When the climate changes and temperatures exceed 90 degrees, I have far less energy to be a good caregiver. Mom, however, loves the heat. Once summer arrived, she stopped grinding her teeth and her mood has improved. Climate has a huge impact on caregivers and patients. Why don’t we hear more about it?
Since my mother was first diagnosed, she has craved warmth and heat. Last winter, I boosted Mom’s happiness by raising the thermostat. We have a super efficient coal stove that produces many BTU’s. Mom was most pleased when the rest of us were sweating. Her attachment to warmth helps me understand why so many retirees head for Florida.
But what happens to caregivers in warm places with water shortages? Several months ago, parts of California were put under mandatory water restrictions. Water is essential for managing all the hygiene and laundry problems that come with caregiving. At least three times a week I find myself washing sheets and bed protectors. Keeping up with mom’s hygiene also requires lots of water for sponge baths and other emergency clean-ups. Nevertheless, caregivers must respond to Governor Jerry Brown’s order to reduce state water usage by 25% this year. A board of water usage monitors the amount of water consumed in each municipality to determine if water conservation goals are met. Caregivers in California’s East Bay Area will face a “$48 penalty on the billing cycle for customers” exceeding the usage of average customers.
Once I got to thinking about ways that drought and temperature affects dementia families, my thoughts turned to those caring for sick familiy members in the midst of war. We often see photos of children displaced by brutal battles. But what about elderly people who have lost the capacity to make sense of what’s going on around them? How do their caregivers manage? My searches for information about caregivers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war-stricken countries returned zero results. As hard as caregiving may be for us in the U.S., I’m sure that caregivers in those places face even greater struggles. If you’re a caregiver facing a challenge caused by climate or calamity, send a note and help inform us about what’s happening in your part of the world.
Laughter may seem out of place when you’re caring for a person with dementia. Things turn awfully grim when a loved one gets an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Yet patients often find ways to show us that laughter is the best medicine. My mom can barely speak, but she’s found many ways to make a joke.
I often hear her laughing in the morning when I go to get her up from bed. We have a very sweet aide who visits on weekdays to help me with this process. It’s physically difficult because I have to transfer my mom from her bed to her wheelchair, then from the chair to the bathroom, then back to the wheelchair after we get her washed and dressed. You’d think Mom would just groan and complain the entire time we’re shifting her around. But she tries hard to get the aide and me to laugh with her. She has the full-on demented laugh — like a crazy sanitarium patient in an old movie. Sometimes she gets us going so hard, the tears roll down our face. Mom is happiest if we offer some true belly laughs.
“Janet,” I say, “Were you at a party last night?”
She looks around and giggles as if an invisible person is telling her jokes. We have a pet name for Laughing Mom. She is “Two-Martini Janet.” My mother never drank hard liquor but she cackles like a tipsy lady at a wild cocktail party.
My mother’s attachment to laughter may be extreme, but it’s not unusual for people with dementia to retain a good sense of humor despite their circumstances. The authors of The 36 Hour Day remind us that “a dementing illness does not suddenly end a person’s capacity to experience love or joy, nor does it end her ability to laugh.” Laughter, the authors say, is a “gift to help us keep our sanity in the face of trouble.” Humor also has therapeutic value. In an Australian research project on 400 nursing home residents (called the SMILE study) scientists found that “residents who received regular visits from a humour therapist saw a 20 per cent drop in agitation levels compared to those receiving standard care.”
What can you do to encourage laughter with your loved one? Try some ideas from the SMILE study. The “humour therapist” used a combination of games, jokes and songs to promote laughter. They also had a “laughter boss” work with caregivers to find ways to inject more humor into their daily routines. During stressful times, it can be hard to find the lighter side of dementia, but with the help of Two-Martini Janet, I have learned to become my own “laughter boss.” I worked hard to earn this title and I won’t leave this job unless someone has the nerve to fire me!