Originally published in The (Columbus, Ind.) Republic, Sept. 1, 2001

By Andy Proffet
aproffet@therepublic.com

For the caregiver of an Alzheimer’s patient, watching a loved one slip away can be devastating.

Jerry and Phyllis Schlotter know the effects firsthand after taking care of his mother, Anna, for 2½ years.

With Jerry’s brother, Ken, living in Mississippi, no one else was close enough to take care of the widowed homemaker.

So the Schlotters brought Anna from Washington to Columbus.

“It was hard for her to be uprooted from her home and leave what friends she had; it was very traumatic,” Phyllis said.

The change was tough for Jerry and Phyllis as well, especially as her disease began to take its toll.

On at least one occasion, Anna didn’t even recognize her own son. Other times she would confuse him with her brother.

“We kept hanging on, saying ‘We can do this,'” Phyllis said.

“I think that’s one of the mistakes caregivers make, we wait too long and forget about our own health while we’re taking care of our parent.”

Sarah Anderson hasn’t had to face the challenge of being the primary caregiver for her grandfather, Jim Anderson.

That role went to her grandmother, Virginia, with help from her sons and their wives, until Jim went to a rehabilitation center in February.

That’s not to say her grandfather’s disease hasn’t had an impact on Sarah. She said it’s “hard” when her grandfather doesn’t recognize her.

The North senior doesn’t remember the first signs Jim showed of the disease. He was diagnosed nine years ago.

But she does remember what he was like before the disease took control, and for that, she feels fortunate.

Sarah’s parents, Rick and Vicki Anderson, are proud of how she’s dealt with the disease.

Rick said, “She’s got a skill a lot of teens don’t have. She’s learned to talk to my dad and relate to him subtlety so that he doesn’t feel belittled.”

Rick and Vicki praise Sarah’s involvement in Jim’s care.

“She’s not ‘me, me, me.’ She realizes family’s important,” Vicki said. “Not all teens are like that.”

Sarah, in turn, credits her parents for preparing her for the changes the disease would bring.

“I think it’s important that people my age understand what Alzheimer’s is,” she said.

Important decision

Earlier this year, the Schlotters had a talk with Mary Ellen Wells, program director of the South Central Indiana Alzheimer’s Association.

With her help, the Schlotters decided it was time for Anna to get professional care.

“I made her a promise that she would never go to a facility,” Jerry said. “That’s probably why we held out as long as we did.”

“It helps for an outsider to tell you, ‘You’re done,'” Phyllis said.

The Schlotters noted how Anna would spend hours staring out the window in her final months with them.

Now, they say, she laughs and sings with the other Alzheimer’s patients at the facility.

“I think we were hindering her care by keeping her here,” Jerry said. “She’s much happier now.

“My goodness, she’s happier than she’s been in 10 years,” he continues. “It’s a blessing for us, but I think it’s more so for her.”

The Andersons did what they could to make Jim feel useful before he went to the facility.

Rick said his father would “help” with gardening and some carpentry when he visited them.

Now that Jim is in a facility, the family visits him as much as possible.

“Even in the late stages (of Alzheimer’s), you get flashes (of the patient’s personality),” Rick said.

Support makes it easier

The Schlotters say the support of his brother and their neighbors helped make things easier when they cared for Anna.

But Jerry can’t find the words to sufficiently praise the local support group of the Alzheimer’s Association.

“I don’t think there’s an award high enough for them,” he said.

Although they no longer are Anna’s primary caregivers, the Schlotters still attend the meetings.

“Maybe something we say will help someone else,” Jerry said.

The Schlotters say those meetings helped them through some difficult times when Anna was in their care.

“Somehow, telling our story and listening to others, we’d come out (of the meetings) refreshed,” Jerry said.

“It’s strange when someone else has the same problem as you and they can make you feel better.”

The Andersons, too, attend the support group meetings.

Sarah has attended a few meetings, but most of her involvement in the Alzheimer’s Association has come through fund raising.

Sarah and Vicki have been in on the primary planning for this year’s Memory Walk Sept. 23. Sarah helped organize the cake walk and recruited the band Cadence to provide entertainment.