Plumbing the Mind of an Alzheimer’s Patient

Alzheimer’s and dementia are apparently unpredictable. My husband Bill can remember details from his childhood, from college classes, from our travels years ago that I find amazing. But he can’t remember whether I’m having a glass of red or white wine when he asks me if I want a refill.  And he brings the refill in a different glass, if he brings it at all.

Half the time he can’t remember if he’s eaten. I wish I could watch him 24/7 but I can’t.

He loves to cook, and he likes to clean the kitchen when he’s done cooking. Nowadays his idea of cleaning includes putting pots and pans away with Mother’s antique crystal, disposable plastic carryout containers with the fine china, and fruit in the clearly-labeled “meat” bin of the refrigerator.

Take the stopped up kitchen sink saga. I’m extremely busy, and have been recovering from bronchitis and antibiotic-resistant strep while trying to keep up with my classes. Suddenly, the kitchen sink backed up. Bill patiently bailed water out, and poured liquid drain clearing products down the sink to no avail for a couple of days before I insisted it be fixed.

He used to be handy–not as good as my late father, who could build or fix anything–but pretty good with things like this. I tend to forget he’s losing executive function and some logical thought processes. So I trusted his word when he said he was “working on it.”

Stuff piled up in the kitchen, as it tends to do these days. He takes three times as long to do things as he used to. But finally I lost it and said “When is this thing going to be fixed?” We can’t afford the $200 for a plumber, and instinctively I know this is something we should be able to fix ourselves. I want him to maintain his self-esteem, so I want him, encourage him, nag him to fix something I know is simple to fix–something he’s done before. I’m thinking if he fixes it he’ll feel like he’s accomplished something.

Hours later, he tells me it’s fixed. I check. Nothing has been done. I lose it. I pull everything out from under the sink, put a bucket under the trap, and pull the PVC pipe, which is easy enough to do without tools. The clog is obvious, so I hand Bill the pipe to clear out, and I go back to working on grading student papers.

I see him outside cleaning the pipe with the water hose, and naively assume he’ll put it all back together. Nope. So I put it back together, run water down the sink, and after about 5 minutes it’s apparent the clog extends into the section of pipe that goes into the wall and out of the house.

Did I mention this is the morning of Thanksgiving day?

Once again, I pull all the pipe out, and we go in search of his dad’s plumber’s snake, which is rusty and doesn’t work properly. Long story short, we got it working and seemed to clear the clog, but of course the only way to test it is to reassemble everything and run water through it. I’m being stubborn and refusing to put the turkey in the oven until I have a kitchen sink that drains properly. Bill assures me he can put it back together, and I return to grading the seemingly endless stack of student papers.

About an hour later he comes to tell me the sink is fixed and I can start preparing the turkey. I walk into the kitchen to see the pipe in pieces all over the place and the garbage disposal on the floor.

I blew up.

“Why did you take the garbage disposal out?” I screamed, knowing deep down inside I was mad at the disease, not him.

“I didn’t!” he insisted. “How did it end up on the floor?” I screamed. “I don’t know!” he responded. An argument ensued–yes, all the books say don’t argue with them, but human nature gets in the way of logic when it’s after noon on Thanksgiving, the turkey isn’t in the oven and the entire kitchen drainage system is in pieces on the floor.

Did I mention he had loaded the dishwasher and was about to turn it on? That would have flooded the kitchen.

“Happy Thanksgiving!” I shouted and stormed out of the house. I got in my car with no idea of where to go, just that I wanted desperately to be away from this situation that I did not sign up for.

I want my husband back. You know, the quiet guy with the incredible intellect for philosophy, history, politics, economics, art and religion. The artistic guy who once played Chopin on the piano and could fly through Bach fugues as if his fingers were weightless. The guy who loved art and literature and adopted football and basketball with abandon after we were married. The guy who taught me about baseball and with whom I shared a love for long distance bicycling. The guy who spoke five languages and has an MBA in finance.

Looking at him now he’s an old man, hunched over and pathetic-looking as I squeal out of the driveway. I drive around the block and come home.

Walking back into the kitchen I contemplate calling a plumber and then decide to try to figure it out on my own, which is harder to do since I didn’t take it apart and don’t know how the garbage disposal was installed in the first place.  He’s scattered parts around the kitchen and his logical problem solving skills are shot.

Somehow, after about an hour of trial and error, some head-banging and the use of my entire Marine Corps vocabulary, we got it back together and could verify that water would run through the sink and into the sewer as God and the original plumbing contractors desired.

It’s now nearly 4:00 p.m. and time to put the turkey in the oven. I’m mad but hungry. Bill is clueless. He has no sense of time, and cheerfully follows instructions as I rush to make stuffing, prep the bird and cover it with a basketweave of bacon strips (which is delicious, by the way). We pop the bird in the oven, knowing dinner won’t happen until 8:30 or 9:00 p.m.

But to the Alzheimer’s patient, at least the one I’m married to, time means nothing.

Like the plumbing in my kitchen, something is blocked in the plumbing of his mind. The various drug cocktails don’t seem to be working. My stress and frustration grow by the day. But dinner was good.


Originally posted 12/2/12 on The View From Little D.

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