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Woman cares her mother who has Alzheimer, raises awareness
Oct 13

Editors Note An AP Member Exchange.

The Free Lance-Star

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) _ Jennifer Murphy had to stop calling her mother ``Mom'' four years ago.

It made the older woman so scared and confused, Murphy referred to her by her first name of Joy instead.

Difficult as that was, things only got worse as the Alzheimer's progressed.

The disease took away all memories the once-loving mother and wife had of her family and made her forget how to do the most basic bodily functions.

``Putting a diaper on her the first time was really hard,'' Murphy said. ``She was still there, a little bit, and she gave me a look that said, `I don't want you to have to do this.' ``

Murphy's mother is in the late stages of Alzheimer's _ one of an estimated 5.5 million Americans age 65 and older affected. Another 200,000 people under age 65 also have the condition.

Murphy is fighting the incurable disease. In the midst of her grueling schedule, which includes full-time work as a financial office administrator, then coming home to take care of her mom, Murphy is the chairperson of the annual Walk to End Alzheimer's. ...

The goal is to raise $185,000 for research and to fund the Fredericksburg chapter's office, which provides free services and support to families.

It's Murphy's hope that no one else will have to watch both parents deteriorate from dementia, as she's done.

``It's a horrible disease,'' she said. ``Although I am with my Mom every day, she has no clue who I am.''

Known to friends as Jenny, Murphy is the daughter of Dan and Joy Eichelberger, Pennsylvania natives who moved to Spotsylvania County in 1972. As an adult, Murphy had been living in Dinwiddie, but returned to her childhood home in 2015 to care for her parents.

Her father, a licensed gun dealer, was formally diagnosed that January with Lewy body dementia, the second most common type of progressive dementia after Alzheimer's disease. Looking back, his family suspects he was impacted by the condition long before then, but hid it so his wife's care would be the priority.

Joy Eichelberger worked at the Fashion Bug at Four Mile Fork and later volunteered at the Mary Washington Hospital Thrift Store until she had trouble running the cash register and following directions.

At first, her family thought she was just getting older when odd things happened. Murphy noticed a departure from her mother's normally sweet demeanor. The older woman said she thought her co-workers were trying to get her fired and once called one of Murphy's friends a particularly nasty name _ something she'd never done before.

Then, Joy Eichelberger totally forgot about putting up decorations in December 2009, and that was unlike the woman who loved all things Christmas. When Murphy came home for the holidays, she opened a cabinet and found a rotten carton of milk and some eggs that her mother had mistakenly put there.

A few months later, the older woman fell and hit her head, and doctors told the family Joy Eichelberger had both a brain bleed and Alzheimer's working against her.

``From that point, she declined steadily,'' her daughter said.

For a while, the mother went to a local a memory-care facility, but when Dan Eichelberger also was diagnosed with a form of dementia that causes hallucinations, the family couldn't afford two placements. Murphy moved back home to care for her parents.

Once diagnosed, her father went downhill quickly. He regularly called the police, saying someone was having a party in his house and he couldn't get them out _ when in reality, there was no one there.

``It's very hard to talk a demented person off the edge,'' Murphy said.

He fell and hurt himself while walking in October 2015 and was hospitalized. He came home, fell again and returned to the hospital _ then escaped from the emergency room, knocking over nurses and stretchers in his flight. He scurried up a tree and stayed there until he had to be sedated.

Dan Eichelberger never recovered and died a few weeks later in the hospital.

``He was just gone,'' dead at age 74, his daughter said.

Looking back, the family saw signs that he'd had the disease a while. He got agitated easily, throwing a total tantrum one Thanksgiving when there were peas on his plate instead of corn. He was maddened by the changes taking place in his wife, and Murphy often had to separate the two as if she were dealing with squabbling toddlers.

After his death, his family found the books that he kept for his business. He was known for his meticulous record-keeping, but his notes from his later years were a mess.

Meanwhile, if there's any good to be found in this story, it's that Joy Eichelberger has been diagnosed as ``pleasantly demented.'' Other than the few off-the-wall comments she made _ and the one time she ran out into the street, claiming her daughter was trying to kill her _ she's been as easy an Alzheimer's patient as one can be.

She needs care around the clock. She and her husband were able to save during their marriage, and Murphy has used that money to pay for a caregiver while she's at work. Once home, she hangs out with her mother, watching TV or listening to gospel music.

``Joy, you look pretty today,'' Murphy says to her mother as she enters the small bedroom, next to her own, where her mother lies in a hospital bed.

Murphy rubs her mom's forehead and tells her that her hair is soft. Her mother clicks her tongue and moves her lips, but no sounds come out of her mouth. There isn't a look of fear or alarm in her eyes, just emptiness.

That's been her life for a while, Murphy said. Three years ago, when the daughter had to put down one of the family pets, her mother said, ``It's for the best.''

``That was probably the last time she said something that made sense.''

Every night, Murphy tells her mother that she's loved and safe. If she dies in her sleep _ and Murphy hopes that's how this deteriorating tale will end _ she wants those words of comfort to be the last thing her mother, 74, hears.

Caring for a loved one in such a situation is so emotionally draining, there's usually nothing left over for anything else, said Lori Myers, director of the Fredericksburg office of Alzheimer's Association.

``I think Jennifer is very much one of the exceptions,'' Myers said about Murphy's work with the upcoming walk. ``To be able to take that energy, with the difficult situation she's in and still be able to put herself out there in terms of advocacy, it's just phenomenal. She's very driven, very committed.''

Murphy credited the Capital Caring Hospice program with providing respite care that helps Murphy take care of herself. When a volunteer visits _ and reads the Bible to her mother _ Murphy and her husband, Brian, a long-distance truck driver, spend a little time together. They might even go horseback riding, a favorite hobby that's been put on the back burner in recent years.

Murphy also joined a support group last year. It's one of the suggestions counselors at the Alzheimer's office regularly give.

``We're always going to encourage being with peers in a confidential setting,'' Myers said, ``meeting other people who are walking that same journey with somebody they love.''


Information from: The Free Lance-Star, http://www.fredericksburg.com/

By The Associated Press, Copyright 2019