Laura Jones’ husband, Jerry, began showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease in his mid-60s. He began losing things, couldn’t remember people’s names and struggled to find the right words in social conversations. As the disease progressed, Jerry Jones missed paying bills and could no longer balance the checkbook. When he was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Laura Jones decided to take care of him full-time at home.
Through the years Jerry Jones’ mental health has continued to decline. He often becomes confused, forgetting things that happened just the day before. Major personality changes have followed. He has become unaware of his surroundings and requires assistance with dressing, toileting and bathing. In her caregiving Laura Jones often feels overwhelmed with the work and responsibilities. She feels anxious about the future and often feels sad and isolated as little by little she loses her husband and his companionship.
Help from Sunday School class
Laura Jones has extended family members living nearby in Birmingham but they aren’t able to help as much as she needs. She does have a bright light in these dark days, however — the members of her Sunday School class at Shades Mountain Baptist Church, Vestavia Hills.
“It means so much for someone from my Sunday School class to come and sit with Jerry for a while to give me a break or allow me to attend worship services,” she said. “The class is very supportive with their prayers and visits. And that gives me strength.”
Almost 90,000 Alabamians, ages 65 and over, currently suffer from Alzheimer’s and the disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the state. Experts predict that number will rise to 110,000 Alabamians by 2025. More than 302,000 caregivers of family members, like Laura Jones, are spending 344,000,000 hours in care each year. The total value of their unpaid care is estimated to be $4,209,000,000.
Caregivers tend to be middle-aged women (49 years old) who care for elderly (69 year old) family members who need long-term physical care. They usually give care 20–24 hours a week, helping the loved one with personal bodily care, running the household, shopping, cooking meals and managing business affairs and medical and/or nursing tasks.
Many caregivers are married and working outside the home. Care recipients either live with the caregiver or within 20 minutes of their homes. They may or may not have a support system. Because of the nature and demands of the disease, family and friends may have disappeared.
While caring for a loved one is physically and mentally challenging, caregiving also is emotionally difficult. Caregivers may experience depression and feel helpless and hopeless when caring for chronically ill family members. Since the disease has no known cure, the caretaker must watch their loved one mentally decline and often assist with basic tasks such as bathing, dressing, moving from a bed or chair, using the toilet, caring for incontinence, etc.
Caregivers also admit to sometimes feeling angry, frustrated and resentful of the disease and its jarring interference in their lives. The hard work and long hours of caregiving may have ended successful careers, made job promotion opportunities impossible or caused early retirements.
They also may experience loneliness, isolation, depression and anxiety as they are sequestered away from family, friends, church and social activities. Many deal with feelings of guilt, thinking they’ve done too little or have shown too much irritation or impatience with loved ones. Grief is another emotion that comes when caregivers watch the cruel disease rob them of a loving relationship. Most caregivers are so busy giving care they neglect their own health, missing sleep, meals and doctors’ checkups.
Negative impact on health
Recent surveys show the overwhelming stress of caregiving for persons with Alzheimer’s (or dementia) impacts the caregiver’s immune system for up to three years after their caregiving ends and can take as much as 10 years off a family caregiver’s life.
Like Laura Jones’ faithful Sunday School class members, a church can be a valuable resource and encouragement to caregivers. Here are a few suggestions about how your church can help:
- Organize a weekly adult day-care program to care for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients so caregivers can take a break from heavy responsibilities.
- Enlist church members to visit, call and spend time with caregivers, especially during holidays, lessening their sense of loneliness and isolation.
- Keep caregivers aware of church happenings but resist from asking them to help fill church ministry positions. Realize they are already doing part- or full-time ministry as caregivers.
- Help provide volunteer or paid care during Sunday morning worship services so caregivers can participate.
- Encourage caregivers to take care of their own physical, emotional and mental health.
- Show your love and appreciation through home-cooked meals delivered to the caregiver’s home. Remember birthdays and special occasions with cards and emails.
- Offer to help with shopping and house and yard work.
- Seek out local Alzheimer’s support groups and help make it possible for the caregiver to participate (see below).
- Let the caregiver know you and the church are praying for him or her.
In these practical ways and many others your church can reach out and minister to caregivers, making them feel loved, remembered, appreciated and a vital part of the church family.
Editor’s Note — Denise George is the author of 30 books including “Our Dear Child: Letters to Your Baby On the Way.” She is married to Timothy George, founding dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is a progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks the brain’s nerve cells, resulting in loss of memory, thinking and language skills and behavioral changes. This incurable, chronic disease causes brain cells and their connections to degenerate and die. It is the most common cause of dementia, or loss of intellectual function, among people aged 65 or older.
To learn more about Alzheimer’s, adult day care scholarships and other resources in central Alabama, call 205-871-7970, 1-866-806-7255 or write: Alzheimer’s of Central Alabama, P.O. Box 2273, Birmingham, AL 35201.
For information about caregiver support groups, visit www.alz.org/apps/we_can_help/support_groups.asp or call 1-800-272-3900 (Alzheimer’s Association Support Groups), www.caring.com/support-groups (Caring.com Support Groups) or www.caregiver.org/support-groups (Family Caregiver Alliance Support Groups).