Help & hope after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis

Alzheimer’s disease, one of a collection of dementia-related conditions involving memory, thinking or behavior, affects more than 6 million Americans. Their loved ones — spouses, children, other family and friends — are often the caregivers, providing 18 billion hours of unpaid care in 2022 alone, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. 

Being a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s can be emotionally, physically and financially draining. Still, when we talked to a few Albany-area caregivers, we found individual messages of hope. Yes, they spoke of the sacrifices, difficult decisions and losses, but they also expressed gratitude and offered reminders to take nothing for granted. Here are their stories, which we present in the hope that they can provide comfort, advice and companionship to the countless others who are going through something similar.

Dave Antolowitz is a member of the so-called “sandwich generation” — caregivers who are caring for a parent while also raising children. When his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease over a decade ago, he knew that he and his family would do whatever it took to help her through. 

When it became clear in the fall of 2018 that his mother would need 24-hour care, Antolowitz and his wife moved their family into his mother’s home. It wasn’t an easy decision, nor was it a simple transition for his teenage daughter, who was still living at home. “All of a sudden we were all taking care of this person we knew and loved, but she was a little different,” he says.

This level of dedication does take a toll; he’s only 46 years old and sometimes regrets that he and his family aren’t able to take family road trips or even go out to dinner like other families. On the other hand, he says caring for his mom has been incredibly rewarding.

“It might be one of the best things to happen to us, in a way, because we really value time,” he says. “It was a harsh reality that we don’t have as much time as we’d like, so let’s make sure we’re making the most of it.”

Ultimately, Antolowitz sees a beautiful sense of reciprocity in caring for his mom. “She gave everything she had to us; my brothers and I didn’t spend a minute in day care and she took care of us 24/7,” he says. “To be able to give that back to her is incredibly rewarding.” 

Chris and Cheri Davis at an Alzheimer's Association fundraiser
Chris and Cheri Davies at a recent Capital Region Walk to End Alzheimer’s, an Alzheimer’s Association fundraiser that raises money to fund scientific breakthroughs, advance public policy and provide support to those living with the disease and their caregivers. Chris was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 51. (Photo courtesy Cheri Davies)

Cheri and Chris Davies’ son, Aidan, was taking an AP psychology course in high school when he first suspected his dad might have Alzheimer’s disease. Cheri, a licensed clinical social worker, was quick to dismiss the notion. Chris was not yet 50 and far too young, she thought. But by the summer of 2018, Cheri was beginning to harbor some suspicions, so she decided to accompany Chris to his yearly physical. It was at that appointment that she realized something was wrong. Chris had confessed that there was a “creamer fairy” adding creamer to his coffee every morning and he was unable to perform some basic cognitive testing. 

Over the next few months Chris, then 51, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and it was progressing rapidly. 

“As a caregiver, I went from having a husband I could make plans with,” she says. “Those plans won’t get a chance to play out. I don’t have a partner anymore. I mean, I do — he’s physically there … but he can’t make any of the decisions anymore. I have to do everything on my own.” 

That, Cheri says, might be one of the hardest aspects of her husband’s diagnosis. She’s grateful she can work in private practice and control her work schedule, but it only makes it marginally easier emotionally, she says. 

“It took me a long time to wrap my head around, like, making a new will. It makes things very real,” she says. “I had to think about a lot of things that I thought we had time to consider together and now we don’t.”

Cheri credits Chris’ current level of functionality — which exceeds most expectations — to having an amazing circle of support, close friends and family who help keep him engaged and active. Most importantly, she’s thankful for the small moments she still has with Chris, and she urges other dementia caregivers to find whatever hope they can in those fleeting windows of clarity. 

“Be present in the now. Even if it’s watching TV and laughing together, treasure those small moments,” she says, “because you’re going to miss those moments. There will be less and less of them.”

Deb Lane’s mother, Beatrice, was on a trip when she contracted a severe, antibiotic-resistant staph infection known as MRSA and went into sepsis, a life-threatening condition in which an infection triggers an extreme response throughout the body. Although she eventually recovered physically, she was one of the 3% of people who are left permanently cognitively disabled. Lane recounts, “She never had dementia or a slow decline. She went on her trip and she came back and she’s not my mom anymore.”

Lane got her mom involved in an adult day program and hired home aides to help when she couldn’t be there herself. But the aides were unreliable, Lane says. After about a year, Lane placed her mom in assisted living and later, into a nursing home, where she stayed for six years — but that didn’t mean Lane’s work was done.

“When [the person with dementia] is in assisted living or a nursing home, you’re still a caregiver,” she says. “A lot of people assumed it would make it so easy, but I was still doing a lot of work caring for her. You’re still very involved and advocating for them, especially in nursing homes that are so overloaded.”

There’s a common thread running through these stories. Despite their different circumstances, every caregiver expressed gratitude toward the Alzheimer’s Association, which serves the Capital Region through the Northeastern New York chapter. 

“I was able to hook up with the Alzheimer’s Association right away and we set up a plan and I went to classes,” says Lane. “I can’t say enough about this organization. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them.”

Antolowitz was grateful for the association’s advice on how to keep his mother healthy and safe, as well as its help in finding estate-planning professionals. He also advises fellow caregivers to lean on the association to help manage their stress. “They have a hotline and they’re always available,” he says. “You will need to find balance and make sure you’re taking care of yourself. You can’t do that if you don’t have somebody to help.”

Davies says she relies on the Alzheimer’s Association to help her make sense of everything when she feels like she is “drinking from a fire hose” of information. It also has given her an outlet to be an advocate for other caregivers and enabled her to meet people going through similar struggles.

The Alzheimer’s Association website offers tips, advice, programs and resources. The association also may provide hands-on assistance, help construct a care plan, recommend medical providers and more.

Top photo, left to right: Dave Antolowitz and family; Chris and Cheri Davies; Beatrice Lane and her daughter, Deb

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