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Alzheimer’s patients, family need support and ministry

GLORIETA, N.M. (BP)–If Myra Book had to choose between dying of cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, she would choose cancer.
After caring for her mother, Mabel Gailey, through seven years of Alzheimer’s, Book describes it as a “heart-wrenching disease that none of us wants to go through.”
Book, associate director of missions operations and events at the North American Mission Board, spoke at a conference on ministering to people affected by Alzheimer’s during the Jericho Southern Baptist Missions Festival, July 26-Aug. 1 at Glorieta (N.M.) Baptist Conference Center. Also participating in the conference were Fred Loper, NAMB national medical missions consultant based in Oklahoma City, and Rob Flippen, chaplain at Mercy Hospice, also in Oklahoma City.
Book said family members first noticed Gailey’s memory problems in 1987 when she was 82. They took her to a physician and then to a diagnostic clinic.
“The hardest day of my life was when I left my mother at the diagnostic clinic and was told I could not see her for two or three days,” she said.
After the diagnosis, Book and other family members decided to keep Gailey at home as long as possible. Caregivers were hired.
“The best choice we made was to have caregivers other than family to come in,” Book said.
She said she learned early that to challenge or disagree with her mother would create agitation that was difficult to deal with. Also, Gailey went through a normal stage of constantly walking through the house.
“I wasn’t prepared for the activity of an Alzheimer’s patient,” Book said.
From the walking stage, Book’s mother became bedridden. She died in 1994.
Looking back, she said family members going through problems with an Alzheimer’s patient need to attribute them to the disease, not to the patient.
She urged conferees with friends caring for an Alzheimer’s patient to call them often to offer encouragement and to come by and relieve them for an hour to get out of the house.
“You can sit with people and cry with them,” Book said. “But until you’ve walked through it on a personal basis, it’s difficult to understand.”
Describing Book as having done the right things in caring for her mother, Loper emphasized that Alzheimer’s “is not an inevitable result of growing older. At 65, about 10 percent of the population has Alzheimer’s. By age 85, just below 50 percent have some form of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.”
If Alzheimer’s is suspected, Loper urged medical care to seek a diagnosis because other problems mimic the disease. These include depression, thyroid problems, malnutrition and brain tumors.
“These are treatable,” he said, whereas Alzheimer’s “is not curable and is not reversible.”
Actions to seek a diagnosis should include a history and physical, lab work, urinalysis, electrocardiogram, chest X-ray and CAT scan of the head, Loper said.
To help Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, Loper and Flippen urged regular personal visits and actions to meet specific needs.
Loper suggested churches may want to consider providing respite care one day a week at the church for patients who are able to get out. Also, he said churches could implement a care team concept, training a 12-person team to provide “respite or full-time care for a person in the latter stage of the disease.”
“Churches are good at doing things for the short term such as taking food,” Loper said. “After a month or six months or five years, we don’t do so well.” For an Alzheimer’s patient, the average time from diagnosis to death is seven years.
Flippen acknowledged it is common for family members to have questions about why their loved one has to suffer.
“We just have to trust and know that God is there. I try to communicate this to people through my presence,” he said.
As the disease progresses, Flippen said family members have to make hard decisions such as whether to keep the person at home or place him/her in a nursing home. Every situation is different and sometimes a nursing home is the only choice.
To ease the pressure on family members, he urged the importance of every individual talking with their families about what they would want in case of an accident or terminal illness.
Also, Flippen said, “it’s important that all of us have advance directives” about issues such as resuscitation.
Loper, Book and Flippen emphasized the importance of obtaining current information about Alzheimer’s available through hospices, hospitals and Alzheimer’s associations in most cities.
The national Alzheimer’s Association may be contacted at 919 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1000, Chicago, IL 60611. The phone number is 1- 800-272-3900; the Internet address is www.alz.org.

    About the Author

  • Linda Lawson