A long and lonely battle: Cape Girardeau woman has been helping her husband live with Alzheimer's disease for eight years

Friday, September 19, 2008
Eloise Terry gives her husband, Dr. Bill Terry, some lemonade at dinner Thursday at Chateau Girardeau.

Eloise Terry knew her husband Bill was really mad. She didn't know why.

She saw him grab a water bottle, his sweater and a stack of books -- he loves books -- and charge out of the house in the direction of his daughter's house.

She chased him. The couple ran down the street until a car stopped and the driver, a young woman, asked if she could help.

"I don't even remember her name," Eloise Terry said. "But she said to Bill, 'I don't know where your daughter lives, but I know where you live. Can I take you home?' and he said 'Yes.'"

Bill Terry has Alzheimer's disease.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than 100 million people worldwide will have the disease by 2050.

Alzheimer's disease degenerates the brain, stripping it of memories until it can no longer operate the body's other organs.

"Alzheimer's is an irreversible disease," said Shannon Kitchen, one of two Southeast Missouri outreach coordinators for the St. Louis Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. "There's nothing you can do to stop it. It's not like with cancer or diabetes. There's no surgery or chemotherapy to eliminate it."

Some medications can slow the progression for a time. People can reduce the risk by keeping as healthy as possible with exercise, eating properly, developing hobbies, having a strong social life and using puzzles to exercise their brains.

One in eight people 65 and older have the disease; half the people who celebrate their 85th birthdays have some form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Bill Terry, now in a nursing home, sits in his wheelchair quietly. His wife of 53 years still runs to keep up. Every day, twice a day, she's by his side at Chateau Girardeau. They often sit near the front door, watching the visitors arrive and chatting with other residents. Bill often greets them with a wave or a smile. Though he does not initiate conversations, he responds to questions, watching and listening to everything going on in front of him. People passing by, even at a distance, always hold his attention.

"We sit facing out to see the people. Bill loves people," Eloise Terry said. As the Alzheimer's has chipped away at Bill's recall, it has also cocooned him, she said, and not in a good way.

Eloise Terry, who was never interested in medicine, can talk in detail about the effects of the disease that is taking her husband away, bit by bit, and the ways to stave it off. In addition to her daily routine caring for her husband, she attends a support group for caregivers and quarterly meetings with the medical professional to review the long-term care plan. She uses the Internet to learn more about the disease and she read the book by Ronald Reagan's daughter, Patti Davis, "The Long Goodbye."

"It should have been called 'The Long and Lonely Goodbye,'" Eloise Terry said, without bitterness. The facts in her life are that the disease has frightened many of her friends away. She hears the same from members of her support group. It's one way in which her life has changed. She's also learned to take care of the household bills, to manage life in a way she never needed to in her younger days, days when "we had the life everybody dreams of having."

The Terrys arrived in Cape Girardeau from Memphis and raised four children. He was a medical doctor, she as a homemaker, but above all they were Christians. Bill Terry built a thriving urology practice even as he established a nondenominational ministry. He helped start a city prayer breakfast that drew as many as 1,500 people.

"The first thing he'd ask a man is 'Are you married? How's your marriage?' recalls Eric Pruemer, the Terrys' son-in-law.

Tall, slender and buoyant, Bill Terry had a way of talking about faith without forcing the issue. He could sense when a friend's marriage was faltering, and he focused on the positive for those whose marriages failed, with a message of resiliency rather than judgment. Eloise Terry remembers how thankful some of the men were for that.

Kitchen said denial and fear are just two challenges facing people dealing with the disease, whether they have it or are caregivers. But isolation is the toughest hurdle for Eloise Terry and an estimated 44 million other Americans who are caregivers. The main goal in caregiving, Kitchen said, is "to provide the person with quality and dignity. You've got to strive to do that. They have the same wants and needs that someone who doesn't have Alzheimer's has."

He said people who want to visit, should stick to simple topics, such as hobbies or social small talk, and avoid subjects as complicated as politics or the economy.

The Alzheimer's Association offers support groups for caregivers; training for people for want to lead support groups; and opportunities for people in the early stages of Alzheimer's to support one another with visits or phone calls.

Bill Terry's daughter, Carolyn Pruemer, said there's one thing which really matters to those who have Alzheimer's and their caregivers: understanding.

"If people can't leave the house, go visit them," she said. "If you can't visit, call or send a letter. Nobody gets upset with people who have cancer because they are sick. But they get upset with a person who has Alzheimer's because they don't age like a 65-year-old."

The main message she said, is that when someone with Alzheimer's can't remember, at least remember them. As for their caregivers, she said, "Don't give up on them. Don't forget them."

Her mother puts it more bluntly when it comes to those who have the disease.

"It's scary, but it's not so scary that you can't go visit."

In honor of World Alzheimer's Day, Sunday, the Alzheimer's Association is asking people to learn more about the disease and support research by visiting www.actionalz.org and making a donation. The Alzheimer's Association's national board of directors will match donations, dollar-for-dollar, up to $250,000.

On Thursday, Medicare introduced a website dedicated to helping caregivers, as www.medicare.gov/caregivers.

pmcnichol@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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