Delivering News of a Death Over and Over and Over

By the time that most people reach the age of 50, according to experts in the field, they will begin to be affected by the issue of memory loss. By the time these same people have reached the ripe old age of 75, most will suffer some degree of memory loss themselves and will have at least two family members or other loved ones who are dealing with the issue, often in its more severe form known as dementia.

For those of us in the final fifteen percent of our lives, memory loss in ourselves and our loved ones isn’t the exception: it’s the rule. I’m typical of people in this age group. In my youth, I had a very good memory. Foolishly, I was amused by people who had to make lists in order to remember what they needed to do. Today, my memory could best be described as mediocre, and karma has caught up to me for the lack of compassion I showed to people with less-than-perfect memories. Currently I have five different to-do lists, one for financial tasks, one for household tasks, one for outdoor tasks, one for work-related tasks, and one for . . . Opps, I forgot what the fifth one is. I’m now the person providing amusement for the youngsters as I work on my to-do lists. In an attempt to find humor in an annoying situation, I have a coffee mug making fun of the fact that my brain in full.

As is also typical, I have a close relative, my older brother Pete (see photo), who has serious memory issues. Pete has had Alzheimer’s disease for the last seven years and his current memory loss is severe. I also had another loved one, my late husband Bill, who suffered from moderate memory loss. What the statistics don’t mention is that most of us in this stage of life also have in excess of 50 casual friends and acquaintances who are also subject to memory difficulties.

I have always believed in trying to be completely honest. It’s a goal of mine to be able to have that level of integrity, but it’s a goal that I have, on many occasions, failed to meet. I also feel that when I’m dealing with someone who suffers from dementia, I need to be especially honest and communicate openly about everything. But I’ve been presented with several situations recently that left me struggling to try to find a way to best handle the needs of that person with dementia while still being completely honest. I’m going to talk briefly about two recent incidents that left me questioning how I could have better handled the situation and I’m hoping some of you who read these posts can offer me some suggestions on how I might be able to do better next time.

The two situations I’m going to talk about cover extremely different types of incidents: one of these incidents can only be described as tragic and the other is downright ridiculous. I’m going to start with the tragic one so that you will still have the ridiculous one coming to give you a few laughs and cheer you up. The tragic incident involves my brother, Pete, the relative I just mentioned who suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease. A few years ago, when Pete was still in the moderate stages of Alzheimer’s, he came to spend two weeks with my husband, Bill, and me.

Pete and Janet Bessa in April 1945

His wife of nearly 50 years had died about six months earlier after a brief illness. Pete’s eldest daughter, Lynn, was his primary caregiver and she had warned me that Pete had trouble remembering that his wife had died. She said she had to remind him of it frequently. As I learned on the first day Pete spent staying at our home, the word “frequently” was a huge understatement. Continue reading

Counting Down from One Hundred by Sevens

If you’ve ever been tested by a doctor to see if you have memory problems, or if you’ve ever accompanied someone else who has undergone the testing, you know exactly what counting down from 100 by sevens indicates. It’s a test that is commonly done to measure whether you have any signs of dementia. My husband, who was first diagnosed with dementia in 1995, has had the test many times while I have sat by and watched. I haven’t had the test done on me by a doctor yet, but I have attempted to do it on myself innumerable times. All I have to do is forget a word or forget to do something important, or have any other little memory lapse and I get a panicky feeling that is only quelled by starting to count down from 100 by sevens. Okay, I know, how could I tell if my answers were wrong if I truly had dementia! All my answers might be wrong and I would never know it. But common sense doesn’t enter into it when I’m overcome by that panicky feeling.

janet-buell-countingjpg

Why should I react so strongly to the thought that I might be developing dementia? Dementia is an expensive illness. My husband’s dementia has reached the stage known as moderate. He would not be able to live by himself; he is not able to drive; he has no idea if the bills get paid, the dishes get done, or any of the other vital tasks of running a household are accomplished. If he was a widower or if I had lost my marbles too (that is Bill’s description of his illness, by the way, not mine), he would have to be in a nursing home. Like many people in our age group, we are relatively comfortable in our retirement financially, but our budget would not cover two people in a nursing home at the same time for any extended period. That’s a cold hard fact of life. The fact that I talk about it and make back up plans is one of the reasons that some people think I’m morbid, but I consider it being practical.

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