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Women and alzheimer's

July 26, 1998

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

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Women and alzheimer'sBy KATE COLEMAN / Staff Writer

Elaine Whipp says her mother, Virginia Crowl, always was dressed up. She even wore high heels - size 4 1/2B - when she cleaned her house.

"She was extremely particular."

Dawn Hutchinson, Whipp's daughter, says her 4-foot-7-inch grandmother was "like our little china doll."

--cont from life--

Virginia Crowl, 80, is in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease. A patient at a Boonsboro nursing home since 1994, she sleeps 98 percent of the time. She hasn't known her family for years.

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"My grandmother died many years ago," Hutchinson says.

Alzheimer's is a disease of the brain that causes a steady, gradual decline in memory that results in dementia - loss of intellectual functions of thinking, remembering and reasoning - severe enough to interfere with everyday life.

Eventually, people with Alzheimer's become totally unable to care for themselves, according to an Alzheimer's Association brochure. Its causes are unknown. There is no cure.

After age 65, one in 10 Americans have Alzheimer's; after age 85, nearly half have the disease. Women are more likely candidates for Alzheimer's disease largely because they live longer than men.

An estimated four million Americans have Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's Association projects that 14 million people - mostly women - will be affected by the year 2050.

The disease is not discriminatory. Men just don't live as long as women do, says Leslie Cruger, Alzheimer's Services social worker at Behavioral Health Services in Hagerstown.

Some research studies have indicated that women who took estrogen after menopause had a lower risk of getting Alzheimer's.

Dr. Joel Rosenthal, a Hagerstown neurologist, says he would guess that estrogen is sometimes protective.

But even before they are at risk of Alzheimer's, more women are affected because they provide most of the care for people with the disease. Eighty percent of caregivers are women - usually the wife, daughter or daughter-in-law of the person with Alzheimer's.

Carol Pearson, 52, moved from Harford County, Md., about a year and a half ago. She's combined three households in her Mapleville home: Her 86-year-old mother is frail but has all her faculties. Pearson's aunt, a former schoolteacher, is 84 and has several health problems, including Alzheimer's disease.

Pearson took early retirement from her job with the federal government. She's taking care of her mother and aunt because that's what she believes family does.

Her aunt is not the same person she once was.

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done," Pearson says.

Virginia Crowl was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1983. In 1988, Whipp cleared out two rooms in her home and moved her parents in. Her father had developed colon cancer.

Hutchinson says her grandmother was a virtual Houdini, unlocking doors and wandering in the night. She locked volunteer caregivers out of the house.

Whipp kept a coat and pair of boots in the bathroom so she could throw them on and run out after her mother in winter.

"She was like a little fox," she says.

Whipp positioned her bed so she could see her mother move past her room to the door. Whipp's sleep for three years was like "twilight" sleep.

"It was exactly like having a new baby," she says.

In 1989, Whipp retired early from a 20-year career she loved. She didn't make the decision to place her mother in the nursing home until January of 1994 - at the insistence of her own physician - and then spent hours visiting, feeding and singing favorite, old songs to her mother. She took her mother's laundry home.

That July, she realized she needed to do something, to get a job. She and a friend decided to start an agency to provide companions and certified nursing assistants in people's homes.

Whipp's agency is Caring Hands Connection Inc.

Hutchinson now works with her, and they have about 40 hand-picked people on the payroll.

Because she couldn't find people to come to her home to care for her parents the way she would care for them, Whipp knew there was a need for such a service.

Whipp was widowed twice by the death of young husbands. Treatment from a stress breakdown taught her how to cope. She's been through a divorce.

Whipp is philosophical about the hardships she's survived and believes that everything that happened, happened for a reason.

"It's just life," she says.

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