As one who has passed through the weird “Looking Glass” of FTD and back again, I now have a different perspective on the day-to-day oxymoron of “frantic meanderings” through tantrums, crises, tears, laughter and frustration that comprises those days.
As your life turns in ever-decreasing circles towards the inevitable end point, you become completely caught up in all aspects of the caregiver life that has been thrust upon you. Your world becomes smaller, more focused upon the minutiae of feeding, cleaning and keeping your loved one safe. Everything gets smaller – your circle of friends, your sphere of social activity and even your one-to-one interactions with your spouse, parent, child or partner. In fact, your entire world becomes one specifically centered around ensuring that everyone is safe and as comfortable as possible. This is almost im-possible when it comes to FTD. The degeneration of the brain can be imperceptible on a daily basis, then all of a sudden, they can’t do something that they could do yesterday. Or won’t eat something that was the only thing they would eat yesterday. But sometimes, there are things that persist all throughout the course of the disease process without fail.
Lately, I have been hearing a lot about “pacing”. This was something my husband did all the time, even up to about a week before he died. He was weak and frail and did not eat or drink for the last eight days of his life, but by God, he could still pace. Eventually, he was so weak that he spent more time in bed than he did pacing. Not for lack of trying though. He would still struggle and try to get up even when he physically was no longer able. He struggled right up until the last two days of his life and even then, sedated and pain-free, he moved his legs in the bed as if he was running, running for his life, which he was. Pacing was the one thing that relieved the anxiety that persisted throughout the latter half of his FTD ride. He was not an easily “soothable” man, but the physical exertion was the only way he could relieve the pent-up energy that was still generated in a young(ish), fit man.
Pacing, if overruled by medication in the form of anti-psychotics or anti-anxiolytics like Ativan, can often lead to uncontrolled screaming and agitation because the anxiety that persists has to come out somewhere. Pacing is not the cause of anxiety, but a symptom of it. Yes, medication can help, but in addition, a less stressful course of management can be bouts of physical activity balanced with periods of rest. This will enable your FTD’er to use up that energy and sleep during the day, hopefully encouraging a more restful sleep at night – especially for you. I hear constantly about the exhausted caregiver who cannot sleep at night because their FTD’er is up and around, rummaging in drawers, or kitchen cabinets, or just pacing. It’s difficult to prevent this behavior but there are some things you can do to alleviate your frustration with it.
- Mental and physical activity is vital. Not to the point of exhaustion, but to let out energy.
- Remember that “stimulation” is not what you are aiming for – that can cause more frustration – but rather a use of the faculties that are still remaining can bring a degree of satisfaction, especially in those still high-functioning FTD’ers.
- Don’t rule out anything that you feel may be an insult to their dignity. I was the biggest proponent of maintaining as much independence as possible for this very reason. But remember, that as the disease progresses, so does the mental development age. So, those distractions that would amuse an 8, 5, or even 3-year old may suffice for a short time. Jigsaw puzzles, age-appropriate children’s books, coloring (be careful they don’t eat the crayons!), or a simple ball game.
- Think about how “dignity” looks in a 3-year old. They are much less inhibited and conscious of social norms and it is likely that your FTD’er will be too. Often it is your own embarrassment or humiliation that prevents you from offering activities that you may consider “childish” or inappropriate for a man or woman of 40+.
One person I know keeps her husband so busy, he doesn’t have time to “get into mischief” so much. Long walks, jumping in puddles, hot tub baths, large toys, craft activities, she is very imaginative. I know, I know, being this creative can be exhausting for you, but you will reap the rewards in a different way if your loved one sometimes rests in the afternoon and sleeps at night.
If they are a pacer, let them pace. My mantra was always “If it doesn’t harm him or anyone else, it’s ok”. Walking with a purpose or end goal is not the point here. Just the act of walking can be enough to soothe a troubled soul. Everyone is different. Some high-functioning people are able to go shopping, visit the park, spend time in social situations for a long time into their illness. But, eventually, these skills will diminish too and you will have to think of new ways to occupy those long days, especially if they are physically fit and healthy.
It’s important to remember that what you consider to be boring or mundane, may seem like the most important thing in the world to someone with FTD. The obsessive- compulsions, or repetitive behaviors like tapping or humming, may drive you crazy, but they are self-soothing mechanisms by which the person with FTD is trying desperately to hold on to some sense of control. As difficult as it is to ignore, your own sense of frustration will lessen if you can switch off from anything that is not destructive or harmful. It’s a little like when you have kids, you have to change your priorities and what you would like to be done and perhaps lower your standards of how tidy your house needs to be.
Rest for all is equally important. Not necessarily sleeping, but sitting quietly and doing nothing. My husband would only do this if I was sitting next to him, which was frustrating since I could think of a million things I could be doing once he was sitting down. But, the minute I moved, he would become restless again. The only way he would sit calmly was if I would sit calmly too. Looking back, that was not necessarily a bad thing. Those little enforced breaks meant that I had moments to treasure later. Moments when it was just the two of us and I could pretend that FTD was not holding us hostage. Although it did mean that laundry and housework didn’t get done. Oh well.
In residential care, Alan became an expert pacer, forcing his caregivers to follow him down the long hallways, complete a circuit of the pool table and then trot back down towards his room at the end of the hall, to begin the process all over again. I was amazed at their patience and tenacity, along with the fact that they never questioned it, or tried to stop him until they could see he was becoming exhausted; at which point they would try to distract him with food or something, in an effort to get him to rest. Sometimes they were successful, sometimes he would almost fall asleep while walking, at which point they would skillfully guide him back to bed for a nap. He paced when I was there too, and I would follow him and guide him around obstacles, which at that point, he could no longer maneuver. Thankfully, he never fell, which is a miracle in itself. As boring as it was to walk those halls, he would hold my hand and walk ahead as if showing me around the place. We would stop and talk to the staff, sometimes he would try and go into other people’s rooms, but was easily redirected. As weird as it may sound, we made some fond memories under horrible circumstances and I am grateful to the staff there for making the last weeks of Alan’s life as pleasant and comfortable as it could be. It was a time of great reflection for me, living alone for the first time and working without worrying about what he was up to at home. Although I became exhausted in a different way – emotionally – having the time to reflect on what our life together had become and what the future would be for me.
So – pace yourself! The ever-decreasing circles of your life will take stamina and determination. Those days when you are utterly exhausted and tired of being the nice guy will make you weary. Do whatever it takes to make it less so. I slept in a different room for the last two years my husband was at home. It’s amazing how a good night’s sleep can improve your outlook. I used to hear him sometimes, shuffling around, opening and closing drawers, rearranging his closet until late at night. Once I knew he could not get out of the house or into my room, I could rest easy and let him do his thing. Eventually he would fall asleep after wearing himself out – sometimes sleeping on the floor in his room. The upside of this was that he slept in in the morning, leaving me the time I needed to get ready for work, before I woke him to get ready to go to adult day care. If it’s possible to have someone come and be at your home overnight and be prepared to attend to your FTD’er while you sleep, you should definitely take them up on it.
Throughout this exhausting process, be sure to do a few things to take care of you. If you have someone who can sit in your house for a few hours, go out and do something you like. Guilt is not an option. (There’s a whole other blog post on that!). You need to recharge your own batteries. Believe me, I know what it is to drive yourself into the ground caring for someone else. As the old saying goes, “If I knew then what I know now………”. You get my drift anyway.
There comes a point where you have to make ever-increasing circles without them, even before they are gone, but especially in preparation for after. I think about all of you out there every day, believe me. I know it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done or probably will do. My heart hurts for the things you are going through. I feel a personal connection with all of you, even though we have never met.