Residents honor, remember people with Alzheimer's

11/15/10 Zack Baddorf
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Across the country Sunday, people gathered together for a National Commemorative Candle Lighting to remember those with Alzheimer's Disease. About a dozen Tampa Bay residents met at the Albert Whitted Park in St. Petersburg on Sunday night to honor their loved ones.

Karen Walsh's step-mother-in-law Billie had Alzheimer's for almost 20 years. For four of those years, Walsh looked after her. She said it was hard.

"But there were a lot of really joyful moments in all the hardships," she said.

Walsh said she and her step-mother-in-law would walk around the neighborhood and it was like everything was new to Billie. Eventually, the senior didn't remember Walsh's name.

"Even though Billie wouldn't know who I was exactly, she knew she knew me and she knew that she liked me. And so she would say, 'Oh here she comes again' or 'Oh, that's her' so my name became Her but the emotions were still true, even though she couldn't have told you who I was or how I was related to her," Walsh explained.

Billie died about three years ago.

But her memory lives on. Walsh lit a candle for her at the tribute in St. Petersburg. The event was an initiative of the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, a nonprofit organization which provides care to people with Alzheimer's disease and their families.

The foundation reports 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer's.

Cindy Gordon is community relations coordinator at Brentwood Senior Living Community in St Petersburg. The living center where she works has about 80 residents, including a unit for 30 people with Alzheimer's.

She said the disease is devastating, and not only for those who have it.

"I find that it's really devastating for the families," Gordon said. "Once I think a person reaches a certain stage of the illness, they're no longer aware of what's going on but as families we really suffer and that's when we watch our loved one kind of turn into somebody different."

November is National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month but much about the disease is unclear, including what causes it. Gordon says there's a lot more to learn.

"And that's I think really what we're trying to do tonight is just continue to keep awareness. I mean this is an epidemic proportion of people who are being diagnosed and younger and younger too. And that's scary," she said.

Gordon said a few residents in her center in their early 60s already have Alzheimers.

"That's pretty young and it's alarming to me the first time I meet people that are that young, it's earth shattering to think that you know as a 40-year-old person, in 20 years, I could be afflicted by this disease," Gordon told WMNF.

She said Alzheimer's can start innocently enough. But just because someone misplaces their keys doesn't mean they've got the disease, "because we're all going to forget and lose track of things," she said.

"But ... watch for some of the unusual things, the getting lost, going to the grocery store and can't find your way home when you go every week and all of the sudden mom calls and she's ten miles off the beaten track, that's a real red flag," Gordon continued.

Going to the doctor for testing is the next step. Gordon says there are "wonderful medications" that can ward off the disease. She added that care giving for people with dementia can be trying for individuals and recommends that people seek assistance. Walsh, who cared for her step-mother-in-law, has some advice for people taking care of those with Alzheimer's: live in the moment.

"You can't worry about if something makes sense because otherwise everyone gets upset," Walsh said. "You have to try to just go with whatever happens, whether it makes any sense at all or not. And it doesn't matter if your shoes mat and if you have on a crazy hat. And it doesn't matter if you eat dessert for breakfast. It doesn't matter if you have beer for breakfast. You gotta just go with what happens and enjoy those special moments that appear because sometimes there are real lucid moments in their too and you have your person back for a second. And you have to just cherish that part."

Gordon with the Brentwood Senior Living Community said those people with low-income may have a tough time getting funding to provide care for their loved ones with Alzheimer's. She said the legislature should better fund Medicaid programs.

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