Aug 302012
 
Rob Epp is a full-time Alzheimer's caregiver for his partner Jordan.

Courage is the thing you need most and the hardest thing to get when you’re faced with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Jordan, my partner of 17 years has younger-onset Alzheimer’s. His father and several grandparents had memory problems, so the diagnosis was not totally unexpected, but it is still hard to grasp that someone so young and vital is facing such a ravaging illness.

Since Jordan’s diagnosis four years ago, we’ve both experienced the stigma that is attached to this disease. At the time of Jordan’s diagnosis we were lucky to live in Seattle where awareness of Alzheimer’s is high. That helped us avoid many problems that I know others experience from the medical establishment. But we’ve each had to handle other issues. Memory problems in older people are expected and tolerated. Memory problems in younger people are often seen as a serious defect.

One situation that stands out in my mind happened on a visit to Florida. After his diagnosis Jordan had severe depression and anxiety, and he was taking a powerful combination of medications, which caused him to lose his balance. He decided to walk several blocks to the beach at sunrise one morning and fell. A police officer happened to be in the area and stopped in his car. His response was “Sir, Are you drunk?” Jordan responded “No. I have Alzheimer’s.” The officer repeated that he felt Jordan was drunk and drove away leaving Jordan on the ground.

My experience with stigma was at work. Because Alzheimer’s remains a diagnosis of exclusion, it takes a tremendous amount of testing to reach that conclusion. I was taking more and more time from my high-pressure job for doctor visits. Jordan and I were also emotionally reeling from new memory problems that would appear weekly. (At one point, Jordan put socks in the fridge.)  I decided to take a leave of absence. When I returned, I found that a shadow replacement had been hired, and I was forced to leave six months later.

Finding courage

When faced with discrimination you must have the courage to say “I’m here and just as important as anyone else.”  We all have weak moments but fighting the illness sometimes means fighting for yourself or your loved one. Breaking Past the Stigma of Alzheimer's: Rob Epp's Story

There is stigma or discrimination surrounding any serious illness. Just ask someone with Parkinson’s or cancer or multiple sclerosis. But, we’ve also have found that people are generally supportive when they are aware. Many “stigma moments” are really caused by ignorance. People don’t understand Alzheimer’s and many even don’t understand what it means to be chronically ill.

So often, people only think of Alzheimer’s as an end-of-life illness. Even in hospitals nurses will say “but he’s so young to have it.” Courage to change the public perception thru education and awareness is key. And it’s usually accomplished one person at a time through personal contact.

Silence is the enemy

Alzheimer’s Disease consumes a tremendous amount of energy and resources. Families are often exhausted by the sheer volume of care responsibilities. And yet this disease is very poorly understood so we also carry the burden of having to educate others.

Jordan quickly tells people that he has Alzheimer’s in phone calls and in person so they understand. He also has cards for this purpose. Family is kept updated about his condition and even the little ones are told what to do if there is a problem. But education is also reaching out to the public.

I find time to do advocacy for the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s not easy since I don’t have family to help care for him when I’m gone, but it’s essential to raise awareness and unite people in the effort to fight this illness and help the people who have it. If people understand then they won’t be afraid. And if they’re not afraid then there is no stigma – just the disease.

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About the Blog Author: Rob Epp is a full-time caregiver for his partner Jordan, who was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s four years ago. They live in New Hampshire.

Photos by Shannon Power

Jun 012012
 
Lee and Val

In 2008, at the age of 62, I was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease (also known as early-onset Alzheimer’s). Not long after, I retired after serving 23 years as the President/CEO of the Private Industry Council (PIC) of San Luis Obispo County. While I thought I was functioning well, there were ample signs a few years before, indicating not all was necessarily right with my health.

Part of me recognized this, while another part of me chalked it up to work overload. In fact, I knew I was having a problem with my own self-confidence — and my 15 employees saw it more clearly, and earlier, than I did; if we are not careful, we tend to forget how intuitive employees truly are. Fortunately, we all came to a point of understanding that I needed help, and the Board of Directors and staff were ready to seek ways to retain me and keep me functioning, while also making sure we were all honest with one another, henceforth.

I was recognizing changes in my own behavior: I was losing my ability to juggle multiple projects. It took more effort to decide which projects had highest priority — and, worst of all, I realized that my self-confidence as an executive was rapidly eroding. I could not find any solutions to turn that around; I didn’t know how to fix it. This was brought home directly, on a couple of business trips (by auto), when I found myself overlooking familiar freeway exits and driving well down the road before realizing I was way off course.

All of this led my wife and I to visit the Mayo Clinic twice in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2006 and 2007; we also participated in a battery of testing at U.C. San Francisco. I was finally diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s on that visit (also known as Younger-Onset Alzheimer’s), with evidence of “Executive Dysfunction.” Several medical doctors, staff and students participated in that discussion, and they video-taped the discussion.  It was an eye-opening experience.

Back home in San Luis Obispo, we also took the time, on two occasions for me to be tested for sleep apnea, in a local lab located in our community. Outcome: “Positive.” Thanks to the technology of this remarkable invention, I now sleep better than I ever have in my life. While I am no expert in this technology, I am convinced there is a direct (negative) relationship between sleep apnea and potential damage to the brain, over time.

Several months later, when this all sunk in, I resigned myself to accept this fate — over which I would have zero control. But, I also have been able to put a face on Alzheimer’s in our local community, by being an advocate and local voice. I have written several “Viewpoints” and “Commentaries” in our local Tribune newspaper. I have formed a close relationship with our local Alzheimer’s Association Chapter Office and its staff, secured a seat on the three-county Chapter Board of Directors, and also accepted an appointment to the Alzheimer’s Association Early-Stage Advisory Group (ESAG) for the 2011-2012 year. This participation, in turn, has opened more new doors with the National Office of the Alzheimer’s Association in very positive ways.

I am well aware there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s. It’s a given, for now, and I refuse to spend much time worrying about it. I prefer to be matter of fact with regard to my diagnosis and I spend more time out in the community and working with the Alzheimer’s office to support them in their work. If there is anything I worry about, it is my family. Family and friends are the best medicine that any of us will have, in a journey such as this one.

Read about Val’s experience as Lee’s care partner.

Blog author Lee Ferrero is a member of the national Alzheimer’s Association 2011 Early-Stage Advisory Group. He is eager to put a face to Alzheimer’s and alert individuals, communities, the media and local organizations about the critical need to act on this disease and help find a cure.  Lee lives in Los Osos, California, with his wife, Valerie. Lee and Valerie have two children, Jennifer and Eric. They take great delight in spoiling their grandson, John Ferrero Stout.

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