The six people sitting in this room at the United Methodist Church share an experience that few people on the outside can fully understand.
But here, whenever one talks, the other five immediately nod their heads in recognition, understanding, compassion and sympathy. They all know what it's like to live with and care for a loved one suffering from moderate to severe memory loss.
And all are equally thankful for Gila Aging Services' day activity program, Memory Lane, which -- among many other benefits -- gives these Rim country residents and their loved ones a break twice a week.
And sometimes, those breaks are needed desperately.
The burden of constant care
Since Ed Waldron's wife works during the day, it is up to Ed, 65, to be the home-based caregiver for his 88-year-old mother-in-law, Ersie, now in what he calls "the last stages of Alzheimer's." Up until about a year ago she could remember the name of her dog, which she's had for six years. But now she can't recall family names, either. She gets lost in the house. If she's in the bedroom, she doesn't remember where the living room or bathroom are.
"I would imagine that six months from now she'll start getting to the point where she can't feed herself," Waldron said. "She's having a hard time finding her plate or spoon or even her mouth."
Bob and June Rusch have been married 52 years. Bob, 72, had already been struggling with heart attacks and diabetes when, 13 years ago, he suffered a massive stroke which continues to make it difficult for him to speak. Their lives were complicated enough when they chose to have June's 94-year-old mother, Mary Mitchell, live with them because of her advancing, age-related memory loss.
"Bob and my mother have difficulty with many of the same things," said June, 69. "They can't express themselves or answer the telephone, and neither can read or write. So it falls upon me to be the caregiver for both of them."
Fortunately, Mary's memory loss is considered to be moderate, which is on the less taxing end of the difficulty scale.
"She'll go in a room and forget why she went in there, or if she's going in or coming out," June said. "But she's fully capable of dressing and bathing herself, and she remembers many things from the past. It's just that her daily memory is gone."
Bob Markey, 83, takes full care of his wife, Jane, 74, whose Alzheimer's has progressed to the point where she no longer remembers the names of her family members, and has no memories of the past.
"There's pressure on you all the time," he said. "You've always got to be aware of where she is and what she's doing. You can't be free to just go off and do the things you used to do."
Carl and Marge Lowe have been caring for Marge's mother, Louise Moorhead, 79, in their home since she suffered a series of strokes 15 months ago.
"She completely lost her speech, lost everything," Marge said. "Five days later, she suddenly started speaking again, but she didn't recognize anyone but Carl."
The Lowes made instant and drastic changes in their lives to accommodate the tragedy, Marge said, but not all were met with understanding by others.
"We had to put a (pet) gate in the hall to keep my mother from wandering off. We had people say, 'How could you do that to your mother?' Well, it was for her safety!"
"There are so many situations that you've got to cope with that other people will just never understand," said Carl, as everyone else in the room nodded.
A helping hand
Jan Bleak may not share this group's experiences. But as the area coordinator for Memory Lane, she certainly understands.
Sponsored by the private, nonprofit Gila Aging Services -- an umbrella agency of Catholic Community Services -- Memory Lane came to life thanks to a start-up grant from the Brookdale National Respite Program of New York's Hunter College.
"We received this grant money last May, and we were hoping to be self-sufficient within a year," said Bleak. "But so far, with only six clients, we're not."
Currently, Memory Lane is open to clients two days a week -- Mondays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Payson Senior Citizen's Center at 514 Main St., and Thursdays during the same hours at the Payson United Methodist Church at 414 Easy St. It is Bleak's goal, however, to be open four to five days a week by May, and to serve up to 25 clients weekly or eight daily.
Memory Lane has two specific goals, Bleak said.
"First and foremost, it's a day activity program for people with mild to moderate memory loss.
They don't have to have Alzheimer's. In fact, we have only one person in the program right now with Alzheimer's.
Secondly, Bleak's goal is to provide a group respite program that's more affordable for the families than one-on-one care. The minimum charge for this group respite service is $25 per day, or $5 an hour. For those who only come an hour or two a day, the charge is $6 per hour. Lunch can be provided for an additional $2.75, and transportation is also available for $3 per round trip.
Very few limits
What Bleak would most like area families to know is that the program encompasses a wider variety of clients than many seem to realize.
In fact, she said, the list of inappropriate clients is pretty much limited to those who are combative and could hurt someone, or who suffer such severe memory loss that they can create a danger for others, such as "someone who has forgotten how to safely operate a stove and could set himself on fire."
A common mistake made by the families, Bleak said, is to assume their loved one is "too far gone" to be able to fit into a program like Memory Lane.
"For eight months, the daughter of one of my ladies kept telling me her mother was too diminished. Well, this lady, my goodness, can feed herself, dress herself, toilet herself. She's had a stroke which shot her memory, but she has a wonderful time here.
"I think families lose perspective, perhaps, because they compare their loved one with the person he or she used to be.
"This daughter said to me, 'How can my mother join your program? She doesn't even know what day it is.' I told her, 'It doesn't matter what day it is in the program.'
"We want to provide socialization, stimulation, support of those around them, and a safe environment that's warm, caring and accepting of who they are, no matter what their problems are."
No simple solutions
It is the unanimous sense of this group that -- because society is so inundated with products designed solely to simplify complex problems -- families often look toward the fastest, simplest solution when challenged by a loved one with memory loss: to place the relative in a nursing home as soon as is humanly convenient.
All the members of this group, however, chose otherwise.
"There was no question," said Marge Lowe about the decision to care for her mother at home.
"I love Louise," her husband Carl added. "She has a beautiful smile. It makes you feel good to have her around."
When Bob Markey first got involved with Alzheimer's groups, he said, "Everyone I talked to said, 'Eventually, you'll have to put her in a home. You're just storing her until she dies.'" Markey disagreed.
"Mother would not like it in a home," said June Rusch. "She's too bright, too active, too capable of doing things for herself, and I think her spirit would just be crushed. And I'm selfish. I don't want to lose any more of her than ..."
June's voice breaks. She can't finish her sentence. But in this company, of course, she doesn't have to.
"It's a lot to think about," June finally said.
While Ed Waldron understands, he also points out that their jobs are not going to get any easier.
"My mother-in-law can go for days without sleeping. She'll cat-nap. And as long as she's awake, she needs help; she can't find the bathroom, she's liable to wander anywhere. Sometimes I have to take time off. I tell my wife, 'You take care of her,' and I go to the lake and sit and maybe have a cigar."
A few stolen moments
Which brings Waldron to the primary gift he has personally received from the Memory Lane program.
"The first thing Memory Lane has given me is five hours a week for myself, where I know that Ersie is being taken care of. And she enjoys it," he said. "I can get out and shop without having to worry about leaving her by herself."
"Memory Lane has given me a lot of relief, too" Bob Markey said. "It gives you some free time to relax. You may not even get anything done, or do anything unusual or different. But you've got a little time to just stop and think."
As each member of this group does on each issue which comes up, June Rusch emphatically agrees.
"My mother loves being out with people; it just makes her sparkle," she said. "So she loves Memory Lane. And so do Bob and I. Monday is our 'date day.' I dress up and put a little makeup on, and Bob and I go out to lunch, we go for a walk, and it's a wonderful break."
"My Mom has a rigid schedule," Marge Lowe said. "She gets up, has her breakfast, brushes her teeth, gets dressed, comes out, and watches a specific channel on the television -- and that's her day.
"But now that she comes here on Mondays and Thursdays, she looks forward to coming. She's seeing other people, she's out of the house, she clearly enjoys it. And that gives my husband two afternoons of freedom every week.
"This program is a blessing. Many, many more people should know about Memory Lane."