COLUMBIA — One Thanksgiving sticks out in Patty Gibbs’ mind. Her three adult children were in town and her mother was coming over. Gibbs, 69, wanted everyone to have a good time; she was excited to spend the holiday with four generations of family members.
But by the middle of dinner, Gibbs realized her mother wasn't enjoying herself.
“My mother got this terrible expression on her face,” Gibbs said. “So we took her home and she just scurried back in there so fast. It had become her safe haven.”
Gibbs’ mother, Wilhelmina Nelson, 91, has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. She lives in The Arbors, an Alzheimer’s assisted-living center in Columbia.
Gibbs has cared for her mother since 2000. Initially, she was a long-distance caregiver, as her mother lived in California. When Nelson's husband died in 2004, Gibbs moved her to Columbia.
“The hardest part is getting your mind around the fact that there is no reasoning with them and that they will never understand why you’ve had to do some of the things you’ve done that they don’t like,” Gibbs said.
Researchers still don’t know why some people develop Alzheimer's and others don't. However, it is widely believed that genes play a role in the development of Alzheimer's.
On Friday, the Alzheimer’s Association Mid-Missouri Chapter hosted a research forum that featured keynote speaker Alison Goate, a genetics professor at the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis.
According to Goate, researchers have recently identified a gene that increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's by threefold, and makes the onset come earlier.
Alzheimer's can be a difficult disease to understand. It begins in the hippocampus (a sea-horse shaped area in the brain), Goate said.
"By the final stages, the hippocampus has shrunk, and there are literally holes where brain cells have died," Goate said. That stage is often fatal.
Many people who attended the forum are caregivers for family members who have Alzheimer's and want to understand it better.
"Once you are caring for a family member with Alzheimer's, you start thinking about whether anyone else in the family has it," Gibbs said. "You can't help but worry, 'Is this going to happen to me?'"
While Alzheimer's often begins with slight absentmindedness, it doesn’t end there.
“It’s so much more complicated than that,” Gibbs said. “They can’t reason. My mother is 91 and lives in a locked Alzheimer’s facility and still thinks that she can go home and get a job and drive a car.”
Patients with Alzheimer’s experience confusion when they injure themselves, Gibbs said, and might not be able to tell you where or how they did so, even if they feel the pain.
According to the National Institute on Aging's Web site, other symptoms include impulsive behavior, paranoia or delusions and difficulty completing familiar tasks.
The Alzheimer's Association offers many resources for those affected by the disease including day care, part-time help and support groups.
Gibbs belongs to a group for people who have parents with Alzheimer's.
"You can talk about things you couldn't talk about with anybody else," Gibbs said. "Your best friends would listen, but they wouldn't really understand."
Through her experience, Gibbs has learned that she can do things she never thought she'd do.
"Many of us are parents, and we never imagined that we'd be diapering our parents instead of our babies," she said.