John Alex of Salisbury had retired and he and his wife, Carol, settled into a happy, comfortable routine. While Mrs. Alex continued to work, he did the grocery shopping and cooking, helped with household chores, and tended to outdoor work at home.
They enjoyed going to movies and fishing; he loved to garden. They hoped to travel.
Then, about 10 years ago, their lives began to change.
“I knew something was wrong when he started forgetting how to get to places we went to all the time,” she said.
At first, Mrs. Alex thought his increasing forgetfulness was just a part of aging; he was in his early 80s at the time.
But the problem continued to worsen, so she took her husband to a neurologist. The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s left her stunned.
“I was shocked. I didn’t know anything about Alzheimer’s,” Mrs. Alex said. “It was scary.”
No family members lived nearby, so Mrs. Alex became her husband’s sole caregiver. Afraid to leave him at home alone, she took him with her everywhere, including her own medical appointments.
At home, she was afraid even if he went into another room, worried that he might fall.
The demands of around-the-clock caregiving began to take its toll. Not being able to sleep or eat well left her exhausted and she lost weight. There were financial burdens, too: Mrs. Alex eventually became unable to work but still had costly medications to purchase.
And, it was heartbreaking to watch her husband’s disease progress.
“(Alzheimer’s) really is more cruel for the caregiver than the patient,” she said. “He doesn’t realize what is going on, but I do.”
“This is not the way I imagined we would grow old,” she added.
According to a report issued by the AARP Public Policy Institute, caring for a loved one comes with a substantial cost to the family caregiver: health risks, emotional stress, high rates of depression, social isolation, financial burdens, workplace issues and retirement security.
Respite care provides caregivers a much needed break, helping them to return to caregiving feeling somewhat refreshed.
Mrs. Alex found help through Parsons Services for the Memory Impaired at MAC Inc., the Area Agency on Aging.
The program offers families respite from the demands of caregiving for loved ones with mild to moderate memory dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Clients attend activities with senior center participants, along with specially trained staff to assure individualized attention and a meaningful day of activities.
These services seek to reduce the burden of care for family caregivers, which translates into improved quality of life for both the caregiver and recipient.
Alex attends the program four days a week, for four hours each day. Activities include music and singing, arts activities, games and socializing.
The MAC program “has been a godsend,” Mrs. Alex said. For a few hours, she experiences a feeling of normalcy in her life: shopping, catching up on household chores, volunteering and being active in her church.
“I’m more relaxed because I know he is getting good care there. And he’s safe,” she added.
Mrs. Alex also finds strength, and useful information, from the caregiver support group, which meets monthly at MAC.
“The support group is wonderful. You hear things from people you would never think of doing. (Other members) have the same problem; you go home and try it and it works,” she said.
Sometimes it is the simplest thing you can’t see for yourself, she added.
For example, at one point Alex became afraid to get into the shower. Mrs. Alex learned the problem was his lack of depth perception, paired with the all-white flooring in the bathroom. A support group member suggested she get a different color bath mat: problem solved.
Alex, 92, can no longer take care of himself, but nursing home care is not yet an option.
“I don’t think he is ready for that and truthfully, I don’t think I am either,” Mrs. Alex said of her husband of 56 years. “I will take care of him as long as I can.”
Proceeds from the upcoming 17th Annual St. Paddy’s Day 5K Run/2-Mile Walk will support MAC Inc. services for family members, caregivers and those living with Alzheimer’s.
The walk/run will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 19, at the Salisbury Elks Lodge. Check in begins at 2 p.m.
The cost is $25 for walkers; $25 for runners in advance; and $35 for runners the day of the event. The first 200 registrants are guaranteed an event T-shirt. An after-party, featuring food, awards, an auction and door prizes, will follow the event. The after party is included in the event registration; guests can attend for $5.