SPRING HILL — As they've watched her slip into the final stages of Alzheimer's disease, family members say what they cherish most about 84-year-old Jean Miketinac is the memories she shared with them.
Stories like the time she worked as a military nurse, patching up injured soldiers who came home during World War II.
"I guess everyone was having a bad day, but something made her laugh really hard," her son, 60-year-old Pat Miketinac, recalled. "Then her commander said, 'It's good you can laugh, lieutenant.'
"So now, when she laughs on her good days, that's what we say," chimed in Shirley Miketinac, 56. "It makes her smile. And it's what she always said."
If it weren't for the Alzheimer's Association in Hernando County, the Miketinacs don't know how they would have made it through the past 12 years — or if they would know just how good those old catchphrases can make everyone feel.
Since 2000, the couple has attended a support group hosted by the nonprofit organization, which has been in Hernando for just as long. Part of a larger 17-county network that spans from Collier to Citrus counties, the association has existed on the Gulf Coast in various capacities since 1985.
Today, it helps the families of about 187,000 people who have Alzheimer's. Within the region that includes Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties, about 15,000 people have the disease.
"And that number's only going to get bigger as our population ages," said Jerry Fisher, a program specialist who works from the group's Spring Hill office. "That's why we provide support groups, references to other groups that can help, a 24-hour help line and literature."
The group also offers caregiver training courses and educational sessions, some of which are set to kick off next month.
In the region that includes Hernando, Fisher heads nine groups, which draw about 50 people a month. Family members such as the Miketinacs come for guidance, and most of all to share their stories with others who can learn from what they've been through.
"That's what we found the most comforting," Shirley said. "Just hearing what other people had been through helped us so much. People think they can handle this disease alone, and that's the worst misconception."
As Jean progressed through the disease, the Miketinacs were comforted to know that it was all right to talk about the past and memories she might have forgotten, or even to go along with what she thought was reality.
For example, Jean sometimes thought a relative who had died long ago was still alive. Rather than tell her that person was gone, which might have upset her, the couple realized it was better for her and easier for them to simply say that they would go and visit the relative later.
"And that was really hard for Pat," Shirley said. "He's the most honest person you'll ever meet. And we learned that you can't straighten out what's in their minds. You just can't. So sometimes it's just best to go along with whatever it is, as long as it's not harmful."
While they can look back at the long road they've traveled with Jean during the past decade, it hasn't been easy to watch her go from a vibrant, smart woman who liked to ride her bicycle to someone who mostly sits and stares.
But they know she's still there. Every chance they get, they remind her of the past, and use her old catchphrase.
"She gave us everything she had," Shirley said. "Now we can give back to her."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.