CRESTVIEW — Joan Williamson and Barbara Barton know much about Alzheimer’s effects.
Both residents became close friends after attending Alzheimer's Family Services’ monthly support group meetings at Covenant Hospice in Crestview. The women bonded after their husbands received a positive diagnosis of the incurable disease — and have leaned on each other ever since.
"We often make it a point to have lunch afterwards," Williamson said. “I call (Barton) every morning to make sure she is all right."
Alzheimer’s — a progressive, irreversible neurological disorder — usually affects victims when they are 65 or older, but it can strike in the 40s or 50s. According to the Alzheimer's Association’s website, alz.org, 5.4 million Americans have the disease.
Dealing with Alzheimer’s can be challenging, the women said.
"It's a terrible, terrible disease," Williamson said. "It's like watching your loved one die a little each day."
Williamson had to put Donald, her husband of 55 years, in the Crestview Rehab facility more than a year ago. She was his sole caregiver when he was diagnosed with the disease 14 years ago. Williamson said the 79-year-old is in Alzheimer's’ final stage and barely speaks. While the first of seven stages often shows no symptoms, indications of cognitive decline increase with later stages.
"I honestly don't think he recognizes me,” Williamson said.
That doesn’t deter her from daily visiting him and feeding him lunch.
Douglas, Barton’s husband of 37 years, was diagnosed at age 68 with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. He died six years after his diagnosis.
"It will be three years ago (that he died); this past June," Barton said. "He went through the stages very quickly before he died."
Alzheimer's Family Services, a non-profit organization, has given assistance and support for families with loved ones who have Alzheimer's. AFS, a Covenant Hospice affiliate, also runs meetings in Escambia and Walton, among other Florida Panhandle counties.
"The emotional help they take away from the meetings is the biggest thing," said Susy Baker, the group’s leader for the past four years.
Meetings’ intimate nature help foster an environment for forging long-lasting bonds, said Baker, who worked with Alzheimer's patients as a licensed nurse for 36 years.
"This is definitely a tight-knit group here," she said. "There are usually no more than 10 people at each meeting."
AFS offers various services — namely, education, counseling and free memory screenings with an appointment. It also participates in the Project Lifesaver program, which, in conjunction with local law enforcement, fire and EMS teams, safely locates and returns missing Alzheimer's patients.
Williamson and Barton said they found Project Lifesaver bracelets helpful. Williamson said she deadbolted all her home’s doors after neighbors found Donald wondering outside in the middle of the night.
"It made me have patience," Barton said, referring to witnessing her husband's experience with Alzheimer's.
Both women said such experiences make them thankful for the support group.
"It's a great place for us to come and vent," Williamson said. "The meetings are so important to us."
The Alzheimer’s Family Services support group meets at 10 a.m. the second Tuesdays at Covenant Hospice, 370 Redstone Drive.
For more information on the AFS program, contact the AFS Pensacola office at 850-478-7790 or see www.alzfamserv.org.