with minor modifications, me + defrosting the freezer + dementia

[Edited slightly for grammar. Thanks to the friend who encouraged me to publish this despite my reservations.]

With this, as with so many things, I don’t know exactly where to start the story. One reason I write less personal stuff than I used to is that I’m not sure what the story is really about anymore. Is this a story about dad? About me? About dementia? About the weather?

Dad has been pestering me for quite a while to defrost the freezer, to the point that I’ve moved all the ice cream to the box freezer in the fridge so he doesn’t need to look in the big freezer. He started it on his own in August (the imaginably worst time), but I caught him before he got very far, and pointed out that all the frozen things would melt. I slammed the stuff back in, physically interposed myself between him and the freezer, and finally parked myself in a chair in front of it for two hours until he de-fixated.

But it’s been very cold here for the last two weeks and when the cold begins to strengthen, a middle-aged Wisconsin cook’s thoughts turn lightly to thoughts of defrosting. Assuming the freezer is in the house and not in the garage, you can just box up the contents, bag them against animals, set them out on the back porch while you thaw the freezer, which occurs quickly when the house is 68 or 70F. (Our house is actually 72F because dad is so cold all the time. Apologies to readers in Texas who are really suffering, I know.) You wipe up the mess, re-chill the freezer, bring the food back in the house, and restock.

This is the dementia piece. I’ve written before of dad’s inability to respond to normal conversational cues. Any household task to be accomplished without aggravation needs to be undertaken in dad’s absence. He lacks the politeness any more not to tell us exactly how we should do it (even when he’s wrong) and the executive function to make crucial decisions. This is why I have the personal care person do most of the housekeeping — because whether asked politely or firmly, he won’t stay out of it. He literally stands two feet away from me in the morning while I am cleaning up from breakfast, while offering a running commentary on what I’m doing wrong. For example, if I used the good knives (with the sharpened blades and wooden handles) he couldn’t to stop himself from putting them in the dishwasher or insisting that I do so. He won’t listen to explanations and when I don’t comply, the drizzle of criticism intensified into a stream of angry commands until I physically removed the knives and myself to a room with a door and lock myself in. Solution: I bought cheap knives that I stick in the dishwasher and replace when the detergent ruins them. (It would be another really worthwhile post: the extent to which dementia makes sustainability a real difficulty.)

Redirection — the most basic advice for people in this situation that you will read everywhere on the web — doesn’t work very well with dad, because he has an unbelievable tendency to fixate. (The neurologist said: it’s like he has an incredibly powerful engine that he can’t put in gear.) Therapeutic fibbing can be more effective, but only if it’s seamless, and having been raised to tell the truth, it’s hard for me to think of lies easily. The only way to communicate to him something that he shouldn’t or can’t do, assuming he doesn’t already agree, is to yell. This specific problem — that he can’t be convinced that a metaphorical stove is hot except by the metaphorical equivalent of burning his fingers — was what caused me to involve the geriatric consultant and the dementia coach (Calluna) in our lives. When this started happening, I was horrified at the amount of time I spent yelling. I’m sure if you timed it, second per second, I have spent more time raising my voice in the last two and a half years than I did in all my romantic relationships combined. I hate losing control of my responses (which was happening while I didn’t understand what was going on), but even more, I hate the calculations I now make about whether it’s worth planning the time for yelling and recovery from yelling into my day. Even apart from the moral and relational aspects of what it does to me when I lose my temper, speaking in my own self-interest, It takes a lot out of me physically and emotionally. Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.

HL and I try to distinguish between things he can do and things he can’t do at all. Defrosting the freezer was definitely in the latter category — too many decisions. The last two years HL and I decided the level of ice build up wasn’t yet worth the hassle — but there are usually only two or three really cold weeks in the year and I didn’t want to miss it this time around. Back in September, I went through the freezer and edited out stuff we wouldn’t eat (to avoid the “you’re wasting food” argument) and made sure the trash went out before he got back. And when dad announced a few days ago that he wanted to visit Flower, I sprang into action and moved all the food out of the freezer onto the porch while he was away. He didn’t notice anything different — score.

But the moment of truth was going to be the wait for the thaw. You turn off the freezer and wait for it to melt. You can accelerate it by using your hair dryer (which I didn’t want to do — old man using electricity plus standing water, and not near one of those specially rated outlets? no) or putting pans of steaming water in the freezer (dad has forgotten how to use the gas stove), or maybe by using a fan to push warmer air closer to the open door. I didn’t want it to be thawing while I was asleep, though that might have been easiest, because of the mess it could make. It was going to need to thaw during the day and while dad was there. And unfortunately waiting till dad was out of the house to move the food and avoid that argument meant that it was going to have to thaw while he was awake and in the house. And I had a bunch of things I had to do that day out of the house.

I was probably kidding myself, but I really thought I could just say “We’re going to let the freezer melt and wipe up the mess,” and I also thought maybe that would be something for him to do (everyone who stays at home in winter is normally bored out of their gourd, but we’re going on a year of staying at home now so it’s much worse). The fight for activities beyond watching TV is real.

But of course not. And this was my miscalculation because of course his patience neurons have been burnt out, too.

As I set up the drain pan and laid some towards around the door on the floor, dad was approaching with a knife.

“No,” I said, “it’s really important that you don’t use a knife or anything sharp.”

“I’m just going to help it along.”

“No, dad, there’s coolant in there and we can’t risk those tubes.”

“I’m not going to do anything wrong” [voice rising].

“I know you won’t mean to, but it’s really easy to mess something up and then the freezer can’t be fixed and we will have to buy a new one.”

“It’s going to be fine!” [voice rising more].

“It will be fine if you just leave it alone!” [my voice now rising].

“It’s going to take all day to melt!” [voice rising more].

“That’s fine! Let it take all day!”

Dad retreats from freezer, I start organizing some stuff in the kitchen. Five minutes later, dad again approaches the open freezer with a knife.

[Repeat substance of the previous conversation, except at slightly higher pitch.]

Five minutes later, as I’m wiping off a counter, dad again approaches the open freezer. I realize the only way this is going to work is either me sitting in front of the freezer for several hours — not an option — or being ready to let it escalate.

I let it escalate. There is yelling from both sides. Dad removes himself. I go out and get his newspaper. I get in the car. I start the errands. About three hours later, my nausea abates slightly. I set up to work.

When I get home it’s done thawing and there’s a pail full of every towel we have. The drizzle of criticism begins because of the wet, dirty towels. I start to make supper. The drizzle continues over the content of supper (a slice of deli lasagna for him, leftover red beans and rice for me). I start washing the towels.

Now he’s fixated on the food on the porch. I point out that it’s -5 outside and probably only about 40 or so in the freezer, which is re-chilling itself (and, according to the instructions manual I find for him on the web, needs to cool at least four hours before food is put back in it).

I say, “If we put subzero frozen food in a 40 degree freezer, what do you think is going to happen?”

He says, “It’s going to melt.”

I say, “Exactly. So we have to wait till the freezer gets colder.”

I go and sit in the living room and turn on Family Feud. He follows me. He always follows me.

He watches about twenty minutes of it, then says, “We can just throw all that food away.”

I say, “Why?”

He says, “That’s all the same food that was in there when mom died.” This happens a lot — he can’t accept when something isn’t going to happen right away, so he reasons himself to an explanation that gets him the result he wants. Also, he’s still genuinely confused about things that have happened in the last decade or so.

I say, “No, we emptied it after mom died. It’s been defrosted at least twice since then. I went through it in the fall. I bought half a hog in October — we’ve been eating it — and about half of that is still in there.”

He doesn’t believe me. He tries to go out on the porch, but when he opens the door, the blast of cold in his face stops him. It’s colder than it was doing the day and it’s dark out.

“You need to throw it out now,” he says.

I repeat that I’m not going to do anything else tonight and say that I’ll show in him the morning.

He tells me he’s going to throw it out. I say, “You know what? Fine. Freeze your ass off.”

I go back into the living room and he follows me, because he always follows me. We resume watching Family Feud. Eventually, he goes to bed.

And now I’m going to bed. I think the only way to finagle this is going to be somehow to get the food into the freezer before he’s out of bed. Or as much as possible, anyway.

I’m exhausted. I’m going to bed. I think I have a better idea now what the story is about, though.

[I did get up early and restock the freezer. It’s a real improvement. Please don’t leave me any advice. Thanks for reading.]

~ by Servetus on February 18, 2021.

31 Responses to “with minor modifications, me + defrosting the freezer + dementia”

  1. {{{{{{Hugs}}}}}}

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  2. I don’t mind you sharing your experiences one bit. It has to be cathartic for you to let go by writing some of these tussles with your father

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    • Thanks — I have mixed feelings about this. It’s not just that it’s hard to write it down (after living through it), it also seems very motionless. I appreciate that you’re reading!

      Like

  3. No advice. Just a message of support.

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  4. Sometimes I think just sharing can help. My thoughts are with you and I really think you and my aunt need a support group. I hope it has gotten warmer by you . Finally did here. Nothing like -45 with the windchill. Yes fixated is a much used word in my line of work even with children.

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    • I think it’s 20F today! The windchills on Sunday were insane. And of course our garage door chose that day to refuse to close, and the farmhouse furnace gave up the ghost. 20 actually seems balmy.

      I did go to a F2F support group for a while before the pandemic, but they stopped meeting in person and I hate Zoom. I wonder if there wouldn’t be something for your aunt via the Internet, but I know older people are not always Internet savvy.

      Enjoy the warmth!

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      • I doubt she would join any online group. She does have a pay as you go smart phone but don’t owe or want a computer. She will have her daughter do things for her on the computer such as get airline tickets (before his stroke) or get a rental when they go to New Mexico, with that said their daughter lives in Houston TX. I know my aunt needs to vent and will little things but don’t think she says much to her children or myself.

        Can’t wait for next week with much warmer weather. When out to start car on Thursday, it was 9 and felt really warm. I think we seen like a 60 degree or more temperature change in a few days.

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        • no computer: I find that totally understandable (my uncle and his wife are the same way). If she hasn’t checked this out already, every county in the state has an Aging and Disability Resource Center and they might be able to put her in touch with a group that is still meeting F2F or will do so again, soon.

          I think it’s going to be 40F here next week.

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          • I think it is to be in the high 30’s by middle of the week. Sunday 32 and snow. Just in time for that big ski race that has not been canceled and not making everyone in the community to happy this year. Will not end on main street but they will come to town and need somewhere to stay. When we think of it we really dodged a big bullet last year when we had it. My husband thought last year should have been canceled.

            I will talk to my aunt and see what she says about the Aging and Disability Resource Center, I know she knows about as it is in the same building as the Senior Center that they will not go to due the people that run it, they don’t like them even if my husband does.

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  5. Hope you can be warm! Thinking of you many hugs xx

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  6. 💜💜💜

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  7. It’s amazing you can get anything accomplished, actually. And that despite all the frustration and arguments, you have remained sane and can still manage to exercise patience. Thinking about you and sending good thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know if it’s patience so much as resignation (I was having a debate with myself about this recently). But I appreciate that you see how much this takes out of me. I would really like to work more than I am, but it’s unclear to me that I could. The whole promise of this personal care setup was that it would allow me to lead something more like a normal life, but that’s not really the case and it’s not the workers’ fault — the issue is dad.

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  8. Hugs for you

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  9. You have all my sympathy dealing with dementia. The inserted we went back to watching Family Feud gave me a wry smile. You’re doing a great and difficult job.

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  10. (((Hugs)))

    My mother is showing initial signs of ‘confusion’, and I sympathize greatly with your situation and what you have to deal with on a daily basis.

    A few months ago, I read an article in which the actor, Viggo Mortensen, who’s lost both parents to dementia, said that it’s us (the caregivers) who are confused, not those suffering from dementia. It just resonated so much with me, because I’m really confused sometimes as to how to tackle my mother, whereas my mother is only uncertain about where she’s put her stuff. An example – one out of many: My mother looked for a long time for her glasses, and we deemed them lost during grocery shopping, but as it turned out she had put them in the freezer (and the freezer becomes the culprit because it’s so difficult to find things in it…).

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    • I can recommend defrosting the freezer. Makes it much easier to locate things. We’re having lamb stew this weekend for this reason.

      One could write an entire ‘nother post on the topic of keeping track of someone else’s stuff (I assume parents go through this, too). Dad has never really had a concept of “put things back where you got them from” but the current situation has made it much worse because he can’t really look for things anymore. I feel a “dad and the lost wallet” post coming on.

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  11. hugs My stepmother developed combative dementia and my dad became her violent fixation. It became so bad that her son came and took her with him to another state. (He didn’t understand her condition at the time.) You might not think think so, but you’re doing a great job.

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  12. It is amazing that you are managing to stay sane in such a difficult situation and my thoughts are with you. When I read that your father was approaching the freezer with a knife I was partly hoping that he would damage it and then a frost-free freezer could come to the rescue.

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    • Thanks — I appreciate the thoughts. We really like this freezer. It wouldn’t be in this shape except that while I was putting ice cream in there, dad would regularly leave the door slightly open. It’s hard to buy an upright freezer any more, so I feel somewhat attached to the convenience of this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I wish you many more happy years with it, in that case. It is the opposite type here, upright freezers seem to be more popular in the UK – at least in the cities. It might be different in the country where there is more hunting.

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    • according to HL, there was a change in environmental standards and all the upright freezer manufacturers were using refrigerants that are now being phased out by law. So they have to redesign their products. And then during the pandemic I guess there was a higher demand. In any case he told me to be careful with this one. I really appreciate that it fits in the house — I don’t know that having a chest freezer would kill me but there is no room for one, at least the size that is typical here.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Yeah… sounds like it all worked out in the end but with so much difficulty… sigh… (((Hugs)), Servetus!

    Liked by 1 person

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