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Knowing the signs of Alzheimer's

For those taking care of loved ones or friends suffering from Alzheimer's, life can be almost as confusing as it is for the patient. Their stories are sad and often tragic.

Sara Miller appeared pained Monday as she talked about her son, Patrick, 56, who began exhibiting signs of the disease earlier than most. In his 50's, he regularly got lost, failed to file taxes for years and eventually lost his job as a U.S. Department of Treasury analyst.

Gary Hofmeyer and his wife discovered their elderly St. Petersburg neighbor, Vivian Smith, living in filth. She never bathed and did not cook. Instead, she shopped at night and lived on a diet of canned food and milk. He wishes he had noticed sooner.

Kay Taylor and her husband spent years trying to understand the increasingly erratic behavior of her mother-in-law, a once elegant, immaculate woman. The disease has been financially devastating for the family.

They are the types of stories Dr. Eric Pfeiffer, director of the University of South Florida Suncoast Alzheimer's and Gerontology Center, hears all the time.

Thursday, Pfeiffer will discuss "How to recognize the difference between normal age-based memory loss and Alzheimer's disease'' in the Parkview Room, at the Largo Cultural Center.

People with loved ones with the disease say early detection is important, both for the afflicted and the caregivers.

Sara Miller, 78, who lives in St. Petersburg, said her son started showing signs of the illness several years ago. She advises others to pay attention to anything that looks out of the ordinary.

Kay Taylor, 65, advises early testing so that family members know what they're dealing with, financially and emotionally. It helps to plan, she said.

Hofmeyer, a retired pastor, said he wished he'd acted sooner to help his 82-year-old neighbor. He called social service workers twice, but nothing was done until she fell and hurt herself. Now she's in a nursing home. With no other family, Hofmeyer became her court-appointed guardian.

"Looking back, he became her guardian by default," said Kristine K. Hartland, president of Peace Wealth Management in Seminole and Kay Taylor's daughter. Hartland, who said the disease touches her deeply, is sponsoring Thursday's seminar.

Pfeiffer's center focuses on taking care of the caregiver, as well as those suffering from the disease.

"Caregivers are the lifeline to the patient with Alzheimer's disease, so it is important that we take good care of them, as well,'' he said.

"There is a tremendous need for information on how to be a caregiver without going down the tubes themselves.''

Pfeiffer said his center offers caregivers information about the disease and about the treatments that can minimize the disruption it causes.

Treatments can help improve memory, "delay the loss of self care capacity and delay nursing home treatment,'' he said.

Pfeiffer's seminars also will offer information about how to protect financial assets and how to make the legal arrangements before a person becomes incapacitated.

"As more people are living to the advanced ages now, we have a veritable epidemic of Alzheimer's coming our way."

Fast facts

The signs

Seven warning signs of Alzheimer's disease

1. Asking the same question over and over again.

2. Repeating the same story, word for word, again and again.

3. Forgetting how to cook, or how to make repairs, or how to play cards; activities that were previously done with ease and regularity.

4. Losing the ability to pay bills or balance the checkbook.

5. Getting lost in familiar surroundings, or misplacing household objects.

6. Neglecting to bathe, or wearing the same clothes over and over again, while insisting that they have taken a bath or that their clothes are still clean.

7. Relying on someone else, such as a spouse, to make decisions or answer questions they previously would have handled themselves.

Source: Dr. Eric Pfeiffer, University of South Florida Suncoast Alzheimer's and Gerontology Center.

Where to get help

For help and testing:

Call the University of South Florida Suncoast Alzheimer's and Gerontology Center, 1- 800-633-4563.

If you go

Alzheimer's seminar

What: Seminar on "How to recognize the difference between normal age-based memory loss and Alzheimer's disease.''

When: 3:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive, Largo.

Details: Call (727) 828-1861 for reservations and information.