Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, is a progressive disease that gradually worsens over time. Symptoms usually develop slowly but eventually become severe enough to interfere with daily living.
In the early stages, Alzheimer’s patients may experience mild confusion and difficulty remembering. As the disease progresses, there is a loss of cognitive and social skills. It may become difficult to manage finances, balance checkbooks or pay bills on times. Other symptoms include language problems, personality changes, and unpredictable behavior. When Alzheimer’s is advanced, patients lose are the ability to read, dance, enjoy music, tell stories and reminisce.
Each year, approximately 43 million Americans provide unpaid care for someone with Alzheimer’s or another serious health condition. Often this means taking responsibility for a family member who can no longer manage on his or her own. Caregivers frequently help prepare meals, provide assistance with bathing and dressing, manage medications, arrange doctor visits and handle money issues.
Studies have shown that while caregiving can help strengthen connections to a loved one, many find the strain to be overwhelming. Caregivers often find solace in support groups, where they can share their feelings with others who understand the difficulties they face on a daily basis.
One Caregiver’s Story
Pleasantville resident Jim O’Connell spent many years taking care of his wife, Kate, from the time she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s until her passing years later. In many ways, it was a long, difficult journey; although when Jim looks back now, he smiles at remembering some of the things that happened, even if they didn’t seem humorous at the time.
As Kate passed through the early stages of the disease, Jim was very surprised at his initial response. His first reaction was denial. That was soon followed by fear and many of the other usual stages of grief.
At some point, several of Jim’s daughters suggested that he join an Alzheimer’s caregivers’ support group and he reluctantly agreed. He said that he joined because he had nothing to lose and he could always leave if the group didn’t meet his needs. In hindsight, joining the Caregivers Support Group, sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association, greatly benefitted Jim and, more importantly, Kate.
Jim soon came to realize that he was not alone in his situation and that there is much assistance available for care-givers. He learned how other caregivers dealt with many of the same situations he was facing and that his feelings of frustration and confusion were not unique. With the assistance of the group, Jim gradually began to accept the harsh realities of the disease, which included the fact that he and Kate could no longer engage in the activities they once enjoyed together, such as traveling, going to the theater and movies, and attending the many events surrounding their 21 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Jim’s goal was to make Kate as comfortable as possible, to provide support, to engage in communication – although usually one-sided – and to share pictures and stories of past significant family events.
Jim met many wonderful people in his support group who helped him learn a great deal about himself. He learned that he was not as patient as he thought he was and that he thrives in a more positive, upbeat environment, which is far from what his situation actually was at the time. Perhaps, most importantly, he learned the meaning of true love.
Every day Jim hoped and prayed for a breakthrough. He still questions why such an illness would have happened to a wonderful person like Kate, but he accepts the fact that it did. He is also positive that there is life after Alzheimer’s.
As a result of his experiences, Jim became a trained Alzheimer’s Caregivers Support Group facilitator, and he now facilitates a group at Phelps. He feels that if even one member of his group gains something from his insights, both he and Kate have accomplished something worthwhile.
Alzheimer’s Caregivers Support Group at Phelps
An Alzheimer’s Association’s Caregivers Support Group is offered at Phelps Memorial Hospital the second Friday of every month from 10:00 – 11:30 am, 701 N. Broadway in Sleepy Hollow. The group meets in room 545 of the 755 building. To register, call Ellen Woods at 914-366-3937 or the Alzheimer’s Association at 800-272-3900.
The Alzheimer’s Association Hudson Valley Chapter offers a variety of educational programs for families living with Alzheimer’s. These range from information on legal and financial issues to tips on how to provide the best care during all stages of the disease. The Association also has a 24-hour crisis helpline at 800-272-3900.
For more information about Alzheimer’s Association’s support groups and other programs visit www.alz.org/hudsonvalley.