WHO CARES: Chronic Illness in America
WHO CARES: Chronic Illness in America

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James and Betty Garrett'Twenty-four Hours a Day'

James Garrett copes with his own chronic illness while helping his wife deal with Alzheimer's disease

Betty Garrett's first Alzheimer's symptoms appeared when she was 59, in 1989, while she and her husband James were on a cruise. Two of Betty's sisters had had Alzheimer's, "and she was pretty sure that she was going to get it," says James. While one of her sisters spent 12 years in a nursing home, James promised he would never leave or forsake his wife, "that I would be here for her." A 1996 trip to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville confirmed Betty's fears, and she and her family have been coping with worsening symptoms ever since.

Back home in Orlando, Florida, Betty's grasp of reality began to deteriorate and she became increasingly confused by her surroundings. Her condition became an all-consuming burden for the Garretts, even after their daughter moved in to help. As is often the case with Alzheimer's, as Betty's sickness worsened, the strain on her family increased. "Twenty-four hours a day is a long time. She's totally dependent now," James says.

Sadly, James found that the health care system did little to lighten his load, especially in preparing him for the role of chief caregiver. Betty had episodes of dementia -- including violence directed against her husband -- that sometimes lasted 48 hours.

Worse, James's own health began to decline. First, he lost his eyesight due to macular degeneration; he's had laser surgery on both retinas and now has only peripheral vision. Then, while lifting Betty into the car a few years ago, he suffered a back injury and subsequently required back surgery. James now has his own chronic conditions to worry about in addition to Betty's, which makes caring for her that much more difficult.

Because his own mother also had Alzheimer's, the Garretts' family doctor had been helpful in explaining the stages of the disease. But after his retirement, James and Betty got little relief from new doctors. "Some of the doctors now, they want nothing to do with it," he says. "They don't know about Alzheimer's and they don't want to take" Alzheimer's patients. James says their current doctor is fine but seems to have little knowledge of the disease.

Betty is now home-bound. At 68, she is in the final stages of Alzheimer's, no longer comprehending the world around her.
Question and answer with James Garrett
A day in the life of Betty Garrett

The Alzheimer's Association
One of the largest voluntary organizations studying the disease and providing support to caregivers.

Alzheimer Europe
Providing resources on dementia, the site has been translated into eleven languages.

Alzheimer's disease (AD) is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor who discovered the disease in 1906.

An estimated 4 to 5.5 million people in the United States suffer from AD.

AD is the most common cause of dementia in older people. It affects the parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language.

AD develops slowly, beginning with mild memory problems and ending with severe mental damage. Some patients may have it for as long as 20 years.

To date, no cure exists for AD, while some drugs alleviate a few cognitive and behavioral symptoms such as sleeplessness, agitation, wandering, anxiety, and depression.
Photo Credits:  John Raoux

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