Back from a wonderful vacation, I am sitting here this morning, reading my email, checking my bank account, generally loafing around drinking coffee. I came across several new posts on a Facebook Support group page of which I am a member. The sadness, anger, grief and frustration reminds me of what once was for us and also how thankful I am that part of my life is over. I also noticed that since I joined the group over three years ago, the numbers have risen from a little over 400 to more than 2000 today.
The same issues and questions arise on a weekly basis – “my husband keeps escaping at night”, “my wife uses the ‘F’ word frequently in public”, “my mother does not acknowledge my new baby”, “how do I get my loved one to eat anything but Cheerios?”. It is tempting to comment about how the issue has been discussed previously in the group, but these “new” people don’t know that. They are caught in the maelstrom of just trying to get through every day. Fighting against apathy, fury, cursing, incontinence and constant pacing. It is hard to see outside of your cage when every fiber of your being is just focused on keeping everyone safe and surviving with your own sanity intact. The endless days morph into one long purgatory, all while watching your previous life disappear.
I conjure up in my head, some way to consolidate all the things we know. All the tips and tricks that the ingenious care partners come up with every day, in order to make their lives a little easier. To maintain independence and dignity for their loved ones as long as possible and to maintain comfort and safety, health and wellness for all concerned. It would be a mammoth task and would take someone far wiser and knowledgeable than me to write. I am not a clinical expert, nor did I face many of those challenges on my own journey with my husband. since every FTD patient’s path is different. It would be difficult to have the perfect guide. There are many, many tomes out there that talk about “dementia care” and “caregiving”. I have read some of them, but often find them a little patronizing and authoritative. I think what’s needed is practical advice for sure, but also incorporate the humor, humility and understanding of the sadness that accompanies taking care of someone you love.
I think that perhaps I would be a little reluctant to even take on this huge task because 1) there is a potential for rejection (I am only human after all ha ha!) and 2) I cannot even come close to pretending to know even one-quarter of what there is to know about FTD. So I guess I would really need to know from all of you, what would be the most helpful? Most caregivers have little time to sit and read a book or watch a video, so how can this information be best communicated? Quick-read lists? Page-a-day bullet points? I would love to know.
It occurs to me that in the three years since I started talking to these wonderful people in the FTD world, little has changed. Much has been discovered about the condition and physiology of FTD, but nothing about how we can treat or even cure it. Progress is slow indeed. So the focus needs to be on education and awareness, on talking endlessly about FTD and its effects. Susan Suchan, a courageous woman who is diagnosed with FTD and early Alzheimer’s disease, fights the good fight on a daily basis. She puts herself out there, faces her demons and talks openly about what her life is like with her constant companion, the bastard disease. I can only aspire to the level of strength and dignity she shows us.
My vacation was tinged with more than a little sadness. I traveled with my husband’s younger brother David, and his wife Lydia. We have a very close relationship, both before, during and after FTD slapped us in the face. Throughout the trip, I was very aware several times of the empty chair that was usually present at the table where we were enjoying drinks, a meal, or show. Just laughing together as we always have. Tables are usually set for even numbers of people. Since there were three of us, or five if we were joined by another couple, I was acutely aware of the space where my husband would have been. I’m pretty sure David felt it a couple of times too. The four of us always had such great times together, it would be hard not to. It didn’t spoil the trip, we still had fun and laughed a lot. It made me smile that we carried him to that place in our hearts and included him in our conversation and jokes. People we met always asked where he (my husband) was, assuming I was separated or divorced until we explained our relationship.
Since I returned, I have reflected on the comments and responses I received from those people. They meant well of course. Sympathy and smiles usually. When I jumped back onto Facebook this morning and read the anguish and pain of those still in the trenches of FTD, I realized that sharing our journey is more important than ever. Sharing the frustration and hurt so that others understand, even though I still don’t. Of course, on vacation, that is not what people want to hear. They smile and nod politely when you explain that your husband died. I did not share the causes or reasons: or at least, I did not go into great detail –they don’t really want to know. Neither would I in their situation. But the experience reinforces that we exclusive FTD club members have to look to ourselves for support and help.
Hence the desire to produce some kind of tangible assistance. We say that if you have met one person with FTD, you have met one person with FTD. The uniqueness and singularly different behaviors, conditions and attitudes means that there can never be a one-size-fits-all solution. Even in the heady, hoped-for days to come when there will be a cure, or at least some kind of treatment, it will never fit everyone. Our unique human DNA means that no single solution will help everyone. So, right now, the best we can hope for is better understanding and awareness, and better resources with which to manage the daily horrors and heartfelt misery which sometimes, often — engulfs the FTD caregiver.
I feel so very thankful and fortunate that I can take vacations and generally enjoy life, different though it is from how I thought it would be.
Yesterday, Sunday June 12, I had the honor of speaking at an event at our State Capitol building. An Awareness vigil to bring FTD to the forefront as we are part of the “tsunami” of dementia – Alzheimer’s, FTD, CBD and all the other sub-types. Our Governor has declared June 2016 as “Alzheimer’s Awareness month” in Arizona. The Capitol building will be lit up in purple for the whole month. Hopefully, this will be an annual event. Governor Ducey made an official Declaration to that effect. The Mayor of Tempe, Mark Mitchell, has declared his city as a “dementia-friendly community”. Progress indeed. As different as we know FTD is to Alzheimer’s for many reasons, we are such a small number, relatively speaking, that the only way we can bring attention to ourselves is to be a part of a much bigger effort to combat all types of dementia – young and older-onset. We FTD people can be a little precious sometimes about our sub-type. “It’s not like other dementias”, which is definitely true. However, we cannot isolate ourselves from the potential publicity, funding and general awareness that must surely come. I plan to keep moving forward with that goal in mind, always aware that the empty chair is the one that will bring me the most power and the courage to speak out.
The empty chair needs to be filled with love and understanding in honor of our loved ones’ fight against the bastard disease and others like it. Awareness is everything. The behaviors and challenges that arise from dementia seem insurmountable at times. Overwhelming for those who are constantly struggling to keep it together -raise children, care for aging parents, hold down full-time work, pay bills, hold on to their own sanity. Feeling the burn from family members and friends who desert you can be the ultimate insult. Shunning by members of a less-than-educated society can make the isolation one feels even worse.
So what if someone points at you in a restaurant? So what if someone is speaking louder than is usually considered appropriate? Hell, people without dementia do that all the time! People chat loudly on their cell phone in public like they were in their own house, even at the movie theater. FTD’s childlike behavior is regarded with uncomfortable sideways glances, table manners suddenly become the focus in public -like everyone eats with etiquette anyway these days. It can seem as though every little foible that develops from FTD is a reason for others to regard someone as inferior. Caregivers have to develop a pretty thick skin to ignore that. The shame and embarrassment of public outbursts, incontinence or inappropriate behavior is constant. Let them stare. let them tut-tut. Let them sit in your chair for a day. Then let them tell you how they “had no idea!” That they did not understand what you are dealing with on a daily basis. Then and only then do they even come close to having a right to an opinion.
I would swap the empty chair at my table for being able to stand proud and give rebuttals to remarks or just give an onlooker “the look”. You know, the look you used to give your kids when they were about to start doing something in public that they shouldn’t.
The empty chair at my table is reserved for those with understanding, empathy and love. It is not for the faint-hearted, not for the weak. It is built with strength to love and support those who go on, fighting every day for awareness and understanding, for resources and education. Many people sit in the chair. They can never replace the one who left it, to whom it will always belong, but the new people who briefly sit there bring me hope and strength.
The keynote speaker at our Awareness vigil yesterday spoke of the statistics and data surrounding dementia; of the sheer numbers of people who will be affected by dementia in the years to come. Those diagnosed and those who will care for them. Shouting about it now may help to deal with it all, but we have to do it now. This is not something that can wait. It’s here, it’s already started. Without adequate resources for care, entire families will succumb to hardship. We cannot let that happen. I for one will use my knowledge and strength to raise the banner of awareness. To quote Maya Angelou, I hope I can –
Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud