Ted's experience of Alzheimer's stretches me and reminds me to beware of prejudice.
Yesterday, Ted became restless. I was in another room when I heard him open the patio door and go out onto our deck. It is the first time in his five weeks here that he self initiated going outside. I found him at the far end of the deck gazing across a grassy field to the forest.
"I saw two deer here yesterday" says Ted. It is true. He is fascinated by the local wildlife. Nonetheless I am surprised that he can remember that specific incident. Most of his experiences each day vanish from his mind soon after they occur.
"I could walk down those stairs to that grass". I mentally shrug his statement off as the wishful thinking of someone who has long since lost such capabilities. However, there is no point in contradicting him. "Sure" I say "you could do that." This is one of those times I decide it might be best to redirect his attention. "If we go through the house to the front door we can walk out and see the big tree the neighbors cut down."
"Let's do it" says Ted. He is seated in his wheel chair and pulls himself along with his feet on the floor. I offer to push. "I've got it" he says. We come to a tricky bump at the front door threshold. I offer to help him over it. "I can do this." And he does, even though it requires him do sort of a hop in his wheelchair that I have never seen him do before. As Ted wheels down the ramp to the front driveway I am tempted to hold the wheelchair handles in case the slope is more than he can handle, but by now I have learned to hover nearby but resist the urge to intervene. He manages the downward slope just fine. Then he begins to move up the grade of our concrete driveway.
"Pretty steep here" I offer. "Not too bad" says Ted. We spend a bit of time checking out our front yard and doings at the neighbors, and then we head back to the house. "Want to see the hot tub?" I offer. It is the first time we have toured the front of our house this way. Ted brightens. "Sure".
Ted wheels his chair very close to the end of our front porch but I resist the urge to hold onto the wheelchair in case he misjudges where the edge is. After I show off the hot tub and discuss how we use it, Ted speaks up again. "I could walk right down those stairs". Four steps, no railing. But again I think it is just wishful thinking on his part. I am shocked when Ted rises from his chair and haltingly walks toward the steps. It is harder than ever for me to resist physically intervening. I position myself for a catch, or at least the ability to break his fall.
Ted puts one hand on the wall near the head of the stairs and makes his way down with only a bit of swaying. By now I am astonished. In the preceding weeks he has treated the two small steps to our sunken living room as though they were a treacherous glacial crevasse. What is going on?
"You have a walk right around the house to stairs to the back deck, don't you". How could Ted know that. This end of the house is invisible from the inside. We move across the patio that the hot tub sits on. I show him that the walk is possible, but incomplete. Rocks. Rough ground. There is a stretch of ten or twenty feet that I have not finished.
"That's O.K. I can still walk there." Now I'm really concerned. But once again I position myself as a human cushion. "Since I haven't finished this part maybe you'd like to hold onto my arm", I offer. Ted sees the sense in that and we make our way down the rough little slope to the foot of the back stairs to our deck. A full one story flight of stairs.
"I could walk right up those stairs and be on the deck again". How could he have oriented himself so well? For weeks I have had to remind him where his bedroom is when he is sitting in our dining room in plain sight of the door to his room?
In recent weeks I have worried that Ted will struggle to negotiate a high curb in a parking lot. Now he stands before ten or twelve steps and says, "I can go right up these".
I mention that we could back track and find a much shorter flight of stairs. No dice. Ted has clearly determined to tackle this flight. I stand behind him and wonder if I will be able to stop a fall or will just join him in tumbling backward down the steps. One step. Two. Three. Sometimes shaky and swaying. But he grips the railings tightly. Before I can even worry much, he is at the top of the stairs pushing open the sliding door and headed for his chair in the dining room.
We had left the wheel chair back on the front porch. The walker is in the house. Ted has navigated a hundred feet including two sets of stairs and a small rocky slope.
"I could go right up those stairs." He points to the long flight from our kitchen to the upstairs bedrooms. Before today he has made it clear that he never intends to go to the second floor of hour home.
"Yes, you could"
As I write this, it is the next day. Ted is still abed. I cannot plan on another day like yesterday.
The days differ greatly. He may sleep all day on chairs and sofas. He may grieve the loss of his wife and of his memories. I may have to remind him who I am.
Or he may walk upstairs for a tour of the second floor.