Jo Ann Jaacks: Turning unraveling into a positive

Uwe (Alan) Jaacks

Uwe (Alan) Jaacks

Jo Ann Jaacks / Contributed photo

“Maybe the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that isn’t really you so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.”Michelle Phenix

I don’t think anyone can be truly prepared to be the caretaker for someone battling Alzheimer’s disease or similar life-changing conditions, like untreated Lyme disease or PTSD, with its myriad of tics, quirks and symptoms.

When my husband was living with me, one memorable episode happened at 3 a.m. when loud noises from downstairs jolted me from restless sleep and my kitten, who sleeps at the foot of my bed, to wrathful wakefulness.

My husband’s voice was beseeching attention. I gingerly walked down the stairs, recovering from a recent slip and slide on black ice, and was confronted with the urgent request, “Can you make me some strawberries? I have to go to work early.”

I learned some coping mechanisms from friends and family about dealing with Alzheimer’s, so I replied in a calm voice, “We don’t have any strawberries.” The immediate, and angry reply: “I know that. I asked if you could make me some strawberries.”

In the early months when the relatively swift onset of this disease totally unhinged me, my reaction would have been to snap “Go back to bed!” Instead, I promised, “I’ll make you some fig newtons.” Satisfied and smiling, my husband did return to bed.

My birthdate places me under the sign of Scorpio, which is one of the more mysterious and conflicting signs of the horoscope. Scorpios can be intuitive, intelligent and passionate, but also intense, secretive and domineering in that they get things done best in their own way. In the past couple years of my new journey, I had to give up some of my cherished independence; learn how to “put a brick on my tongue” as my Irish grandmother used to say; and acknowledge my own selfishness and kick some of it loose. I also had to share my story with others because that lets them share their own stories, overcome my pride and caution to seek help, and practice forgiveness like others practice Yoga.

After moving into a second-floor apartment, the downhill slide quickly accelerated. Again, in the middle of the night, I was jolted from sleep to see my husband standing at the foot of the bed, his face covered with blood. I took a deep breath and, with as much calm and control as I could muster at midnight, asked him what happened, as I pulled on warm clothing in preparation for a fast drive to the Emergency Room.

With greater calm and control, he responded, “I fell off the ladder onto the stones.” I realized he was re-living an episode that had happened a dozen years ago.

Caretakers generally don’t have a choice - their new responsibilities are thrust upon them by circumstances beyond their control. The experience can bring out the worst of our own behaviors and thoughts . . . or you can figuratively count to a thousand until you find the necessary humor or compassion within you. I got that idea from someone else who has way more patience than I do. And I sometimes accept the alien concept that getting things done my way is not always the best route. Baby steps, baby steps.

My husband died two months ago after two years in a nursing home. I have empathy with widows who have gone through the same sad trajectory, and with guilt and grief, say “It was a blessing.”