ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Thousands of New Mexicans are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s. For one local family, the deadly disease has hit close to home more than once.
Carol Birks’ first experience with Alzheimer’s disease was with her grandmother during the 1990’s. She took care of her for three years before she passed away. Twenty years later, she’s back as a caregiver, this time, for her mom.
“I moved back to Albuquerque in 2013 and I noticed my mother having a few memory issues,” said Birks. “I didn’t really get too concerned about it until around 2016 when I started noticing changes in her behavior.”
She noticed her mom, Mary Kelly Austin, losing interest in things she once loved, like cooking. Birks, a volunteer with the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, say she was fortunate enough to recognize the signs and knew what resources were available. Soon, a visit to the University of New Mexico’s Memory and Aging Center confirmed a diagnosis all too familiar with thousands of New Mexican families.
“We have 108,000 unpaid caregivers in the state of New Mexico that are touching the lives of 41,000 people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s,” said Tim Sheahan, Executive Director of the Alzheimer’s Association New Mexico Chapter. “The caregiver is the main link with them these days. It’s so important because they’re the ones taking care of them, could be 24/7, could be part-time.”
As of 2019, more than 40,000 New Mexicans aged 65 or older are living with Alzheimer’s. That number is expected to grow even more.
Birks shares caregiving responsibilities with her six siblings. Earlier this year, they made the difficult decision to move their mom into assisted living. “Everyone in my family had to grieve in their own way because your ultimate goal is to keep your mom home for as long as possible,” said Birks.
Birks says as a caregiver, it’s the hardest job. However, having patience and showing care and love make all the difference.
“Your tone of voice, the expression on your face, the way you speak to them, will still register with them in a different part of the brain,” said Birks. “So when you get frustrated answering the same question over again and you raise your voice and your body language changes, they see that and it hurts their heart.”
Birks still spends much of her time with her mom. She says they play Gin-Rummy, read together, tell jokes and even get routine manicures. She says humor has helped her mom and the experience, greatly.
“Keeping humor in our lives helps both of us immensely,” said Birks. “She’s still herself in many, many ways. She has a wicked sense of humor.”
Every day can be different as a caregiver. Birks says despite its challenges, she and her family are grateful for each moment spent with their mom.
“She still asks, you know, ‘what’s going on?’ and I always tell her what’s going on,” said Birks. “Yesterday, she asked me, ‘do you ever get tired of me asking you what’s going on?’ and I said I never, never get tired.”
The Alzheimer’s Association-New Mexico Chapter is hosting a caregivers’ conference on Nov. 2, complete with seminars and resources. It’s free to attend for family caregivers and $25 for professionals. To register, click here.