How Alzheimer’S Impacts A Family

Dreaded thief of the mind forces family to change

Agnes Wimmer, an alzheimer's patient, listens to relatives as she waits for lunch in her room.

Agnes Wimmer, an alzheimer's patient, listens to relatives as she waits for lunch in her room. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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Of the numerous hats that I’ve worn in my 17 years of living in Payson, my favorite is that of the “ZUMBA lady” — not only because I love staying fit through music and dance and helping others to do the same — every so often, the funds we raise through ZUMBA events help various causes.

So far, the Rim Country’s ZUMBA family has raised money for the American Heart Association, the Rim Country Literacy Program, the Payson Christian Clinic and local families battling cancer.

Recently, Christy VanderMolen, of Payson Care Center asked me to bring our ZUMBA energy to help with the Walk to End Alzheimer’s on Sept. 22. She asked me since she knows that this cause is particularly close to my heart because of my father — and I am honored to do my part.

My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in January 2011. I received the news over the phone from my sister who called from the west Texas town where my family resides.

I felt a painful and physical shift in all that makes sense to me. In my mind, there was no way this could happen. First of all, we are a heart-disease family, with no history of Alzheimer’s in our genetic roots — at least not that we know.

My father is an accomplished and educated man who, well into his retirement, read incessantly and always provided a listening ear and shared a sharp wit. He’s the one who inspired me to pursue my education, surrounded our home with music and instilled a fierce sense of independence and purpose in me.

“You need to write it down,” he would tell me when I would relay experiences and stories to him. He was my rock... my mentor... and my compass. I miss his company beyond anything words can describe. And I know there are so many others, like me, who are suffering a similar loss.

The change and heartache that this disease has inflicted on my family is monumental. However, as the dust has settled and we are becoming more educated, we realize there had been signs from my father for quite a while. Signs that we had attributed to his age. We figured at 84 years old, of course he was going to get forgetful and maybe stubborn and even a little quiet and aloof at times. But when he started packing the car and trying to leave in the middle of the night and lost all sense of time and direction and started wearing clothing totally uncharacteristic of him — that’s when my mother became frightened and overwhelmed. In the hospital, doctors diagnosed his condition.

It has been a sad and painful journey, and being “the daughter that moved away,” I’ve had to balance my feelings of guilt and helplessness with pro-activity and acceptance.

The best advice I got was from a friend who suggested my mother and sisters and I attend an Alzheimer’s support group. I was due to visit my family in Texas that very week, so I went on the Alzheimer’s Association Web site where I actually found a support group session in my hometown during my visit. Although the wound was fresh and it was uncomfortable for us, we went. From that one meeting, we received more information, understanding and reassurance than we could have ever expected. It was powerful and it’s the best advice that I would offer to anyone encountering the same situation.

Although I’m cannot visit my family as often as I’d like, the last time I spent alone with my father, I brought my iPod and a docking station, which totally confused him until the music started pouring out. It was music from my childhood — Eydie Gorme — and it truly was a magical moment. My dad and I sat and listened to that album two times in a row... singing softly and just being comfortable in each other’s company. He didn’t remember it the next day, but that didn’t matter. I know how special that visit was and, from what I’ve read about living with Alzheimer’s, you have to learn to live in the present and savor the rare and precious lucid moments as they occur.

Aside from the disease, my father is physically sound and seems to be at peace. For that I am grateful, but the disease remains a harsh reality that my entire family is learning to live with every day.

On Saturday, Sept. 22, my ZUMBA family and I will be kicking off the Alzheimer’s Walk with a 20-minute ZUMBA warm-up, followed by a walk around Green Valley Park. I am forming a ZUMBA team to take part in this event and invite anyone to join us. To join our team or to form your own team, log on to www.rimalzheimerswalk.org. Or you can call (602) 528-0545 for more information.

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