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Alzheimer's forces difficult choices

April 14, 1997

By ELLEN LYON

Staff Writer

For Grace Weekley the worst part of her father's bout with Alzheimer's disease was the expression on the retired research chemist's face.

"The hardest thing was to look at my dad who I knew was a brilliant man . . . and to see the confusion and fear in his face," Weekley said.

He would ask where he was. She would answer, "It's OK Dad. I will take care of you," Weekley recalled. "And he would say `I know you will.'"

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The memory still brings tears to her eyes, nine months after his death at the age of 86 from complications following a stroke.

There are 2,400 families in Washington County caring for a loved one steadily slipping into the memory loss and physical incapacitation associated with Alzheimer's disease.

Some try to do it at home, as Weekley did, while others have to eventually resort to nursing home care.

Experts on Alzheimer's say it is an especially devastating disease that exacts tremendous physical and emotional demands on the caregivers.

"It certainly requires stamina and patience and love," observed Rosalie Rhodes, a registered nurse and coordinator of Homewood at Williamsport's special care unit for patients with Alzheimer's disease and related dementias.

"Alzheimer patients are 24-hour care," said Rhodes, whose own mother died of complications from the disease 16 years after being diagnosed with it.

Weekley, of Gerrardstown, W.Va., was able to keep her parents living in their apartment in Hagerstown by hiring outside help, she said.

Her mother, who is 86, also suffers from short-term memory loss, said Weekley, who is program director of senior services for the Hagerstown Housing Authority.

Three years ago she moved her parents here from an assisted living facility in Akron, Ohio, she said.

"We all realized something was going on with Dad, something serious" and he needed closer supervision, Weekley said. "People just assumed he was a difficult, crotchety old man."

He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease at the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders of Washington County Hospital clinic, she said.

Professional caregivers came to her parents' apartment for six hours each weekday and she took care of them evenings after work and on weekends, Weekley said.

Her father wore an Alzheimer's identification bracelet all the time in case he wandered off and got lost, she said.

Weekley did not want to put her father in a nursing home. "I was not emotionally prepared for that . . . and would have gone to great lengths to avoid that," she said.

Weekley acknowledged that she was fortunate because her parents had the resources to afford in-home care.

There are four special units in Washington County for Alzheimer's patients and those with related dementias, according to Linda Iseminger, coordinator of the Washington County branch of the Alzheimer Association of Western Maryland.

They are at the Fahrney-Keedy Home in Boonsboro, Homewood at Williamsport, Reeders Memorial Home in Boonsboro and Ravenwood Lutheran Village in Hagerstown, Iseminger said.

While the decision to put a loved one with Alzheimer's disease in a nursing home is always a painful one, safety eventually becomes the issue, Rhodes said.

When the person loses all regard for their personal safety, for instance wandering into a busy street, "that's a good benchmark to start looking . . . (for) a more safe, secure environment," she said.

Alzheimer's patients often begin to wander and caregivers may not be able to keep up with them, Rhodes said.

Loss of the ability to perform basic hygiene and toileting practices is another marker that more comprehensive nursing care is needed, she said.

But putting the person in a nursing home still isn't easy.

Val Redick, 79, of Halfway, had to put his wife Ethel into Reeder's Memorial Home in Boonsboro about 18 months ago, he said.

Ethel Redick, 78, had been the secretary to the vice principal at North Hagerstown High School for 12 years before her retirement in 1980, he said.

She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease about four years ago, Redick said.

Her last year at home he hired someone to come in eight hours a day for five days a week, he said.

But eventually his doctor advised him to put her in a nursing home because he was hurting his health, Redick said.

Now he goes to Reeder's several times each week to eat lunch with his wife of 55 years, he said.

"She'll look up when I come in and her face will brighten a bit," Redick said.

Ethel Redick adjusted quickly to the nursing home, he said. "It was harder on me and (their three children) than it was on her," he said.

The hardest part of living alone after all these years is "just the fact that I'm alone when I come home at night," Redick said. "It's hard to get used to sleeping alone."

Don Dingee, 66, of Hagerstown, had to put his wife of 40 years, Marlene, in Reeder's almost 21/2 years ago, he said.

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