When Laura Mercer was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 48, she decided to use her own misfortune to educate others. In 2009, she and her husband, Greg, who live in southeast Charlotte, shared their story with Charlotte Observer readers.
Today, as her disease progresses, Laura, 55, a former public relations executive, can no longer speak to groups about Alzheimer’s as she did once did. But Greg Mercer carries on as his wife’s primary caregiver. It’s a role that most of us step into at some point, if not for a spouse, then for parents, a sibling, a friend or partner. Greg, a senior vice president with Red Moon Marketing, also continues to share lessons he’s learned as a caregiver.
Mercer relies on both paid and informal care for Laura. He’s become better over time, he says, at reaching out for help from family and friends. He employs companions to stay with Laura while he’s at work.
Advice from experts, including Greg Mercer:
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Get support. Don’t try to do everything by yourself. “You naturally think, ‘I can weather this storm. I can handle this,’” says Lynn Ivey, owner of The Ivey, a senior adult day care in south Charlotte. But when there’s a dementia diagnosis, things almost never get better. Seek help before you’ve got a crisis.
Start by holding a family meeting and taking a team approach. “One person might not be the best at doing care, but they can do the financial piece, or organize things and plan for the future,” says Ashley Stevens, program manager for the Alzheimer’s Association Western Carolina Chapter.
Listen when friends offer help, “and recognize it means as much to them as it does to you,” Ivey says. Keep a task list handy. Maybe you need someone to stay with your spouse when you go exercise, or you could use a frozen meal for later use. When help is offered, pull out that list.
When it comes to professional care, at-home companion services and adult day care can be scheduled for as little as a few hours a week. When you need a longer break, to take a vacation, for instance, there’s also respite care.
Free respite care is available through the federal Family Caregiver Support Program. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging for details. In Mecklenburg and surrounding counties, that’s the Centralina Area Agency on Aging. An unfortunate caveat: The money is limited. Mecklenburg County has a waiting list and won’t have new funds until July.
Assistance can come in other forms, too – through support groups, caregiving classes and help lines.
Carve out time for you. Exercise, have dinner with friends, go to the salon. Professionals liken this advice to strapping on your oxygen mask before placing one on your child. You can’t be a good caregiver if you’re not healthy.
You’ll need to rely on others to take this time for yourself. Family and friends can play a crucial role. Mercer asks neighbors to sit with Laura while he takes a walk. “That one 45 minutes when you walk away from it, that makes a big difference to me,” he says.
Adjust expectations. Meet your loved ones where they are. Ivey, who’s been a caregiver for her parents, remembers feeling angry when her mom kept repeating the same question. She has since learned better. “You have to go into their world. You can’t bring them into your world.”
Also realize that life won’t be the same. Greg Mercer says Laura was the organized one, the spouse who handled finances and sent birthday presents to nieces and nephews. He can’t do it all. He tries not to worry about it.
Most important: Don’t let the fear of tomorrow ruin a good moment today.
Mercer tries to focus on good moments – looking through old photo albums with Laura, holding hands with her on their deck. “It’s been a great time, a great life, and most people don’t get that,” he says. “I’m very honored and humbled to honor the vow we took when we got married 30 years ago. And I know that she would have done the same for me, in spades.”
Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271
Centralina Area Agency on Aging: Serves Anson, Cabarrus, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, Rowan, Stanly and Union counties. 704-372-2416, www.centralina.org.
Just 1 Call: Mecklenburg County’s one-stop information source for seniors and adults with disabilities. 704-432-1111, charmeck.org/mecklenburg/county/dss/Just1Call/
Alzheimer’s Association Western Carolina Chapter: Services include support groups, online caregiving workshops and a 24-hour help line. alz.org/northcarolina/.