Posts Tagged ‘sundowning’

My mom had Parkinson’s, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s–and she lived with my family (husband, daughters and me), and I was her full-time caregiver. I remember when I realized my mom was dying., literally dying–and that she would pass away in our home. I wanted to give her a home passing, but I felt sucked into death with her. The atmosphere of our home was somber. I was sleep deprived, zombified, and barreling toward depression. As crazy as it sounds, I told my husband I wanted a puppy.

Yes, I know dogs are work. I know puppies are even ten times more work. Why would a caregiver want something else to take care of? Because I needed to surround myself with new life. I needed a roly poly furry baby body to hold. I needed puppy’s breath (which to me smells like coffee, an aroma I adore) and tiny wimpers. I needed to surround myself with life as we faced the end of my mother’s days.

It wasn’t that I had read or considered studies about stress and the healing powers of pet therapy. It was pure instinct.

I’m often asked for hints to help caregivers and I know it might sound lame, but I deeply believe that the answer, at least part of it, lies in nature. We’re surrounded by this lush world of variety, color, texture, sights, smells, and sounds. The earth is our food–for our bodies and our souls.

My greatest comfort during my most stressful caregiving times was to go outside, stand by the river behind our house, wander in and out of the trees, pick wildflowers (commonly known as weeds), and feel the ground beneath me and the wind brush past me. Nothing brought me back to a place of calm than to simply step outside, take a few minutes, and breathe.

My husband and I went for a bike ride just minutes after I said I needed a puppy, that all of us needed a puppy. We’d only be gone ten minutes–a jaunt around the neighborhood…and there was a sign near the front of our community. “Free puppies.”

Not kidding. There it was. I took it as a sign (ha!) and we turned into the driveway.  It was a wide, flat yard with a doghouse, a trailer for a boat and a few spread out trees. And there was my puppy. A six-week old Alaskan Malamute/German shepherd mix curled in a C under the boat trailer. She was fat, sweet, and I knew she was to be mine.

We came home from that ten minute bike ride with Kismet. That’s her name. It’s means fate.

Our daughter’s eyes lit up, and even my mom, lost in muddled memories so long ago, connected. We were smitten. Kismet made us all laugh, play, and  cuddle. It was exactly what we needed. New life. Hope. Proof that life goes on.

Yes, it  took energy and time to train her, and we all pitched in. And yes, puppies do get up in the middle of night–but hey, I was already up with my mom anyway. She had sundowning and many of her nights resembled a late night brawl in a lively Irish pub. My mom yelled, ate handfuls out fo the frig or pantry, tried to escape, wrecked her room–it was wild. At least I could calm her, get her in bed, and hold my pudgy puppy for a few minutes and take in that musky, earthy puppy breath that only lasts for a few months.

Maybe this sounds like too much work, and don’t think you have to commit to a pet in order to feel joy and connection. 

Simple ways to surround yourself with new life:

  • Get flowers at the grocery store each week. Start collecting African violets–get some feed solution,  and set yourself up a window of violets in pinks, lavenders, deep purples and blues. If one dies, toss it!
  • Get some stick-on bird feeders that attach to your windows. They’re so cool and you can get them at a local bird or pet store, hardware or even WalMart. You can get hummingbird feeders or songbird feeders. It’s amazing to stand in your kitchen washing dishes and see a hummingbird hover right in front of you.
  • Buy bird feeder and put up a bird bath in your garden. Who cares if the squirrels eat it, too. Squirrels are fun to watch as well. I had a little guy with a bent tail visit me outside my home office window for years–every morning at 10am. I rushed to get in there to see the little guy and I enjoyed their antics–he apparently had a thing for a girl squirrel who was the equivalent to the prom queen because every male squirrel fawned over her. It’s better than watching the soaps!
  • Get binoculars and sit on the porch with your care buddy and bird watch together.
  • Stop by your local animal shelter–or even the pet store. On your way home from errands, stop and pet some kitties and puppies at the local shelter. They need love and will be better pets for their adoptive family if they get touched and talked to every day. You don’t have to “own” a pet to enjoy them.
  • Go to the zoo, local butterfly garden, or nature preserve. Caregiving can include field trips! Even if your loved one can’t walk far, many places have wheelchairs or can drive you in a golf cart. And who says you need to go through the whole place? Pick one animal you love, let your care buddy pick one animal they love, and only go there. Even thirty minutes is worth it–and with senior discounts, it’s a reasonable price and will change your whole day.

Kismet is now 7 years old–and what I had no way of knowing is that she would give us another gift. The last few months of my mom’s life was excruciating and poignant. Alzheimer’s took her ability to eat, to chew, to swallow, and her death was slow but I’m grateful to have this experience. On the year anniversary of my mom’s passing, Rupert, Kismet’s son was born.

Life trumps death.

He is the most adorable dog–sweet, funny, goofy and he came right on time. Just when we all needed another infusion of life.

I hope you find life–in the midst of caregiving–in the midst of sorrow and stress. Go with your gut and find something that quickens your heart. Life. It’s all around you.


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It’s called social convention abilities, or social response abilities, which means your loved one who you know has dementia/Alzheimer’s, can get their act “together” in front of the doctor or some other person and talk or act fine.


It can seem as if you’ve been tricked.

How can a person who doesn’t remember their own son or daughter, keeps their purse in the freezer and thinks that trees are talking to them act completely normal in front of a stranger? 


Social convention means that all those years we’ve walked past someone and said, “Hello, how are you? I’m fine” are now hard-wired in our brains.


We answer without thinking.

We sit up straighter when someone we don’t know enters the room, we  act polite when we’re talking to a stranger, or wave when waved to, smile, even laugh at the appropriate pause in the story.


Professional care providers and those who work in the mental health field know about this, but I haven’t heard it discussed among caregivers–and this is important to know.


A person can access this ability when they’re in a new setting or with new people (stimulation) and they can act perfectly fine when just a few minutes ago they were having a conversation with a tree!


This can be very frustrating. You were worried, got them dressed, killed yourself to get to the appointment on time–and now they’re chatting it up with the nurse. 


The behavior you’ve observed at home is the “real deal.”


You have to insist on getting them the proper care and treatment based on what you witness 24/7, not on the five minutes in the doctor’s office.


This doesn’t mean your loved one doesn’t have dementia/Alzheimer’s.It doesn’t mean they don’t need meds or assistance.


Don’t let this fool you.


You’re not crazy, but it can feel like you are.


I hated when my mom did this–I felt like such an idiot for traipsing to the doctor yet again for my mother to say no, her knee didn’t hurt, no, she wasn’t having headaches. Then, they’d all look at me as if I were making the whole thing up!


Memory and recognition will vacillate.

Your loved one will remember who you are, and then forget. They will remember their spouse has passed, and then insist you take them to see them. It can throw you.




Caregivers are in a unique role.

They’re the bridge between their loved one and the medical world. Sometimes they’re ignored. Other times, they take over too much. It seems like you can’t get it right. No matter what you do, it’s too much or not enough.


Some physicians know about social convention abilities and understand it’s a normal human response to stimulus. But many doctors don’t know about this. Don’t think your doctor is well-informed about the nuances of Alzheimer’s. Unless they’re a specialist in this field, they probably don’t.


Hold your ground.

It’s in those off hours when they think no one is looking, or right after waking, or those middle of the night ordeals–that’s you witness the ravages of this disease. That’s for real–


Dementia and Alzheimer’s symptoms to appear to come and go, particularly in the earlier stages. These diseases don’t go away.


They may plateau for awhile, but sadly, this isn’t a disease you can recover from.


Caregiving is challenging enough without these incongruities.

But it’s part of the package.


What can I do to convince the doctor that I’ve brought my husband/wife/mom/dad there for a valid reason?


  • Keep a journal. Write down the times and events that concern you. This will help you track the disease.
  • Check into sundowning–many people with dementia Alzheimer’s experience heightened symptoms at night.
  • If you have to, video tape your loved one’s behavior. Neurologists can recognize patterns and symptoms by the way a person shuffles when they walk, use their hands, the type of tremors they exhibit and by their speech patterns. This can be helpful in diagnosing them.
  • Realize your loved one can have more than one disease. You may be experiencing an overlap in illnesses and additional treatment/medication may be required.
  • Have a friend or sibling on speed dial. After you care for your loved one or go to the doctor visit–call them and vent! You need to be able to get your emotions and frustrations out on the table.  
  • Speak to the doctor or nurse separately about your concerns. Make sure they’re recording you on paper. You need to present yourself in a pleasant, but firm manner. Some doctor’s like when a caregiver is knowledgeable, some don’t. Be prepared for either case.

You are crucial to your loved one’s care. You have the ability to notice things before anyone. Don’t let anyone second guess what you know in your gut.

The next time you loved one pulls a fast one on you, smile and quietly take charge. You are their lifeline, their voice.

Don’t be afraid to speak up.


I’m Carol O’Dell, author of Mothering Mother.This an other caregiving topics are covered in my book–I hope you’ll check out–click here, to go to the Amazon link.








People can cover up how bad a situation is—and we’re all too willing to believe it because we need things to stay the same. We need our loved ones to be okay—but sometimes, they’re not.


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