Walking to stop Alzheimer’s
Baldwin area resident Peg Wessel knows way too much about Alzheimer's Disease.
Wessel's mom was diagnosed with the disabling disease in 1985, when she was 61 and Wessel was 27. By the time her mother died in 1996, Wessel went through many stages.
First, her mother was moved into a senior apartment after she could no longer take care of herself at home. From there, she was moved in with the Wessel family north of Baldwin. That's when the disease's effects became even more apparent.
"It's a weird thing when you take on the role of parent and your parent takes on the role of a child," said Wessel. "She lived with for almost a year until it got to the point where she started to look at herself in the mirror and didn't recognize who she was, but thought she was this bad person. She would be in the bathroom with the door closed and be yelling at this person in the mirror.
"Finally, my siblings -- who both lived out of state -- said that we needed to do something as we couldn't continue to have her living in our home. They thought this was just too hard on my family and it sort of was beginning to become that way," she said. "She was hard on me and blamed me for a lot of things that were happening to her. That is one of the common things about Alzheimer's is that they blame those they are closest to or those that are doing the most for them. That was very hard."
Luckily, Wessel's husband, Steve, was able to keep it all in perspective and worked wonders with the situation.
"It was right around this time that I realized my husband was a saint," said Wessel. "He was always on even keel with my mom and when she would say something to me or ask me the same question for the hundredth time, he would be there to remind me that she didn't know what she was saying or doing. I probably wouldn't have made it through that whole ordeal without him. He was very supportive."
Of course it wasn't easy to move her mom to the nursing home, but it had to happen. She was moved to the Baldwin Care Center where Wessel was director of nursing. That allowed Wessel to see her mom every day. She was able to see up close how the disease was continuing to progress.
"Once she forgot my name and who I was, it progressively got worse. Alzheimer's patients go through many stages and since I saw her a lot, I became accustomed to each stage that she went through," said Wessel. "However, my brother and sister who lived out of state and didn't see her very often were sort of shocked when they would visit as she would have declined from the last time they saw her.
"She spent the last six years of her life being totally cared for and I mean 24-hour care -- feeding, dressing, toileting, etc.," she said. "She couldn't talk anymore. That was very difficult. The best I could do would be to go and see her and touch her, hug her and talk to her about my day and the kids, my life, etc. I doubt if she even knew I was there."
It wasn't too long after that when the battle finally came to an end with her death. But Wessel hasn't stopped fighting the disease, which was also diagnosed in five of her mom's siblings.
Wessel has organized the 2003 Alzheimer's Association Memory Walk, which will be Sept. 13 in Lawrence. It will start at 9 a.m. in the parking lot of Hy-Vee, 23rd and Wakarusa, and will include a One Mile Stroll, Two Mile Walk and the 5 Mile Challenge Walk. Those who take part will collect donations for each mile they walk and that money will be used to fund research into the disease. For more information on the Memory Walk, call the Alzheimer's Association at 913-831-3888.
"I think this Memory Walk is a good way for me to contribute to something I feel strongly about. I feel confident with the research that is ongoing that new breakthroughs are happening all the time," said Wessel. "It is important to keep that going and the dollars help that to happen. I also am thrilled that the Heart of America Alzheimer chapter provides so many worthwhile programs for patients, families and caregivers. These are so vital. Families need education and guidance. This organization is always there for them.
"I hope this walk grows to monumental proportions," she said. "I hope a treatment, medication or cure is found so we don't have to have fund-raiser walks any more."
It is personal for Wessel. She's seen what the disease has done to her mom and her siblings. She's also seen cancer claim her dad. She knows Alzheimer's does run in families, but she doesn't obsess over it.
"Well, I don't wake up every morning or go to bed every night thinking about the disease and whether I will get it," said Wessel. "However, I do live my life abundantly and realize that time may be short and and I would have no control over that. I realize and acknowledge each and every day how blessed I am to have such a wonderful husband, children, marriage, fulfilling career and life. I savor all of the wonderful things that happen every day.
"I really don't worry any more about getting Alzheimer's than I do getting cancer," she said. "It's really out of my control right now. However, I do try to keep my mind active. I take classes, am a voracious reader, do the crossword puzzle every Sunday to its completion -- I'm obsessed. I also try to take on new hobbies or activities too, as I've read that it helps to use other parts of your brain. I also have a vitamin regimen. I don't know if it will even help, but I do take Vitamin E with some other vitamins."
While she doesn't worry about getting the disease for what it will do to her, it's another matter about what it might do to others. She's lived that.
"I do worry more about what it would mean to my family," she said. "I know how hard it is to visit someone who doesn't know your name or who you are. I would never want to put them through that. It was not an easy time in my life, living with my mom's disease.
"My brother is a a pharmacist and my sister's husband diligently studies research as it comes out and we are hopeful with the advances that have been made that soon a medication or even cure will be in the works," said Wessel. "My brother and sister are 9 and 11 years older than me, so they may think about it more than me. I just don't know. Sometimes when we talk about it, we joke about it. You have to or you would probably just sit down and cry."