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BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Danish meatballs sizzled on the stove in Jerri Stanfield's West Boise home, as a half-dozen women from across the Treasure Valley nibbled on fingerfoods and chatted.

They shared stories, sorrows and laughs, but this was a gathering like few others in the Valley.

"We all look forward to coming. It's hard to talk to people about some of the challenges if they don't have any involvement with Alzheimer's," said Donna Strider, a 67-year-old former executive secretary who lives in Eagle.

Just getting there is a challenge.

One hired a caregiver to stay with her husband while she was out for a few hours. Another had her son and daughter-in-law stay with her husband.

The monthly meeting of the Steel Magnolias is a rare respite for its members. This isn't a club that anyone wants to join, but the group has grown to 13 since it formed about a year and a half ago.

Such community-based support groups are vital as Idaho families struggle to care for the growing number of people with Alzheimer's. An estimated 26,000 people in Idaho have dementia; national studies show that 80 percent of Alzheimer's care is provided by family members.

A recent statewide assessment by the Idaho Alzheimer's Planning Group revealed four of five Idaho caregivers are women, and their average age was 59. Many are wives struggling to keep pledges to be there "in sickness and in health."

"They become very socially isolated," said Stanfield, executive director of the nonprofit Alzheimer's Idaho. "They don't go out to dinner. They don't go on vacations."

Some feel ostracized by friends. Dinner invitations don't come as often.

These women cope the best they can, as their life partners slowly fade away. Former first lady Nancy Reagan described the experience as "the long goodbye."

"You don't have training for it, you're just all of the sudden thrown into it," Strider said.

Said Pat Bergin, a 69-year-old Boise grandma married for 29 years: "We go through mourning, just as if they died, because they're there, but they're not the same person anymore."

Her 92-year-old mother lives with her and her husband.

Most of the women at a recent meeting of the Steel Magnolias had been married more than two decades.

Their husbands have different types of dementia and are at different stages. Their definitions of a "good day" vary.

"When he's not argumentative," Bergin said. "It's almost like that's his form of communication now, to disagree with whatever is being said."

Many with Alzheimer's and other dementias are up and down all night.

A 59-year-old Eagle woman named Sally said a good day for her is when her husband sleeps through the night. He typically wakes several times a night; she has trouble getting back to sleep after making sure he's OK.

Caregiving is difficult, and sleep deprivation makes it much harder, Stanfield said.

Karen Ryker, a 69-year-old Meridian grandma, said her husband used to want to talk all night.

"He'd want to discuss things over and over," said Ryker, a former employee of the Ada County Sheriff's Office.

Ryker's husband no longer stays up all night, but he still doesn't want to get up in the morning. A good day for Ryker is when she can get her husband out of bed by noon or early afternoon.

Sally said bathing her husband is challenging. He sometimes resists it because he thinks he's already showered. She described how she must get in the shower with him to wash him.

"It's like flying by the seat of our pants. It's learning as we go," Strider said.

They share tips, such as how to get someone with dementia to eat more.

Put chocolate syrup on it, Stanfield said. Sweets, in general, seem to be a favorite, the women said.

Changing the color of the dishware can help. It helps people with visual perception losses see food and drink better, the theory goes. The best colors? Red and orange.

It worked for one Boise woman. Her husband said, "Oh, my gosh, this is so good," she said, and he ate the whole thing.

Ryker said she can't get her husband to eat much, even with chocolate and bright plates.

Memory loss affects every aspect of life and is a safety concern. One husband is a smoker. One wants to "go home" to his childhood home. His wife has had to latch the front door so he can't wander out. Families have to figure out means — including disabling a car — to keep the person with dementia from trying to drive away.

Stanfield said some with dementia confuse objects, mistaking dangerous items such as knives for toothbrushes. A quest for something to drink could lead to the accidental ingestion of toxic cleaning fluid.

Stanfield, a former administrator at assisted living facilities, does free home visits for families who need help but aren't sure where to turn. She's used Skype to communicate simultaneously with family members spread across the country.

Stanfield worked with others involved in health and geriatric care to found Alzheimer's Idaho in 2010, after the National Alzheimer's Association closed its Boise office in July of 2009. She is the nonprofit's only paid staff member. To save on overhead costs, she operates out of her home office. Her assistant is fulltime volunteer Heidi Theios. The group has been funded through private grants, family donations and fundraisers.

Alzheimer's Idaho also offers free group training to caregivers on dementia-related behaviors. The group aims to subsidize respite and day care for families — because many rarely get a break.

Stanfield said her cellphone number is a help line, not a crisis line.

"I want people to call before there's a crisis," she said.

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Information from: Idaho Statesman, http://www.idahostatesman.com

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