By MICHAEL LAYCOCK
Comox Valley Echo (Courtenay, B.C.)
Jan. 30, 1996

January is Alzheimer Awareness Month. In the hope that friends and family of people with the disease (or other related dementias) will seek help, the Echo offers this account of a family that has been dealing with the disease.

Sherry Bingham first noticed her mother’s memory problems about five years ago.

Teresa Hardy would think she had forgotten her keys, or she’d check the door of her home to see if she’d locked it.

Yet Bingham thought little of these lapses at the time.

“I didn’t recognize it at first,” she says. “I thought she was just getting old.”

After all, we all forget things now and then.

But her mother became worse over time, to a point where she would telephone Bingham 30 times a day.

“She’d call and say, ‘What do I do now? Close the drapes? Open the drapes?’” Bingham remembers in an interview from her Denman Island home.

“It gradually got so bad, she didn’t know what to do.”

At her worst point about two years ago, Teresa would become lost walking the two blocks from her apartment to the local Safeway. Store employees would end up calling Bingham to pick up the bewildered 83-year-old.

Sherry Bingham won’t be totally sure what’s causing her mother’s symptoms until she dies. But Teresa has shown many of the signs of Alzheimer disease, a degenerative brain disorder that slowly robs its victims of their memories and eventually their personalities.

More than 1/4 million Canadians currently suffer from the disease, which is a leading cause of death among the elderly. And while some progress has been made in genetic research toward finding the cause of the disease, there is no cure.

Meanwhile, special treatment centres (such as the Cumberland intermediate care unit) are available to help, but they often have lengthy waiting lists, and people with Alzheimer’s often bitterly oppose getting help because they believe nothing is wrong with them.

Eventually, after realizing Teresa could no longer live on her own, Bingham tried to find a place for her at a number of homes, but she fought it each time.

“She’d say, ‘You’re trying to put me away,’” Bingham recalls. “It really is terror. I could see it in her eyes.”

The disease had radically changed Teresa, an independent, caring Nova Scotia native who loved to walk and was always trying to help others.

“We always called her Mother Teresa,” Bingham says with a fond smile.

As the disease progressed, that same woman was running away from home, constantly nagging her daughter and accusing her of stealing.

“It’s a terrible affliction,” Bingham says.

And in a soft voice tinged with regret, she adds, “There were times when I didn’t even like her….That’s the scary part.”

At last, a position came up at the Cumberland home about eight months ago, and Teresa agreeed to move in. Fear had finally driven away her desire to live alone.

“I guess she just got scared to death and worn out,” Bingham says.

Taking her mother to the home was difficult but a relief.

“I felt sad that she’d gotten into that position, but I was glad that she would be happier.”

The relief came in large part because the disease had also taken a toll on Bingham and her husband.

“Looking after someone with Alzheimer’s is 24 hours a day,” she says, noting that people with the disease can’t understand the effect they have on those who care for them.

“It almost drove me out of my mind.”

During some of the worst times, Bingham developed cancer, and the constant stress agitated her depression. The 60-year-old woman’s cancer has since gone into remission, but she still goes for frequent checkups.

Fortunately, Bingham and her husband Tom were able to get help about a year ago through the local Alzheimer support group.

The group, which meets the third Friday of every month, offers those who care for people with the disease access to counselling and other services, and just an opportunity to talk.

“That’s the best therapy for anybody,” she says.

Now, Teresa is doing quite well in the home. She’s made friends, and the Binghams visit her once a week.

She still recognizes Sherry and Tom. And with the stress lifted from their lives, the mother-daughter relationship has improved.

“The love has come back since she’s been settled,” Bingham says. “I’m just so happy to know that she’s being taken care of.”

Bingham says she’s thankful to all those who have helped her and her mother during her illness, including staff at the Cumberland intermediate care unit, Helen Cox, St. Joseph’s Hospital, home-support workers, the Alzheimer Society and Dr. Silcox.

And she has some advice for others who believe they may be dealing with a relative who has the disease.

“Get help,” she says. “It (the disease) can ruin your life.”