About a year ago, Vicki Vinzant's dad started forgetting things. He quit tinkering with cars, stopped playing the accordion, and became increasingly confused, violent, and disoriented. When Vicki mentioned having to go pick up her kids one day while visiting, he responded with sincere incredulity, "What kids?"
Lyle Roberts' wife and Vicki's mother Ione Roberts also forgets things. She sometimes loses herself in the parking lot, not recalling where she left her car, and sometimes she calls Vicki for several consecutive days, repeating the same stories she had relayed to her daughter only a day earlier.
Now 74 and 76 respectively, Mr. and Mrs. Roberts find themselves at different stages on the Alzheimer's/dementia spectrum: Lyle is situated quite solidly in the middle stage, while Ione still hovers near the beginning. And then there is their only daughter Vicki, 45, who is coping with both her parents' inevitable slide toward the advanced end of the scale.
"It's horrible because when someone dies, you can grieve over them and lay them to rest," Vicki said. "But what they're going through, you're losing them but they're still alive."
The mental and physical drain placed on caregivers like Vicki is especially trying when the burden is borne alone, which is why people like Dani Kebschull exist. The local coordinator for the National Family Caregivers Support Program, Dani, 52, works with the Soldotna Senior Citizens Center and out of her office in the Blazy Mall to ensure that people in situations similar to Vicki's get connected with needed services, such as counseling, caregiver training, respite, support groups and medical supplies.
"When I see them, it is usually when they are at the end of their rope," Dani said of the people she helps through her work. "They are in tears -- and I've seen men in tears, I've seen women in tears -- and they come to my office because they don't know what to do."
Last week, Dani received an award from mmlearn.org, an online support and information resource for caregivers like Vicki. She earned the recognition for her efforts in caregiving and her determination to disseminate information on the subject. The site provides online classes and distance learning opportunities to those seeking caregiver training and education.
Vicki and Dani met about a year ago at Soldota Little League Bingo, where Vicki has volunteered on weekends for the past seven years. Casual interactions soon led to Vicki confiding in Dani about the problems manifesting with her father's dementia, and soon Vicki asked her friend for help.
"When I went to Dani crying, she gave me information about all of this stuff," Vicki said. "All the different assisted living homes that are down here on the peninsula, information on Alzheimer's, dementia, the different drugs there are."
Vicki's father has been an alcoholic all of her life, and despite strict orders to not consume the stuff while on his Alzheimer's medication, he continued to drink. This behavior coupled with the increased frequency of his violent episodes ultimately led to his hospitalization in mid-November.
When the hospital eventually released Lyle, they told him he was finally able to go home.
"There's little things like that that people don't understand," Vicki said. "Like how they should never have told my dad that he was going home. He wasn't going home. He's never going to go home."
As Vicki's mom could no longer safely live with her husband, and Vicki was also unable to take her father in, Lyle was released into the care of an assisted living residence in the area. The facility is actually a house, where a family lives and takes care of several other people who can no longer live by themselves.
"Walking away from my dad that day we left him at that house tore my heart out," Vicki said. "My dad was angry and confused and I felt like the s-----est daughter in the world."
Vicki acknowledged that her mom, too, will soon be unable to live alone and will need to move out of her house located miles past the end of Funny River Road and in with Vicki, her husband Daniel, and their three children who still live at home.
When it comes to a disease like Alzheimer's, it is difficult to look ahead when there is no prospective cure or hope for improvement. There is generally only one road to go down.
"It only gets worse," Vicki said. "There are some medications that maybe halt it for a while, but there is no cure and there's so much stuff that they don't even know about."
"It's a horrible disease," Dani added. "And it's not only horrible for the person who has it, it's horrible for the caregivers because they are stressed out all the time."
Vicki plans to start going to the support meetings that Dani runs twice a month at the Soldotna Senior Citizens Center, and she already uses Dani as a regular resource for help navigating all the hoops and obstacles that come with the territory of caregiving.
"If she doesn't know the answer to something," Vicki said of Dani, "she's on the phone making calls and finding the answers out somehow."
"She's got the biggest heart," she added. "She really cares about the people that she looks after. She really, really does. She will bend over backwards to help people out."
And Dani only wants to help more people like Vicki, to get the word out that assistance, relief, and answers are available. The main impediment to caregivers getting help, though, is that they don't self-identify, as such.
"There's lots of people out there who still don't know that they're caregivers," Dani said. "You don't even have to be related. You can be a friend, you can be a family member, or a neighbor," and filling out a one-page form is all that's required to sign up for help.
"There's a lot of sad stories and you wish you could do so much more for them," she said. "If you're any kind of person with a heart, you just feel so bad and you want to help them.
"I just wish I could give more."
For more information on the National Family Caregivers Support Program, Kebschull can be reached at 907-262-1280.
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Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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