Ridgecrest Regional Hospital (RRH)–Caregivers advocate for awareness, understanding, and support Saturday, Oct. 22. Those affected by Alzheimer’s Disease will be out walking to raise awareness and support toward a cure for the disease. But for most of those participating, this relentless and incurable illness is something they deal with every single day.
Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. The progressive illness starts with mild memory loss and leads to degeneration that robs individuals of control, language, and a sense of identity. It can also be a challenge for caregivers, who navigate this loss of personhood with their loved one.
According to the National Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 3 seniors die with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. More than 6 million Americans live with the disease, and another 11 million provide unpaid care for them.
“There are many kinds of suffering, but families afflicted by Alzheimer’s get comparatively little attention,” said Susan Bodnar, Director of Ridgecrest Regional Hospital Senior Services.
“We do raise some money for this cause during the walk, but almost as important is the opportunity to educate our community on the impact that Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have on patients, their loved ones, and communities.”
This year’s Ridgecrest team is about halfway toward its fundraising goal of $45,000. Sponsors, donors and walkers can still get involved by contacting or by visiting https://act.alz.org/site/TR?fr_id=15406&pg=entry.
Senior Services offers a variety of respite and support services to families. “One of the reasons this is so important is because most caregivers simply don’t prioritize their own health,” said Bodnar.
“In fact, statistics show that most caregivers pass away before the people they are taking care of. So we do everything we can to encourage people to ask for help when they need it, and accept it when it’s offered.”
Caregivers also form a community to provide support, advice, or simply an opportunity for socializing — which can often be difficult for those taking care of someone in relative isolation.
Carol Gartner is one of those individuals who found herself feeling overwhelmed when she discovered her husband had Alzheimer’s.
About five years ago, Carol realized that her husband was struggling. “He has always been kind of shy, never one to like being in a crowd, but I remember one time in particular that he was out paying bills and he called me up. I could tell he was confused.”
Soon after that, her husband gave up driving for fear of getting lost. They pursued a diagnosis — in and of itself a difficult process. And even after her husband’s condition was identified, she learned that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis simply means better management of symptoms — not the chance of a cure.
After floundering without much in the way of support, Carol Gartner found out about some of the RRH outreach programs. From there she found Bodnar and the Alzheimer Caregivers Support Group.
“It is so good to know there are other people who are in the same situation. Sometimes I think, ‘Am I just going crazy?’ Then you talk to someone and realize that you’re not the only one who feels this way,” said Gartner.
One of those mentors is Rose Cruz, who has been taking care of her mother now for 11 years.
“Cruz has been on this journey longer than most people, so I think she is a great sounding board for other caregivers,” said Bodnar.
When Cruz’s mother, now 96, first began showing signs of deterioration she had five living children. “I was retired, I have a house, so I volunteered to take my mother in to live with me,” she said.
“When she first came to live with me, though, I had no idea what I was doing. My mother didn’t drive, but she was living in a place where she had friends around her. She didn’t want to move, but I knew that she was not going to be able to live alone any longer.”
So Cruz brought her mother to Ridgecrest to live. Every day, her mother asked why she was there and when she would be going home. “I was pretty overwhelmed by it all.”
One day, she found an adult day care that she could bring her mother to twice a week. Although that service has since gone away, Cruz reconnected when Senior Services took over the support of the local aging population.
“If it had not been for that first group, and the others we found after, I don’t know how I would have made it with my mom. But I learned how to cope, how to do research, how to have empathy for my mother, and even how to get help,” said Cruz.
“If it had not been for Susan hounding me to get help, I don’t know that I would have ever done that, either,” said Gartner. Now she has someone who helps her with light housework and caregiver relief. “At first I was like, ‘I can’t have someone else do that!’ Now I realize what a blessing it is to have help.”
“I have always been the type of person that needs to be in control. It took me a while to realize that I could not do it all,” said Cruz.
“It’s good for them to have that break,” said Susan — herself a caregiver for many years. “I remember one day Gartner was telling us a story where she was laughing for what seemed like the first time in years. That is so important – just having an opportunity to relax and enjoy things!”
“It is a bit of a strange thing when you’re taking care of someone who cannot be alone,” said Cruz. “It is kind of like living in a bubble. Even when you finally do take a break it is hard not to think about the person you are leaving.”
Both Gartner and Cruz talk about how much being able to do things for themselves — exercising, studying, indulging in hobbies — has been a part of their wholeness.
“These are things that help me find peace,” said Rose. “I know that I’m going to wake up one day and my mother will not be with me anymore, so I have to live in the here and now.”
“I have learned a lot about Alzheimer’s, but I would say that there’s not a good general understanding of the disease in our society. Not even close.” “It’s a long journey,” said Cruz. “Get educated, get support, get people to help you. It is still difficult, but it’s easier once those things start happening.”And there may be someone who is walking in our event who will live to see a cure,” said Gartner.