Health Column: Health: With Alzheimer's, questions are often same for families

By Susan Keller
Blount Memorial Hospital

It sneaks into our lives. Losing car keys, the inability to recall names, forgetting blocks of time and being unable to do familiar tasks - we explain these happenings as signs of aging or of having too many things on the mind. But, too often,
they are the first signs of a worse problem -- Alzheimer’s disease.

This disease not only affects the individual, but the entire family. It’s the leading cause of dementia in this country, and as our population lives longer, the number of people suffering from this devastating disease increases. Because of this, more families face the heartbreaking decisions of how to best care for their loved ones.

I met Alzheimer’s in 2001 when my mother began to have problems dealing with the everyday things she had handled so well for years. As I look back, the signs were there years before, but she and I credited them to aging. The major issue became protecting my mother and keeping her safe. This meant becoming the decision maker, which was hard for my mother who had been so strong and independent all her life. Becoming a caregiver was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.

Was I making the right decisions? I learned there is wonderful help available through the Elder Assessment Services (EASE) program at Blount Memorial Hospital. I also learned of Senior Services and a free caregivers group that meets every Wednesday. Attending those meetings taught me I was not alone in this new role. We share our experiences and learn from each other. The meetings are open to anyone who needs to talk or just listen. Senior Services coordinator Edward Harper is there to listen and/or advise, but never to judge or criticize.

I think the greatest fear for the caregiver, though, is not knowing what to expect. I found a wonderful book, The House on Beartown Road, by Elizabeth Cohen. It’s the true story of a caregiver as she makes the Alzheimer’s journey with her father. As my mother’s condition changed, I recognized many of the behaviors described in the book.

Another helpful resource is something that happens tonight at 6 p.m. in the Blount Memorial Hospital auditorium. The film, Quick Brown Fox - An Alzheimer’s Story, is being presented. It’s a documentary of a family’s struggle to understand and fight Alzheimer’s disease in the family’s beloved mother.

As I watched this film, I realized the names were different, but the questions, concerns and feelings were the same as those I felt as a caregiver. This film is not someone’s fictional idea of how a family deals with Alzheimer’s.

It’s the true day-to-day fears, tears and pain of dealing with this disease. I hope everyone who is taking care of a loved one or who thinks they might have someone with Alzheimer’s or who just want to know and better understand the disease will come see this film.

Remember, seeking help is not a sign of weakness. It’s a way to gather knowledge, thus making us better caregivers.

Susan Keller is a member of the Blount Memorial Hospital board of directors and a caregiver of a family member with Alzheimer’s disease. She is a presenter at the regular Senior Services-sponsored Caregiver Connection program tonight, where caregiving for an Alzheimer’s patient is the topic of discussion for both professional and community audiences.

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