Discussing mental weakening in the final decades of life, a group of women who attend Fort Lewis Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Salem admitted the whole topic of dementia scares them.
The disease, which has no cure though many medicines may relieve symptoms for a time, currently affects about five million people in the United States. It’s a heart-breaking condition the group of about 35 adults agreed, and they decided that the least they could do would be to learn as much about the condition as possible.
So one evening last month, two women on the staff of the Joseph C. Thomas Memory Care division of Richfield Retirement Communities presented through Power Point a personal slant on what is fast becoming a national epidemic as more people age out of meaningful life. The church, which is close to Richfield, has several members living in its Memory Care.
Katie Jones and Beverly Adams spoke from their experience with patients at the center. In a comment period several in the fellowship hall revealed that they are or have been caregivers for family members who became increasingly disabled over a decade or more.
The scary part has come, several pointed out, as most older people fear they may be developing the condition when they forget their glasses or can’t recall the name of someone they once knew well. There’s a fine line, the speakers agreed, between the gradual normal “senior moments” that plague most old adults and the state of mind leading to eventual helplessness and death.
The only way to determine accurately if a person in the 70s to 90s is truly “losing their mind” is to be medically tested. That can be done locally through the Center for Healthy Aging, part of the Carilion medical system with its office at 2001 Crystal Spring Ave. SW, the speakers pointed out.
The term “dementia” covers not only the specific condition of Alzheimer’s but also mental failure resulting from illnesses like strokes, brain tumors, various neurological problems, heart attacks, diabetes and falls. Doctors say it’s not an inevitable part of growing old but it tends to progress through three stages.
In Stage One a person may live independently, drive and be part of social activities. There may be problems with concentration, forgetting familiar names or locating objects. Doctors may notice problems coming up with the right word, and the names of new people quickly fade.
Stage Two can last as long as 20 years. It takes a heavy toll on caregivers who often develop their own health issues after years of adjusting to a sick parent or spouse or adult child. The demented person may wander away, sleep a great deal, or become abusive. The speakers and materials issued by the Alzheimer’s Association state that the patient may fear imaginary enemies, be unable to choose suitable clothing and find mirrors especially disturbing since they cannot recognize their own changed appearance.
“What finally kills people who have Alzheimer’s?” a man asked in the question period. “It seems the body turns on itself as the brain changes cause a lack of hunger or thirst, moving around with no purpose—even the ability to breathe,” he was told.
A senior adult by many years myself, I’ve seen these failures and final deaths in a half-dozen friends over the past decade. To some degree they have brought the end of life to most octogenarians in my father’s family.
What can church people do to help the mentally failing and those who must care for them?
Show patience and understanding is the top priority, several in the group agreed. Seeing older people who seem “out of it” in a grocery line does not mean they are to be stared at, pushed or ridiculed as some occasionally are.
If they want to cuddle a baby doll or try to play the piano –as they once may have –that’s to be expected. The speakers said they have become used to many kinds of unusual – sometimes humorous – behavior.
My best friend in our Richmond college years once told me her elderly father had told her he knew he was in his “second childhood. Acting like a baby.”
Two years ago this friend died of the same condition. I had known she was “losing it” when she asked me repeatedly about my husband whom she should have known had died five years earlier.
Heredity can, said the speakers, play a part – but not necessarily, for “Everyone is different.”