Ordeal forces family to take new look at mother's needs

Sergeant Calvin DeCoursey, from left, and deputies David Hester, Thomas Kinsey, and Robert Wesley walk down the dirt road of SW 24th Avenue during their search walk for Elinore Sheffield on June 22.

AARON DAYE/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 30, 2006 at 11:57 p.m.
Elinore Sheffield sounded well, when her daughter, Eileen Balaton, regularly called her on the phone.
That was hardly surprising considering the 66-year-old's history.
Sheffield had always been very active and self-sufficient, raising her three children alone after her divorce, teaching school, working at Tacachale and running marathons, her daughter said.
Then last week Sheffield disappeared while walking her pet poodle.
And, suddenly, Sheffield's family were struck with the reality that the woman previously diagnosed with dementia had needed more help than they had realized or wanted to admit.
"She's an incredibly strong woman. We had no idea that it would get to this point," Balaton said about her mother, found alive and in good health after a 10-day disappearance many thought wouldn't have a happy ending.
Looking back at what happened, Balaton said she hoped others would learn what her family almost discovered too late.
"You have to accept that something is wrong and act on it," Balaton said.
Now that Sheffield has been found, Balaton said the family is trying to confirm if she has Alzheimer's disease, a progressive disease of the brain that affects an estimated 4.5 million people nationwide. Generally found in people over 65, it is the most common cause of dementia.
There is no cure. "It's a very stealing disease for the person and their family," said Kathleen Bogolea, the regional director for the North Central Office for the Alzheimer's Association.
"Every day, the caregivers and the loved one with the disease . . . may lose a little part of the person that you knew."
As the population ages, the number of those affected by the disease is anticipated to increase.
For example, the number of people in Florida with Alzheimer's is expected to rise to 590,000 by the year 2025, compared to 360,000 in 2000. In 2004-05, more than 465,000 Florida residents were estimated to have Alzheimer's, according to the state's Department of Elder Affairs.
Marion County has more than 10,000 people diagnosed with Alzheimer's and Alachua County has more 3,400, according to data from 2004-05. But Bogolea said the numbers probably are low because more people likely have the disease but have not been diagnosed.
"It's an extremely difficult situation because so many people get so profoundly affected by it," Meredith Rowe, associate professor at the University of Florida's Adult and Elderly Nursing Department, said in describing Alzheimer's impact on people and their families. Rowe, who has studied cases where people with dementia wander away, has assisted law enforcement agencies in their search for missing people with dementia.
Families want loved ones to have a high-quality, independent life, Rowe said. But, because safety becomes an issue for Alzheimer's patients, often people are forced to give up that life.
"I'm sure this woman wanted to live alone and was happier living alone," Rowe said. However, she said, "The greater independence provided them, the greater risk you take that something will happen."
When Alzheimer's patients need help, it can cost their relatives emotionally, financially, and socially, Rowe said.
The disease can also fool others about the care an Alzheimer's patient needs. "It doesn't necessarily follow exact lines," Bogolea said about its progression.
Someone who sees the person infrequently or talks to them on the phone may not recognize the same problems someone else spots when they see the individual in person.
The Alzheimer's Association offers help and support to both those with the disease and their caregivers, including information and support groups via the Internet, Bogolea said. Training courses can help an Alzheimer's patient and caregiver by showing them to recognize the stages of the disease and what they can expect.
Key to helping people with Alzheimer's is planning, Bogolea said. "There needs to be some kind of communication of what is the plan. How do we get her the care that she needs? How do we get in and evaluate? Do that when you are not in crisis. Figure out your plans now."
Bogolea said some people who have had relatives with Alzheimer's are planning for their own futures by getting long term care insurance for themselves.
The Alzheimer's Association offers Safe Return, a nationwide identification, support and enrollment program. If someone enrolled in the program is missing, they will contact law enforcement and give them information about the individual. It also offers an identification bracelet and clothing labels that the Alzheimer's patient wears.
The Alachua County Sheriff's Office has a program called Project Lifesaver. Users get a bracelet that emits a signal that can be tracked in case the individual goes missing. The program has a start-up fee for the cost of the equipment of about $260, plus a monthly fee for battery replacement, but the Sheriff's Office is looking for funding from corporate and private donors willing to assist families who need the service and can't afford it, said Deputy Jeff Snyder.
The program is in place in other states, Snyder said. It's resulted in 1,800 cases where people who wandered away were found. All were discovered alive.
Lise Fisher can be reached at (352) 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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