When Carrie Ponder learned she had Alzheimer's disease two years ago, she took action.
The Martinez resident started making plans for her future, handed over her car keys and enrolled herself in the Columbia County Sheriff's Office Project Lifesaver, which requires her to wear a tracking bracelet that allows authorities to locate her in case she wanders off.
Alzheimer's is a progressive brain disease that destroys brain cells, causing memory loss and problems with thinking and behavior severe enough to affect work, lifelong hobbies or social life. It is the most common form of dementia.
"I am very fortunate, for more reasons than one, that I am able to do as much as I am able to do now and don't have as many symptoms (as others)," Ms. Ponder said. "I still do everything I have ever done except cooking. I'm a little afraid to cook."
That's where Ms. Ponder's former husband, Gene Ponder, steps in. He does the cooking, shopping and driving and other primary care-giving tasks for Ms. Ponder.
After more than 29 years of marriage, three children and four grandchildren, the couple divorced in 2001. But they remained close.
Considering Ponder's family history of Alzheimer's and the many things that just "didn't add up," Mr. Ponder, and even his ex-wife, knew something was wrong.
"When she decided she had Alzheimer's, I told her I'd help her as much as I can," Mr. Ponder said.
Though he still works, Mr. Ponder spends about six nights a week at his ex-wife's house just to keep an eye on her. He does the shopping and cooking and drives her anywhere she needs to go.
One place the two regularly visit is support groups conducted by the area Alzheimer's Association office.
"If we didn't go to that, it would be ...," Ponder said.
"It would be chaos," Mr. Ponder finished.
He said he and his ex-wife participate in separate support groups -- he is in the caregivers support group, and she is in the early-stage Alzheimer's group. They attend together for refreshments and fellowship, then split into their respective groups.
He said it is a time for caregivers to share information, questions and concerns in a safe environment with people who understand.
In the monthly group, Mr. Ponder said he has learned how to deal with the issues he'll face down the road.
The support groups, and the information the couple glean from them, has brought them closer together as caregiver and patient, Mr. Ponder said.
The groups offer guidance and resources regarding respite care, research and available medications and treatments.
"I can't say enough good things about that support group," Mr. Ponder said. "Anybody who puts the effort forward, there's a lot of information there."
More help arrives
The association recently added two new caregiver support groups in Columbia County to the two existing ones held at Brandon Wilde and Westwood extended care facility.
The two new groups -- held at Morningside of Evans and Lewis Memorial United Methodist Church -- were added for the convenience of Columbia County residents, said Kathy Tuckey, the association's program and services director.
The groups are available to caregivers and patients of Alzheimer's and other dementia illnesses.
"It is kind of that time to share things that no one else thought to tell," Tuckey said. "We go through good times and bad times together. Sometimes speaking with another caregiver who is walking the journey, they know what you are feeling. And some people already have been through the parts of the journey that you have been through. It is such a sharing."
Tuckey, who also cared for her mother-in-law with Alzheimer's, said providing care for someone with dementia is a difficult task, one that family and friends may not understand. It becomes easier with physical and emotional nourishment.
Members of the support group became extended family and a comfort, Tuckey said.
"It gives you that opportunity to relax a bit, enjoy a cup of coffee together, ask questions, talk about problems you may be experiencing," Tuckey said.
Prepared for worse
Mr. Ponder said he's met caregivers in the groups that don't have help because family and friends are in denial.
"I'm very lucky because I've got help," he said. "Many caregivers are doing it alone."
Mr. Ponder knows his ex-wife's disease will only get worse, but said he's ready with the information and support he gets from monthly group meetings.
There is no cure for Alzheimer's.
"It is a disease that does not discriminate," Tuckey said.
Prior to her own diagnosis, Ms. Ponder knew about the disease because she worked as a psychology tech with Alzheimer's patients. She now helps to draw awareness to Alzheimer's.
"I want to do everything I can to help," said Ms. Ponder, who has spoken at association luncheons and plans to participate in the upcoming Memory Walk 2009.
7 p.m. on the third Tuesday at Brandon Wilde, 4275 Owens Road, Evans
3 p.m. on the third Thursday at Westwood, 561 N. Belair Road, Evans
7 p.m. on the second Tuesday at Lewis Memorial United Methodist Church, 5555 Hereford Farm Road, Evans
10 a.m. on the second Saturday at Morningside of Evans, 353 N. Belair Road, Evans
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