Alzheimer's disease affects more than just the patient as caregivers must also learn to cope

Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Pat and Edna Patterson with a picture of Pat's parents. Pat and Edna cared for his mother, Julia, and his father, Amos, both of whom suffered from dementia-related illnesses. (Fred Lynch)

Pat Patterson's mother, Julia, called him frantically one day to warn her son. "We got to get out of town," she said. "The Germans are coming."

When Patterson asked what she was talking about, Julia said she saw boys running down her street in Cape Girardeau. She had mistaken them for residents fleeing her childhood home in Verviers, Belgium, as the Germans invaded during World War II.

"I told her to calm down, that it was probably some boys running home from school," Patterson said. "That kind of pulled everything together for her."

After that, signs started to get worse.

Julia got confused while driving one night. She couldn't figure out why the car windows were foggy inside yet it wasn't foggy outside. She began confusing Cape Girardeau with Memphis, Tenn., thinking she still lived in the latter. Soon after that, she began skipping over Memphis altogether and confusing Cape Girardeau with her hometown in Belgium.

"It was as if she had completely forgotten the place she had lived for nearly 50 years," Patterson said, referring to Memphis.

Patterson knew something needed to be done when he heard Julia had made soup and hot chocolate for family members who had been out sledding all day -- on an October day with no snow outside. Julia was soon diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at Family Physician's Group.

Patterson's parents both died in the late 1990s, but his wife, Edna, is coordinating a team in their honor for the Alzheimer's Association Memory Walk on Sept. 18. It is the first time the family, who is becoming more actively involved with the Alzheimer's Association, has participated in the walk. Edna Patterson has been raising money and is close to the $200 goal set for each team.

Dealing with confusion

Patterson's parents met in Europe during World War II. Patterson's father, Amos, was stationed in Belgium during the war and needed a place to stay. He ended up renting a room from Julia's family. He stayed in Julia's room while she worked at an orphanage.

Amos and Julia married in 1945, and he took her to his hometown of Memphis after the war.

"Their relationship was something a movie could be made of," Patterson said.

In the mid-1990s, Patterson brought his father to an assisted-living facility in Cape Girardeau after he suffered a stroke related to dementia. Julia followed shortly after.

She lived on her own in Cape Girardeau for a few years before and some time after her diagnosis with Alzheimer's. Family Physician's Group had given her medication, which seemed to slow down her progression and help halt her vivid flashbacks.

"She probably knew something wasn't right," Patterson said. "In [patients[']] Alzheimer's state, they have their own form of reality, and that's why they get confused when you try to tell them different. When something is really incorrect, in their mind it is correct, and so they don't understand."

Edna Patterson said Julia probably hadn't wanted others to realize the cause of her confusion.

"She was a proud person, in a good way," Edna Patterson said. "She was very independent."

When Julia, who had always been a talented cook, began falling asleep while cooking burgers on the stove and suffered a series of falls, her son made the decision to move her into an assisted-living home in Cape Girardeau. Amos was at a different facility, making things difficult, Patterson said. Julia had always been adamant about visiting her husband.

"She tried to visit as often as she could, but there were times she wasn't up to it," Edna Patterson said. "We were all she had."

Patterson said they would have to show her pictures of other family members to keep her memory alive, but she still remembered the two of them and their two children.

However, he said he had to reintroduce himself to his father every time he visited.

"He was never diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but he showed signs," Patterson said, adding that he also struggled from sundowning syndrome, more so than Julia seemed to.

Julia sometimes did become hostile and rude toward her son and the caretakers at her facility.

"But the biggest thing was the flashbacks, and confusion of the way things are and the way things used to be," Patterson said.

Helping to cope

Support groups, many funded through the Alzheimer's Association, attempt to help families dealing with Alzheimer's. Edna Patterson has been exposed to the association's work through her job with Lutheran Family and Children's Services, which belongs to the association and holds support groups.

She said she encourages others new to the cause to attend the Memory Walk on Sept. 18 to learn more about the association and how to get involved.

"Come to the walk, talk to the people," she said. "If you have someone who has Alzheimer's, or you're concerned, come and walk and meet other people who have the same mind."

It's also not too late to sign up for a team or assemble a new one, which can be done on the Alzheimer's Association website, www.alz.org.

"I appreciate the work" the association is doing, Edna Patterson said. "I'm in the baby boomer generation; there's going to be a bunch of us getting in that same situation. I'm glad the association is looking for answers."

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