches of snow since November. Today the sunset occurs after 5 pm for the first time in two months.

Here are examples of some of the kinds of excursions we do that take us beyond our four walls.

Chances are good you’ve got similar opportunities and places near where you live – probably more than we do in this small city. With these possibilities in my bag of tricks, I can always find one that that allows my mom to have some moments of enjoyment or contentment while we both wait for the first signs of spring.
  1. Nurseries and Greenhouses: We have a municipal greenhouse and a commercial nursery nearby, both of which are warm and brightly lit and humid and green. The municipal greenhouse is open to the public. The commercial nursery has a coffee counter within it, so we like to go there and have a hot cocoa after looking at the plants. Very few people are there in the winter months, making these quiet and calm and serene spaces to enjoy together.
  2. Museums: My mother really likes to go to the art museum, so long as we stay away from the abstract art lest she declare loudly that it’s “terrible”. It’s the only place we go where she willingly sits in a wheelchair so that we can see as many different, beautiful things as possible over an hour or two. I tell her stories about those in the portraits, or adventure tales inspired by landscapes. The museum has the added advantage of underground parking, so we have to experience a minimum of cold getting from the car into the galleries.
  3. Wildlife Park/ Drive-Through Destinations: On a sparkling clear day, there’s no prettier drive than the road south from Anchorage. Mom’s tolerance for a drive ends about 45 minutes from home, where there’s a convenient turnaround point. It’s a wildlife conservation center, where wide-open spaces provide outdoor homes to some big, visible animals like wood bison, moose, musk oxen and caribou. We drive slowly through the grounds, pointing out animals from one huge penned environment to another. Usually we try to count them – counting things is a very satisfying activity for us. We even have a song to go with it.
  4. Free Pie: On Wednesdays, a local restaurant offers free pie with every meal. Free Pie! With no dietary restrictions, my mom is free to enjoy the lemon meringue, the banana cream, the cherry, the apple and the berry. We never go to restaurants during their rush times, and I always tip very well when someone on the wait staff recognizes how a little extra TLC goes a long way with my companion. Suffice it to say, we’re Wednesday regulars and feel sincerely welcomed when we’re there.
  5. Swedish Picnics: No disrespect to Swedes is intended here – quite the opposite. A Swedish picnic is one that takes place in my old, reliable, spacious Volvo (that’s the Swedish part). No matter that it’s winter, we like to have a change of scenery. For these, I grab a lap desk and some finger foods. I check the tide chart to see when the moving ice will be most dramatically visible from one of our favorite vantages. Then I invite Mom along to take a look at the Pacific Ocean with me. We enjoy the birds, the movement of the ice, the reflection on the water, the snacks, music and conversation. One of our favorite places is near the Port of Anchorage, where we can watch the massive forklifts remove and load containers from the ships. I rest the lap desk on Mom’s lap, and array our treats on its flat surface. No fuss, no muss – we’re outside, but warmly secure in our protected capsule.
To make these things happen readily, there are five additional suggestions I have:
  1. “Underneath Pants” is what my mom calls them. These are long johns, marketed these days as “liners” at the outdoor goods stores. They come in three weights, and I buy either mid-weight or heavy-weight for our winter excursions. I wouldn’t take Mom out with just a summer weight sweater over her shoulders. Why would I take her out in the winter without extra layers on her lower half? Every day I see Mom’s neighbors heading out, bundled against the cold from the waist up, with a single layer on the bottom. No wonder the poor dears don’t want to venture out, even when the walls are closing in on them.
  2. Set a temperature floor. Be observant, and notice the temperature at which, no matter what, your loved one cannot get comfortable. One of Mom’s doctors explained to me that the quality of our fat cells alters with age, so that we are less insulated from the cold with age – no matter our physical dimensions. If your companion isn’t comfortable, the excursion is going to be unpleasant for both of you. For us, the temperature is 20 degrees F. For someone else, it might be much higher. All I know is that some of our very favorite things – even Mass for my devoutly Catholic mother -- become a misery if we have to pass through temperatures colder than 20. Knowing that’s the cut-off, I no longer make the attempts.
  3. Heated seats. There are after-market covers that can be purchased to add heat to the seats of any car with a working 12v adapter (formerly known as the cigarette lighter) on the dashboard. These heat quickly, and give us an added place to rest cold hands.
  4. Keep the extremities warm. Cold hands and cold feet can’t be ignored. Skiers know this, and at least in our northern region we commonly keep disposable hand warmers in our pockets should the ride up the lift be too numbing. I keep a few of these in my emergency outdoor gear bag, the kind of warmers that come in individual cellophane packages. You just open the cellophane, expose the small pad to the air, and instant warmth begins that can last for hours. Now I keep these in the glove box, open to activate and pop them into Mom’s pockets if her hands get cold when we’re out and about.
The whole point is to bear in mind that living our lives as fully as possible requires us to venture outside now and then, even if it’s winter. I’m convinced that this is as true for Mom as I know it is for me. It’s the only way I can explain how we’ve managed to make it into February without any cabin fever.

More Insight and Advice for Caregivers      

Pamela R. Kelley is the full-time caregiver for her mother, after serving as her long-distance caregiver for more than four years. Before her caregiving role took primacy, Ms. Kelley directed an American Bar Association-approved paralegal education program at the University of Alaska Anchorage from within UAA's Justice Center. As she transitioned to full-time caregiving, she prepared a resource manual and presented lectures on long-distance caregiving to her UAA colleagues. She is a 25-year member of the Alaska Bar Association, and concentrated her years of active practice in the areas of commercial transactions and creditor representation in complex bankruptcy cases. Over the years, she has published many articles on topics as varied as cyber-stalking and antitrust law. Ms. Kelley lives, works and writes in Anchorage, Alaska.

Original content Pamela R. Kelley, the Alzheimer's Reading Room