- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

BURLINGTON, N.C. (AP) - When Polly Wilson of Alamance County was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease more than 10 years ago, her husband Richard had a lot of questions about what the future held for them as they battled the disease together.

“No one can really anticipate how bad this disease is,” Richard Wilson said. “It’s just an awful thing for any family to face.”

Polly, 74, was raised near Ossipee. She met Richard, 78, for the first time at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, while on vacation. The couple wed 55 years ago at Fairview United Methodist Church in Elon. They lived in northern Virginia and raised a family. Richard worked for the federal government, while Polly operated a gift shop.

In 1999, they moved back to Alamance County, where they built their dream home on land where Polly was raised as a child. Richard said in the early 2000s he began to see signs of the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease in his wife.

“I started noticing some peculiar actions,” he said.

Richard said he raised the issue with a doctor who later determined that Polly had Alzheimer’s disease. He decided to take care of his wife at home, having to adjust to her condition.

Polly soon didn’t recognize the home she had lived in for years and would often disappear, walking down the road. Richard said he had to remove door knobs from rooms so Polly couldn’t endanger herself by leaving.

Richard slept in a recliner, allowing Polly to have the bedroom to sleep. She often tried to get into cabinets, as well. As her condition declined, Richard said, their daughters, Nancy Miller of Virginia and Caren Lyell of Florida, suggested that their mother be provided more specialized care.

About two years ago, Polly went to live at The Cottage at Blakey Hall in Elon. The Cottage provides a special care unit for individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease. She is one of 16 residents living at the facility.

Richard visits with Polly every day and has grown to appreciate those who work at The Cottage. He also volunteers his time to assist with activities at the facility.

“This is my family,” he said, “At The Cottage here, almost everyone has family that visits here frequently. We all look after each other.”

Richard said he takes Polly to Fairview United Methodist Church each Sunday when she is able. He said his faith has provided him strength through the years to handle unforeseen circumstances.

Richard said before the diagnosis the couple had planned for a “grand retirement,” saving money through the years. It’s been an emotional journey during the last decade as they battled the disease.

“I never dreamed it was going to be the way it was,” he said. “I am glad I have the resources to keep her in a facility like this. God has blessed me all my life.”

Richard said he continues to have hope that someday a cure might be found.

“I wish there was some way they could cure this disease,” he said. “It’s just awful.”

Debbie Warner, The Cottage Care Coordinator, works directly with the residents. It opened in 2008. Warner said that students from Elon University often volunteer at The Cottage to provide care assistance. Warner said that more volunteers are needed throughout the year.

Blakey Hall Retirement Community Executive Director Wilma Williamson said before The Cottage was built, a team reviewed how other specialized care units for Alzheimer’s disease patients were utilized. Williamson said that The Cottage was designed to be family oriented with private rooms and bathrooms. Residents are also allowed to use their furniture to make their living areas more like home. Family photos are also used to make residents and their families more comfortable with the surroundings.

The Cottage is among several options in Alamance County for families dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. Heather McKay is director of disease management and a dementia care specialist at Hospice and Palliative Care Center of Alamance-Caswell.

“My colleagues and I designed a comprehensive dementia care program here at Hospice about five years ago responding to the needs I found in this community,” McKay said.

When McKay started working at Hospice, she helped develop a family consultation service. The service includes dementia care specialists who provide in-home evaluations, caregiver consultation visits at the Hospice office, community education, professional education free for anyone in the community, and specialized end-of-life care.

“I’m helping families connect with other local services. Right here in Burlington, we have many support groups,” McKay said.

Among those using local assistance are Jeff and Fran Smith of Burlington. Jeff’s mother, Betty Lou Smith, 82, of Burlington was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Since then, the disease has progressed.

After living with her son for three years following the diagnosis, Betty moved to Home Instead Senior Care.

Jeff said his mother utilized Twin Lakes Community’s Memory Care services three to five days a week. Jeff said McKay has been helpful through the process, directing the family to available services in the county for dementia care.

Those seeking Dementia Support Services can call Hospice and Palliative Care Center of Alamance-Caswell at 336-532-7207 or send email to info@dementiasupport.org.

Alamance County is part of the Alzheimer’s Association Western Carolina Chapter, which covers 49 counties. According to chapter Director of Public Policy Scott Herrick, 5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s, and the nationwide cost of treating the disease and other forms of dementia in 2014 will be $214 billion.

Herrick said an estimated 2,400 to 3,000 people living in Alamance County have some form of dementia. For those in their 60s, one in eight will likely develop dementia. Herrick said for those in their 70s, one in four will likely develop dementia, and for those in the 80s, one in two individuals is likely to be diagnosed with dementia.

Statewide, about 150,000 individuals 65 and older have Alzheimer’s this year. This number is projected to increase to 180,000 in 2020 and to 210,000 in 2025, according to the N.C. Alzheimer’s Association.

The percentage of seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease statewide this year is 11 percent. According to the association, this is projected to increase to 20 percent in 2020 and 40 percent in 2025.

According to the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics, Alzheimer’s ranks fifth in Alamance County and North Carolina as a leading cause of death. From 2008 to 2012, there were 39.2 deaths per 100,000 in Alamance County because of Alzheimer’s. The state average for the same period was 28.8 per 100,000.

Herrick said the Alzheimer’s Association will host its annual State Advocacy Day in Raleigh on April 22. The association urges community members from across the state to speak up at the event for the needs and rights of state residents affected by Alzheimer’s disease. The event will be held at the legislative building at 16 W. Jones St.

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Information from: Times-News, http://www.thetimesnews.com

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