A Personal Journey Through Alzheimer’s

ALZ

by Christine Galligan, Clemson University Student and Gail Marion, Director, Rhodes Respite Care, Anderson 

Jerry Welch’s story started in California where he was visiting his daughter several years ago. She noticed he was repeating himself and suggested that he see his doctor. Jerry had not recognized the repetitiveness himself but agreed to go to the doctor because of her concern.

His neurologist suggested he take some sophisticated psychoanalysis tests to find the cause of his new repetitive tendencies. There is no one specific test for determining if someone is dealing with Alzheimer’s but a detailed family history and several tests can help. The neurologist said the symptoms indicated he had probable Alzheimer’s disease and Aricept and Namenda were prescribed. A drug trial in the Atlanta area gave Jerry hope. He was in early stages of the disease and was accepted into the trial that allowed him to take an experimental medication for around a year. He had to travel to Atlanta on a regular basis so doctors could determine whether or not the drug was slowing the progression. Unfortunately the drug trial was pulled when it failed to have the results they hoped for. He has not participated in any other drug trials but has continued taking the medications that are among the only ones approved for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. He also takes medication for anxiety as many persons recently diagnosed with dementia do.

The diagnosis does not affect Jerry’s spirits or the innate uniqueness that he was born with. He says that he has always had poor memory. He did have to give up driving when he went through a driving evaluation. Jerry said that giving up your independence and driving has been one of the most difficult things for him. He said he would advise anyone who has to have the driving discussion to be straight up and frank about it. Jerry stated “tell the person with dementia that you are worried about them getting lost or having an accident.” It is in the family’s best interest to arrange for a driver so they can still get out. His wife and others have become his drivers so he isn’t homebound.

He particularly enjoys getting out in nature and he used to be a runner. Now taking his border collie, Cole, on walks combines exercise and enjoyment. Exercise is important for improving brain functioning and slowing the progression of any disease.

When Jerry wants to remember something he usually tells his wife Nancy or writes it down. He believes there are many other ways to compensate for future deterioration. He spoke of the importance he sees in receiving psychotherapy. It has been helpful for him since his therapist allows him to vent about the things that are changing in his life. Nancy has her own therapist and feels it helps to smooth the transition from wifely duties to caregiving responsibilities. She said that it has been very helpful. Caregivers experience a range of emotions and must find ways to cope and take care of themselves and therapy can be a great act of healing the mind and relieving stress. A positive attitude is important and encouragement must come from the caregiver. It is not at all uncommon for families to receive help. It is not a sign of weakness but rather recognition that life is hard and we can’t do everything ourselves.

Jerry admits he has had anger about how his life has changed but he acknowledges he had a wonderful life prior to Alzheimer’s. He was born in Washington, DC and had great parents. He says that everything that happened to him was like a gift. He had many people in his life who were positive influences who helped him along the way. He achieved his goals of getting his education. An undergraduate degree at Baylor and his Doctor of Divinity degree at Southern Seminary allowed him to have a rich and fulfilling career. He was able to work for many years in a field that brought him great satisfaction. He and his wife founded Anderson Pastoral Counseling in the 1980’s. He loved his job and would still be working if he could.

Jerry says that it is all too common for persons with a disability to become socially isolated. Being a people person, he has breakfast with a group of men friends each week. He is a person of faith and has always been involved in church. However, he says it is harder to connect with people and develop a relationship these days.

Jerry has some advice for those recently diagnosed with dementia. He isn’t anti-TV but mentioned that reducing TV time is important for someone who is staying home more. Jerry mentioned that he would like to dedicate more of his time to rediscovering music he enjoyed in his youth. He especially likes Bob Marley and “Big Joe Turner” for energetic music. He believes that his sense of humor is what helps him not take the memory loss so seriously. He says it takes years to do this but that it is critical to success in life to learn to laugh, “especially at yourself”.

For the past year Jerry has been attending the Rhodes Respite program at First Presbyterian Church in Anderson two days a week. Jerry endorses the Respite program for those with memory loss who are looking for fun and fellowship.

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