Loyde and Jewell Kee enjoyed a strong and happy marriage for over 55 years. Always healthy, the Ceres couple since 1967 planned to live full lives up until the day they died.
But one Sunday, Loyde couldn't remember how to get to their north Modesto church. Jewell quickly knew something was wrong with Loyde's mind and realized a fear that she never thought she'd have to face: Her husband had Alzheimer's Disease.
The diagnosis in 2009 locked Jewell, 75, into the exhausting role of being a caregiver of a loved one with Alzheimer's and/or dementia. Because the couple never thought about buying long-term care insurance, Jewell could not afford to do anything but care for him around the clock, seven days a week, at home.
"It was absolutely draining," said Kee. "I thought for sure I was going to die."
Salvation was found in an Alzheimer's support group in Modesto.
"They almost literally saved my life when I was dealing with the illness and death of my husband from Alzheimer's Disease."
The group offered her encouragement, support, helped empower her to deal with medical professionals, and learning useful methods for dealing with dementia patients.
"There were times I think I would not have got through the day when Loyde was ill and then after he died, they were there for me and kept me going. They really encourage a person."
The support group used to be a part of the Modesto center of the Alzheimer's Aid Society of Northern California. After the Modesto center folded because support was cancelled by the Sacramento organization, the caregivers themselves decided that form their own non-profit group, Alzheimer/Dementia Support Center, Inc. A new board of directors was installed which worked out a deal with the landlord to stay on a month-to-month basis until the non-profit status is approved and a tax ID number is issued.
"We have scrounged enough furniture to keep both our groups meeting," said Kee. "We just need to let the public know we are still there."
The center, located at 700 McHenry Avenue (next to Miller's Place in the Doctors Medical Center Foundation building), serves up of 50 caregivers every Monday at 9:30 a.m., and 20 to 25 at 5:30 p.m. on Monday evenings.
At both sessions there are group activities for the memory-impaired loved ones in another room facilitated by qualified and compassionate people.
Support sessions are also offered in Modesto at 2 p.m. on Thursdays. Another group meets in Turlock at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays at Paramount Court Senior Living, 3791 Crowell Road, facilitated by Pat and Robert Blanco.
"I feel very strongly about keeping this group going and making sure people know it still exists.
Loyde died in August and Jewell has stayed on with the group to offer help to other women going through the same experience.
"I still go to help out those walking the same road I walked," said Kee. "Getting involved in this group has been one of the best things that I have done. It helps me to get through some of the rough days."
The group educates caregivers on the realities of the disease, including the harsh reality that there is no cure for Alzheimer's and it's always terminal. The typical victim dies within three to eight years, said Kee, but death can occur as quickly as two years and as long as 22 years.
"Alzheimer's knows no age," said Kee. "Twelve in the support group are caring for someone who was under the age of 50 at the time of diagnosis. Some diagnosed as young as 48. We warn other women that the same thing can happen to them."
Dementia is an umbrella term, of which about half are Alzheimer's Disease victims, 20 percent have Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), 20 percent vascular dementia caused by a mini stroke, and the rest as being dementia related to alcohol and AIDs.
Facilitated by Cindy DenBrave and Jill Aja, the Modesto support group is a place where caregivers can share their burden by speaking and learning from others. Sessions are designed to give brief times of respite care since 39 percent of Alzheimer's caregivers due to stressed related illness before their loved one succumbs.
Valuable information is also shared that has financial impact. After her husband died, the Social Security Administration not only withheld Loyde's last check to Jewell, but kept her three months of her Social Security checks. She ironed out the problem through Congressman Jeff Denham's office but now warns others about the potential of that happening to them.
Members of the group share things like how to deal with a loved one who may get combative or even how to help feed. Jewell explains how Loyde forgot how to put on Tshirt, and had to feed him with a hypodermic syringe.
Some caregivers have been known to give up. One woman called the children of her second husband and said "I did not sign-up for this. Come and take care of your dad."
"A lot of families will be in denial forever."
Kee is especially disturbed at the prospects of the Miller's Place closing. The center provides three-hour despite care for Alzheimer's Disease. If it or her group closes, Kee warns that there will be no support between Ceres and Sacramento.
For now, the group welcomes financial support from the community to remain in operation. Private donations are paying for rent, utilities and educational reading materials. There is no paid staff, she said.
Donations may be sent to Alzheimer/Dementia Support Group, Inc., 700 McHenry Ave., Suite D, Modesto CA 95380.