"I'm just trying to do the best I can," says Medlock. "She's on my mind constantly. I worry about her when I'm not here. When I leave, I feel guilty that I left. It usually doesn't make a difference whether I'm here or not. She sleeps a lot ... but I'd rather see her sleep than fret and walk the halls."
Medlock first noticed his wife's memory loss about nine years ago. After she had a benign brain tumor removed, the Alzheimer's disease progressed rapidly. She got lost on her way to familiar destinations, like her grandchildren's house, and confused stop signs and stop lights when driving. She forgot how to do normal household tasks like washing the dishes.
"She would get up at night and look for our little children, and she would be angry at me for letting them out," he recalls. "It was like she was living in the past." The couple have five children, and the youngest is 45 years old. Bernice doesn't know her children anymore, and a year and a half ago, she lost her ability to speak. Now, at age 74, she can only jabber and stutter, says Medlock. She doesn't laugh and smile like she used to do.
Medlock and his children made the difficult decision to put Bernice in a nursing home about seven years ago.
The Medlocks are not alone in this experience. According to a 2009 report by the Alzheimer's Association, 5.3 million Americans -- or one in eight adults ages 65 and up -- are currently battling the disease. The greatest risk of Alzheimer's is advancing age, and the medical world has found no way to prevent or cure the disease. As the baby boomer population ages, it will only get worse. All baby boomers will be at least 65 by the year 2029, and the association estimates 615,000 new cases of Alzheimer's disease will be diagnosed that year; in 2050, it will rise to 959,000 new cases. At that rate, the number of individuals age 65 and up with Alzheimer's disease is projected to reach 16 million by 2050.
"I hope people understand that there is help out there. You're not alone. There are a lot of resources available," says Lisa Hicks, Alzheimer's Association coordinator for the Southeast Missouri region and a nurse of 23 years. About 9,600 individuals are affected by Alzheimer's in her 11-county service area. To fight the disease, Sikeston, Mo., resident Hicks works effortlessly to educate communities about Alzheimer's and other dementia, train health care providers, and plan events like caregiver conferences, research updates, and the Alzheimer's Association Memory Walk, held annually in Cape Girardeau. Her biggest concern is a lack of awareness about how many people are affected by Alzheimer's, and a lack of education about the disease itself.
"Too many people don't recognize the symptoms or get early treatment. There's also a stigma attached. People are ashamed and don't want to talk about it," says Hicks. Her goal is to make people more aware of Alzheimer's warning signs and encourage them to seek medical help early on.
While there are never any guarantees, Hicks says the same healthy habits that lower the risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes may also lower the risk for Alzheimer's disease. People can lower their risk for Alzheimer's by staying socially, mentally and physically active, she adds. If dementia does set in, there are four medications available to lessen the symptoms.
"With Alzheimer's, plaques and tangles form in the brain. The medications help delay and decrease formation. You can't fix them if they're already there, but you can get medication to slow down the plaques and tangles," says Hicks.
Dolly Jewel of Cape Girardeau lost her husband Donald to Alzheimer's disease in 1997, at age 83. He had been fighting the disease for at least eight years before that, she says, at a time when little was known or said about Alzheimer's and only one medication was available.
"It was a gradual decline. He would plateau for awhile, maybe a month or two, and then, click, something would happen and there would be another regression in his Alzheimer's," says Jewel. Donald took the available medication, which Jewel believes lengthened the "plateaus" in his regression.
At first, Jewel says she noticed small changes in her husband that gradually became worse. Donald, a retired biology professor, was an avid reader and wonderful conversationalist who was physically active. He read the daily newspaper and science and news magazines and handled all of the family's finances.
"It would take him all morning to read the newspaper. I'd ask him what was going on and the conversation just was not there. He was not comprehending what he read," she says. It took him most of the day to balance the checkbook. He kept track of family members by writing their names and connections on pieces of paper and tucking them in his pocket. He became fearful and aggressive, thought he had two houses, and eventually did not even know Dolly or his children.
"He started running away ... and I couldn't coax him back," says Jewel. "The police had to bring him back home. I had followed him on foot but he didn't know me, so he wouldn't come with me."
Eventually, Jewel had to move him to a nursing home, where he lived for the next 20 months.
"I could no longer handle him physically," says Jewel. "His sleep patterns were so disturbed, and he was 'on' 24 hours a day. I never knew what he would do next. I had to be on guard all the time, especially since he tended to run away and had anger associated with his fear. It's very trying on a person."
Jewel's husband passed away nine days after he lost his ability to eat.
"I consider Alzheimer's a lot like cancer," she says. "People used to be afraid to say the c-word. People are embarrassed if their loved one or someone they know has Alzheimer's. But it's a disease of the brain, and you should not be ashamed. It's just something that happens, and they're still trying to research what causes it." She hopes that by the time her children and grandchildren reach her age, there will be a better solution.
"Definitely contact the Alzheimer's Association and call the 800 number. There is always someone there to talk to," says Jewel. During her husband's battle with Alzheimer's, Jewel participated in support groups, learned as much as she could about the disease, and has since volunteered many hours of her time to Alzheimer's awareness, including the Memory Walk.
"It was encouragement to know that there were others in the world just like him. You're not alone, although a lot of times that's what it feels like," she says.
Medlock has also found solace and friendship from other families facing Alzheimer's disease.
"The only thing I know is that there's not much you can do," he says. "I would say try to keep your loved one at home as long as you can." Looking back, he wishes he'd kept Bernice at home longer, though at the time it seemed like the right decision. "Try to find a good nursing home and visit often. But as for the disease, there's nothing you can do," he says.
One way Medlock copes is by participating in the annual Memory Walk, as well as fundraisers in his community and at his wife's nursing home.
"I try to live day to day, but I know what's inevitable. I know what the end is, but what I don't know is when," he says. "I've prayed to the good Lord the best I know how for her healing however he sees fit ... but for now it's just waiting."
Call 1-800-272-3900 for free support from the Alzheimer's Association Helpline. A live person is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For more information about Alzheimer's disease, visit www.alz.org.