Vicki Bartholomew started a support group for wives who are caring for a husband with Alzheimer’s disease because she needed that sort of group herself.

They meet every month in a conference room at a new memory-care facility in Nashville called Abe’s Garden, where Bartholomew’s husband was one of the first residents — a Vietnam veteran and prominent attorney in Nashville.

“My husband’s still living, and now I’m in an even more difficult situation — I’m married, but I’m a widow,” she tells the group one day.

These women — who are roughly 50 to 75 years old — draw the shades and open up to each other in ways they can’t with their lifelong friends.

“They’re still wonderful friends, but they didn’t know how to handle this. It was hard for them, and as you all know, your friends don’t come around as much as they used to,” Bartholomew said. “I was in bad shape. I didn’t think I was — I did have health problems, and [now] I know I was depressed.”

As the number of Americans afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease continues to swell to an estimated 5.7 million, so do the legions of loved ones caring for friends and family members. The toll on Bartholomew’s own mental health is one of the reasons the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America focuses on the nation’s estimated 16 million unpaid caregivers.

With no cure on the horizon, the foundation has been highlighting the necessity of better support for those caregivers through a national tour. It stopped in Nashville earlier this spring, was in Milwaukee in June and heads to Fairfax, Va., in September.

At the live events, Alzheimer’s researchers and clinicians offer guidance on a number of topics, including how to ensure safety for patients at home, care planning and even how to entertain someone with memory loss.

The organization promotes in-person and telephone support groups, since being a caregiver is often a barrier to getting out of the house alone. Virtual support systems showed effectiveness at reducing loneliness, stress and depression in a small 2014 study.

By Blake Farmer, Nashville Public Radio

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