Recognizing Early Warning Signs Can Improve Lives
by CHERYL ROGERS
Early warning signs can improve quality of life for dementia sufferers and their families. Here’s what to look for.
As people age, they may forget things. They may walk from one room to another to get something, only to forget what it was. That is normal. But leaving a note for someone underneath a silk plant, where they can’t find it, isn’t. Neither is bumping the car in front repeatedly at a red light. Or going for a walk and forgetting where you live.
The latter three are examples of what happens when people suffer from Alzheimer’s, the sixth leading cause of death in the country. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.7 million live with the disease – and that number is growing fast. Deaths from the disease, as listed on death certificates, rose 123 percent between 2000 and 2015, the association reports.
In Polk County, some 15,826 people are living with Alzheimer’s, according to association figures. Another 22,499 have the disease in Hillsborough County.
The cost of care is great. It’s often born by family members like 66-year-old Jerome Sapp of Lakeland, whose 68-year-old wife Shirley developed the disease about a decade or more ago. She stopped working for the Social Security Administration’s call service seven years ago because of memory issues.
Sapp, who is retired from the Air Force and postal service, has been caregiving one family member or another for about 20 years. After two kitchen fires, one which melted the microwave, Sapp has taken on cooking, sometimes using a crockpot. “I don’t want her trying to cook when I have my back turned,” he explains.
Getting her to eat is one of his biggest challenges. “She’ll forget to eat. That’s the hardest thing,” he shares, explaining she weighs some 90 pounds.
Being able to deal with the inevitable stress is important. He does that with laughter, with light bantering that turns a painful reality into a more manageable, funny exchange. At local support group meetings by the Alzheimer’s Association, he helps others laugh.
Yet there are serious times. “When I’m stressed, I go in my prayer closet and I pray to God,” he explains. “You have to have somebody to complain to. If you don’t, you’re going to hold it in — and it’s not going to be good.”
In addition to caregiving for his wife, he is a caregiver for his half sister Tonya King with Down’s Syndrome, who lives in a group home.
Sapp gets a break when his wife goes to sleep. At other times, getting a break can be expensive: relief services can cost $225 for three times a week. “This sickness is not a one-person-caregiver sickness. This is a family sickness. The family should be involved in trying to relieve the major caregiver,” he says. “It’s a lot to deal with.”
Through it all, he’s remained active in his church and community. Sapp, who holds a bachelor’s degree in Theology, ministers at the Lighthouse Gospel Mission in Riverview to men in rehabilitation. He also helps feed Plant City’s homeless. Additionally, he’s become an advocate for caregiver assistance and research into Alzheimer’s.
Caregivers are being celebrated globally through The Longest Day, part of the Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month in June, says Michelle Branham, the association’s Vice President for Public Policy and Communications in Florida, who is based in Jacksonville.
June 21, technically the longest day in the year, has been set aside for the event raising money to defeat the disease through whatever people enjoy doing. It may be the traditional walk, with funds generated per mile, or quilting, with money raised by the hour. Or it may be by playing bridge, with funds raised through entry fees and donated winnings.
“Every day feels like the longest day when you’re caregiving for Alzheimer’s Disease,” she explains. “Oftentimes we lose our caregivers first.”
The Alzheimer’s Associating is working to share early warning signs of the disease, in hopes of enhancing people’s lives. “Families can plan much better,” she says. “It certainly will help them emotionally and financially. The person living with it can weigh in on the support system.”
Later on, families respond in a crisis mode.
Early warning signs are more substantial than just losing the key to your car. It may be a momentary loss of what a key does, or getting lost in a familiar grocery or becoming unable to follow a favorite recipe. “It’s not about misplacing words in our minds,” she says.
Other indicators may be poor judgment, reflected through the inability to recognize phone scammers. Confusion about seasons or the passage of time, or difficulty judging distance or determining a color, can be other signs. An individual may develop problems with conversation, finding it more difficult to follow or join a discussion.
People may withdraw because they are aware of a problem and they don’t want others to know. They may not want to acknowledge it themselves. “Changes of mood and personality can be key indicators,” she adds.
How do you take care of your brain? It involves living a healthy lifestyle – eating a Mediterranean diet and getting plenty of exercise and sleep, she says.
To get help, or learn more about the Longest Day fundraiser, call 1-800-272-3900. There also are a number of area support groups coordinated through the state’s Clearwater-based Gulf Coast Chapter. Meetings are held in Lake Wales, Davenport/Haines City, Lakeland and Winter Haven. Details are available at alz.org/flgulfcoast.