STARKVILLE — Joe Seger is a learned man.
Director of the Cobb Institute of Archaeology at Mississippi State University, professor of religion, authority in Middle Eastern pre-history, holder of multiple degrees — including one from Harvard University.
No amount of training, no field work, no esteemed degree prepared him for what he faces now as committed caregiver to Patty, his wife of almost 30 years.
Against Alzheimer’s disease, Joe, like so many others in his position, simply struggles to meet the daily challenges of a degenerative condition which, at this time, has no cure and daily steals more of his once bright and vibrant loved one away.
The couple met in 1976 on an excavation in Israel. She was a photographer for the project and had taught college art classes. For nearly three decades, they shared interests and adventures.
Now, Patty no longer speaks and needs prompting for many of the most mundane tasks, her husband said. But with the help of a local Alzheimer’s support group, physician care, nursing assistants from the Watchful Eye Care Services and a compassionate neighborhood, Joe is able to care for his wife at home, where she is comfortable in familiar surroundings.
Their Alzheimer’s story is only one of an estimated 53,000 in the state, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s Mississippi chapter. On the eve of the Nov. 7 Alzheimer’s Memory Walk in Columbus, Joe candidly shared part of their experience in hopes of letting others know they are not alone.
The progressive disease named for Alois Alzheimer, the German physician who first described its characteristics in 1906, usually firsts manifests as mild cognitive impairment. Patty’s diagnosis came in February 2007.
First indications are sometimes so subtle as to almost go unnoticed.
Thinking back, Joe said, “We have a neighbor who has beautiful roses, and Patty would clip a couple while out walking. Looking now on this and at anecdotes that get back to me now, these were signs. I was told by that family that one day she actually came up to the door and said, ‘I’m taking home some of your roses; do you want to call the police?’”
Concern was also triggered when the couple traveled.
“We were at a meeting in San Diego in the fall of 2006; I was in sessions, and Patty went out for a walk and got disoriented and had to be guided back.”
At the urging of a family friend and physician, the couple arranged for testing, and their fears were confirmed.
The unpredictable nature of Alzheimer’s frequently changes the landscape.
“At times, it’s almost like from moment to moment,” said Joe. “There are periods when you can repeat an instruction half a dozen times — ‘Bring the dish to the dishwasher’ or ‘Put on your seatbelt’ — and nothing happens except a stare. Other days, she may do it immediately.
He has also observed changes in certain muscle memory tasks, too, such as Patty’s once-normal routine of preparing oatmeal for herself.
“She used to be able to program the right numbers in the microwave,” Joe said. “Slowly, through time, I began to realize she’d try to think about it, and she couldn’t do it.”
Because Patty virtually no longer talks, her husband does his best with what communication is left to him.
“You often don’t have any sense, except for clues you can pick up by body language, of what is being understood or not.”
But, of course, there are brighter moments.
“Surprisingly, when you think nothing is happening, suddenly something does,” said Joe. “We usually go to a movie on Sundays as an activity. We were at a 3D movie — ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.’ And just before the movie came on, after the trailers, the big sign flashed up on the screen to put your 3D glasses on now — and she did. I was taken aback. I’m all ready to tell her to do it, and she’s already got it done.”
Often, one of the most sensitive aspects families deal with is what many might term “odd behavior.”
Joan Sheppard of Columbus, director of Alzheimer’s support groups which meet monthly in Columbus and Starkville, said, “Behavior (in an Alzheimer’s patient) is a major difficulty for caregivers. It tends to alienate the ‘normal’ population.”
As Joe said, “There were little things early on … Patty on her walks might move garbage pails about, fiddle with the mailboxes and do little things that, in one way, are kind of inconsequential, but if you look out your door and see it, it could be grounds for being worried.”
Sheppard, who also is director of the Philwood Suites Alzheimer’s Unit in Windsor Place, advised Joe to be straightforward with his neighbors.
“I suggested that Joe tell the neighborhood that Patty has Alzheimer’s, and the community has been amazing. They phone him, they’ve been so compassionate and caring. It’s made a whole difference to his life, and it’s a community pulling together.”
Another pre-emptive measure Sheppard recommends is for caregivers to carry a preprinted card that can be discreetly passed to restaurant servers and others when necessary, explaining your loved one has Alzheimer’s and requesting understanding of any unusual behavior.
“It teaches a community how to be supportive and helpful,” Sheppard said.
“One of the things I’ve noticed is how isolated caregivers often are. People stay away because they don’t know how to react,” she said. “So, not only are you watching your loved one who is no longer who they were as your husband, wife, mother or father, but people just stay away.”
Neurologist Reynolds McCain of Golden Triangle Neurology Clinic in Columbus said, “There is still much to be learned about what sets off the disease.”
Two classes of medications can be used for treatment to basically stabilize the memory and cognitive deficits, and help with emotional ups and downs, Dr. McCain said.
“They can really improve the quality of life for the patient and the caregiver,” he said.
“Alzheimer’s is just mysterious,” said Joe. “You don’t know exactly what’s going on much of the time. The hardest part is seeing someone so vital, such a finisher-of-everything-she-did and so incredibly talented needing help putting her clothes on.”
“In many ways,” he said, “your love becomes a one-way street.”
Which makes those rare, tender moments which surface unexpectedly all the more special. The couple used to regularly enjoy walking hand-in-hand, a pleasure Patty seems to have left behind more as the disease progresses.
“But once in a while,” Joe smiled, “she’ll reach out and take my hand … and this is a kind of sweet moment. It may only last 10 seconds, but I know there’s a little something there.”
Jan Swoope/The Commercial Dispatch