Family copes with Alzheimer’s disease

Rockford family describes their experiences with Alzheimer’s and the disease’s progression

Editor’s note: The following article is the first in a series of articles about James and Josephine Reiland, and their family’s experience with James Reiland’s Alzheimer’s disease.

James Reiland met Josephine LaMarca at Illinois Central railroad station in 1943.

Reiland, a handsome young man with dark hair and dark eyes, was part of the first generation of his family born in the United States. His father was from Germany, and James is a solid mix of German, Irish and English.

LaMarca was a slender young woman with dark hair and dark eyes, and appeared the traditional Italian beauty. She, too, was part of the first generation of her family born in the United States.

The two wed June 17, 1944, and later raised three daughters—Mary (Hilton), Linda (Olivotti) and Debi (Giesler)—and helped raise two nieces in their home in Rockford. James and Josephine now have five grandchildren.

Today, James Reiland, 84, a resident of River Bluff Nursing Home, is one of an estimated 4.5 million Americans suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease “gradually destroys a person’s memory and ability to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate and carry out daily activities.” There currently is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and there is no known single cause for the disease. Scientists believe age, family history, genetics, head injuries, overall brain health, and heart and head conditions play important roles in the development of the disease.

According to the most recent Vital Statistics Report for Illinois from 2001, Alzheimer’s disease ranks No. 9 in the state among leading causes of death, claiming 2,161 lives that year. The majority of those deaths—1,257—were age 85 and older, 872 age 65-84, 31 age 45-64 and one age 25-44. In that same year, the disease claimed the lives of 59 individuals in Winnebago County, 48 of those from Rockford.

James and Joephine’s oldest daughter, Mary Hilton of Rockford, said of the disease: “With Alzheimer’s patients, it is no longer the person that you love. It’s a different person now. And that’s a hard thing to realize—that this is not the person you’ve had all these years. You can say things all you want, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to understand it or that it’s even going to penetrate. One time, you tell them they can’t do something, the next minute, it’s forgotten. And then maybe two days later they might remember it.

“The person that they were before, that’s no longer that person anymore,” Hilton continued. “And it’s really hard to remember that. My mom has a lot of trouble with that, too, because she did so much care. And she’ll say, ‘Dad, won’t you eat for me?’ Well, no, he’s not going to.”

James and Josephine have lived in Rockford most of their lives. James was born and raised in nearby Stockton, where he helped his father with different jobs, including helping to clear yards and remove mutilated bodies from the railroad tracks. After he was married, he worked as many as three jobs at a time, including a job at a doctor’s office, a shop position at Barber-Colman and a position at a company called Eclipse. He retired from Warner-Lambert in 1983 at age 62 after about 15 years in the shop.

Josephine explained the first time she met James when he worked at the Illinois Central railroad station as a ticket clerk: “I went to the ticket office at the railroad. I went to buy a ticket to go see my brother. He was in the bomb disposal at the Aberdeen Proving Ground [in Maryland]. I bought my ticket from [James]. And my girlfriend was with me. So I was getting my ticket, and he waited on us. And he said, ‘Got a boyfriend?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and my girlfriend kicked me on the leg, and I went ‘ouch,’ and then he knew I was lying. And I couldn’t help, I guess I gave it away. And he says, ‘Did it hurt?’ And I says, ‘Yes.’

“So he sold us a ticket, and my girlfriend and I took off and we went to the Aberdeen Proving Ground,” Josephine continued. “And we stayed there two weeks. And after the time was over, he called the station in Chicago and had me paged. But we didn’t answer because we decided to stay an extra week. So finally when we got home, my mother says to me, ‘I don’t know who it is, but there’s this guy from the ticket office at the railroad station that keeps calling for you.’ I says, ‘Oh, really.’ And she says, ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘maybe you should call him up.’ I says, ‘No, he’ll call if he wants to.’ So he kept calling me, he asked me to go out, and we went out.

“Then, the USO guys used to be here, and they used to have dances all the time,” Josephine said. “So I used to go. And we used to go with a bunch of girls and everybody. Every night there was a dance, and everybody went. And I used to go. And I had my brother-in-law’s brother, who was older, he said, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself going to the dance, you’re going out with Jim.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m dancing and I’m having a good time.’ And he never stopped, and that went on.

“Well, we were going together then,” Josephine continued. “And come Christmas, he comes over and he has this box of candy that was wrapped up. So he hands it to me and says, ‘Here, I got a box of candy for you.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Oh, candy for Christmas? Oh boy, this is a good one.’ So I said, ‘Oh, thank you, we’ll enjoy this.’

“So my mother was sitting there and my sister, just sitting around,” Josephine said. “So I opened the box of candy, and the first layer I passed it around, and everybody took a piece of candy, and then I said, ‘OK, I’ll take the top off. If you want another piece, you guys can have it.’ So when I took the first sheet of paper off, the top on the second layer, well here’s this box in the center of the candy. And he had put the ring in that box in the center of the candy. So I really felt like something then.”

James Reiland was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2003. James and Josephine have lived in their Rockford home near the intersection of Rockton and Halsted since purchasing the property for about $20,000 in 1962. They know almost everyone in their middle-class neighborhood. James enjoyed walking the neighborhood and talking with neighbors. However, shortly before his diagnosis, his family began to notice a change in his behavior.

“He’d go for a walk and go and sit in somebody else’s house,” Josephine said.

Hilton added: “Certain things would happen. He got mad at us one night and took off. We didn’t know he took off. We didn’t know he left the house. And here he went over to the fire station. I was trying to get him to go in the car, and we stopped at the fire station, and they thought we were abusing him, because he sounded like he made sense. But shortly after that is when we started realizing that this was happening because he had never done anything like that before.

“But we didn’t realize then, either; we just thought he was saying these things because he wanted to,” Hilton said. “But we didn’t realize then, that that was part of the Alzheimer’s. And he couldn’t take the current medication then because of his ulcers and stomach problems. So the new ones came out a year ago this month, so it was about January 2004 when that new medication came out. And he went to a geriatric psychologist. And it worked really good for a couple of months. It was like we had him back somewhat. And then, after a few months…”

Josephine and Hilton, neither of whom appears taller than 5-feet, 4 inches, cared for James in the Reiland home 24 hours a day, seven days a week. James was not the first in his family to suffer from Alzheimer’s. His father had had the disease, and a short time before James was diagnosed, his sister was also afflicted with the disease.

“His sister had Alzheimer’s,” Josephine Reiland said. “She gave up before she got ill. Thanksgiving Day, she ate a complete, full meal, and from th

at day on, she wouldn’t eat, she wouldn’t drink or anything. She was just going to give up because she knew.”

James’ sister passed away a couple weeks after Thanksgiving, shortly before Christmas.

“We feel that my dad was also like that…this whole family is like that—they don’t want to go on life support,” Hilton said. “There were times that he would want to go up on Riverside because he knew the trucks would be there. He didn’t say he wanted to commit suicide or anything, but that’s the impression we got.

“Mom and I had to leave him alone, because he got so mad at us,” Hilton continued. “So we called my son and his wife and my aunt, and they stopped him from going up there. We couldn’t stop him, so they stopped him and talked to him and talked to him, and he finally came home. But near the end, he was starting to get that way.”

Hilton said the first medications didn’t really work for her father. James Reiland had suffered from ulcers and stomach problems—along with diabetes and glaucoma—most of his life. That made it difficult for him to take many medications. But the first ones he took for Alzheimer’s gave him headaches.

“Those last three months were just horrible,” Hilton said. “You can’t watch him 24 hours a day like that. And yet we did it, and there were still problems. We couldn’t keep him from falling all the time. We couldn’t keep him from having accidents. Sometimes he would fight us. So she [Josephine] lost like over 30 pounds, and I was starting to have troubles because the stress was so bad. So it was like the 13th of December [2004], and he woke up and he seemed to be OK, but within seconds, all of a sudden, I heard this commotion, and my mother said to me, ‘You better get in here.’ I get in there, and he’s wanting to hit her.”

“He had wet himself, and he wouldn’t get up,” Josephine said.

Hilton said, “We had to call my brother-in-law, my son and my nephew.”

Josephine said: “And he says to them, ‘What are you doing here?’ And they said, ‘Oh, we just came to see you, Dad. We thought we’d have a cup of coffee and came to see you.’”

Hilton said: “But he was getting dressed to leave, and he was putting on his clothes backwards. He was nice to them, unlike yelling and screaming at us. And if we got near him, he would start swinging. And that was the worst that it ever got, but it was bad. So finally we had to call the paramedics because, my brother-in-law and my son and my nephew, he wasn’t listening to them. He wasn’t going to hit them, but he wasn’t listening. And he told them he was leaving, that’s all there was to it. So we called the paramedics.”

Josephine said: “And they were talking to him. They said, ‘Come on, James, get your clothes on, let’s get up and walk.’ They wanted to change him; he was all wet. They said, ‘Come on, James, let’s go for a walk down the hall and change.’ And he said, ‘No, leave me alone, leave me alone.’ So finally they said, ‘We’ve got to get some guys together.’”

Hilton said: “It took six paramedics to put him on the gurney and take him. From the minute they put him on, he was screaming, ‘You’re going to kill me,’ and that kind of stuff. And he was mad at me, saying, ‘You’re killing me! You’re killing me!’ Get him to the hospital and the nurse is with him. He was fine with the nurses, and he was so happy. But he listened to them and said, ‘I have to go.’ Within a couple of days, the nurse came out from River Bluff. We had family before at River Bluff, and we liked the way they had taken care of her, because my one aunt was difficult. They handled her really well. We liked the fact that it’s bright, cheery. The people seemed happy. Yeah, there’s going to be accidents and stuff like that, but that happens everywhere.

“He’s been happy there,” Hilton said of her father’s stay in River Bluff. “He’s been really happy there. Every once in a great while, he wants to leave, but it’s not because he wants to come home or anything like that. He never asks that.”

From the Dec. 21-27, 2005, issue

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