An Augusta man’s life changed in one day when he learned his wife had Alzheimer’s disease.
Steven Henderson had to come to terms with the fact that Pearl has the common form of dementia that causes memory loss. He is now his wife’s main caregiver.
“For 27 years, my wife has been my best friend, stood by me and has helped me to become the man and husband that I am,” Henderson said. “So it’s my time to take care of her because she’s taken care of me. That’s what motivates me every day.”
About four years ago, Pearl went to work but had to call her husband to ask how to get back home.
They visited a neurologist, who said a mass on the back of her neck was affecting her memory. She was treated for the mass up until a year ago, when Henderson had her specifically evaluated for Alzheimer’s. He compared her symptoms to a test provided by the Alzheimer’s Association. The test results helped prepare him for the diagnosis from the doctor.
“I was relieved to at least know what it is and how we were going to treat it,” he said.
Although the disease progresses in three stages – early, middle and late – his wife has had some overlap and suffers from short-term memory issues.
About five months ago, she and Henderson were displaced from their home after she started a fire in the kitchen when she forgot she was cooking. Pearl, who is 67, is frustrated and going through her own process of accepting the diagnosis but is on medication and has medical checkups regularly, Henderson said.
One of the challenges of being a caregiver is the lack of involvement from loved ones who don’t understand the disease, he said.
“It’s a disease that no one talks about,” he said. “The one thing I want people to know is that the same person is still there. She still likes to have fun. She’s still loving. She’s still caring. She’s a mother; she’s a grandmother. She’s an awesome wife. Come by to sit with her and talk with her and love her where she’s at, because these are the moments we won’t be able to get back.”
Henderson has help from support groups and his church, and he goes to therapy and takes medication to cope with the stress of being a caregiver. He has a full-time job as a drug and alcohol recovery coach and is involved in church.
“Trying to find a balance in all of those things has been a challenge,” he said. “Therapy and medicine has helped me greatly.”
Recently, he went to the Area Agency on Aging in Augusta, which assisted him with ways to pay for medicine and care for Pearl while he is at work. He suggests other caregivers ask for help and learn as much as possible about Alzheimer’s disease.
June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month for the Alzheimer’s Association, which is emphasizing the importance of early detection and diagnosis as this year’s theme. The organization’s local chapters provide free care, research and support.
“If you notice changes in yourself or a loved one, it’s important to talk about it and see a doctor,” said Beth Williams, the program director of the Augusta office.
Common early signs and symptoms include memory loss that disrupts daily life, challenges in planning or problem solving, difficulty completing familiar tasks, and confusion with time or place, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
So far in 2019, the total number of people 65 and older with Alzheimer’s in Georgia is about 150,000, and that number is expected to grow to about 190,000 by 2025, according to the organization.
More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s – a number that could more than double by 2050, the organization projects.