CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It was the writing on the wall: “I love you. I’m going to stick with you.”
After one of his wife’s “bad days,” Carl Teel penned a note and tacked it to a wall in their home. “She was afraid I was going to abandon her,” he said.
Annette Teel was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease six months ago, after she began to notice subtle changes in the way she acted and even how she thought.
“I suspected it,” she said. “I’ve always been someone who will initiate things. I love to write, I love to read, and I love music and art. My ability to do any of these things has dwindled.”
She noticed, but chalked it up to having an off day.
“And then … the only way I can explain it is that my mood or my thinking changed,” Annette Teel said. “I didn’t ask it to and I didn’t want it to.
“Forgetfulness. Searching for words. I had it — it’s still there sometimes — a good vocabulary. I could converse very easily. I’m finding that harder to do. Call it depression, call it lack of … help me here.”
“Acceptance,” Carl offered.
“No, no. I’ve accepted it. I know I have it; I’m learning to deal with it, because I’ve admitted I have it,” she said.
Annette said accepting her diagnosis has helped, and so has attending a three-part series for early stage Alzheimer’s patients hosted by the Alzheimer’s Association’s West Virginia Chapter. The first series was held in November of last year, and family services coordinator J.T. Hunter said it has been an incredibly helpful tool for those recently diagnosed with the disease and for their caregivers.
“One lady we had in our last session said, ‘I have the freedom now to accept who I am and who I will be,’” Hunter said. “If we’re able to get that across to families who are dealing with this in some way, I think we’ve done our job.”
The most important aspect of what the organization is able to offer Alzheimer’s patients is support and resources both during and after the series. According to Annette, the agency hosts frequent get-togethers and encourages those who attend meetings to call them with questions or concerns.
“They really make themselves available,” she said. “If something is bothering us, I feel comfortable calling either one of them and letting them know what’s going on or how I’m feeling. Just letting them hear what I’ve had to say has helped.”
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is a progressive degenerative brain disease that affects 5.4 million Americans. It causes cognitive decline and a loss in the ability to perform routine tasks. It is most common in those more than 65 years old, though roughly 10 percent of those diagnosed have early-onset Alzheimer’s and are in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
“The youngest patient I ever worked with was in his early 40s,” Hunter said. “He had a wife and kids in the home, and owned several businesses.”
Annette is 72 and active, and said that although it is frustrating for her to be unable to do some of the things she once loved, she chooses to focus on what she can do.
“I know if I live long enough, that it will advance, and I know what stages it goes through,” she said. “I’ve been around enough of it and read enough about it. I will be unaware of the state of mind I’m in, just as there are millions out there who are right now. That scares me a little bit, but I’ll face it when it comes.”
The first week of the seminars is very information driven, according to family services director Carolyn Canini. One of the most important points covered in first week are common misconceptions about Alzheimer’s, including what it does to the brain and how it affects patients.
“One myth we hear a lot is that it’s a mental illness,” Canini said. “People say, ‘When you get old, you have to choose whether you’re going to have your body or your mind.’ We hear that a lot, and we want to help educate the public that Alzheimer’s is a physical disease of the brain.”
According to Hunter, another common myth surrounding the disease is that it causes the sufferer to lose intelligence; while the disease does cause a loss in cognitive function, he said it doesn’t mean they’ve become less intelligent.
“This is still the ‘A-word,’” Hunter said. “It’s like cancer; if I say ‘cancer’ to you, it’s all you probably hear. You probably aren’t going to hear much after that. This is the same; when you hear ‘Alzheimer’s,’ it’s a scary thing. There are a lot of what ifs and unknowns about it.”
Canini said the second week is usually the “emotional week,” as patients are asked about their diagnosis, whether they’ve informed their families, and how and if they’ve come to terms with it. The third and final week focuses heavily on building a network of support — caregivers, friends and resources that can help patients navigate the disease more easily. Those with other forms of dementia are also welcome to attend the seminars, she said.
“It can take a person down if you don’t try to meet it halfway, and if you have support, you have a better chance,” Annette said.
“Support, support and more support,” Carl added.
The next Living with Alzheimer’s series will be held June 9, 16 and 23 at 10:30 a.m. at the Alzheimer’s Association’s Charleston office, 1601 Second Ave. For more information, visit www.alz.org/wv or call 800-272-3900.
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.