SPOKANE, Wash. — Jeff and Chris Weaner knew they could no longer care for Jeff's father when the Alzheimer's-afflicted man disappeared with their 3-month-old son into the mid-December cold.
"Dad had taken him outside because he said he needed some air," Chris Weaner said.
The two turned up unharmed half a mile away, but Chris Weaner said the incident led them to put her father-in-law in a 24-hour-care foster home.
The Traverse City, Mich., couple were reminded recently of the difficulty of caring for people with the memory-robbing disease when an 82-year-old Alzheimer's patient was abandoned at an Idaho dog track.
The patient, John Kingery, was identified by employees of a Portland, Ore., nursing home--320 miles away--and returned there amid an investigation into his abandonment.
After the incident, the Weaners went to Washington to join hundreds of other families and people who care for Alzheimer's victims to lobby Congress for help.
"So many care-givers are at the breaking point," said Alzheimer's Assn. spokeswoman Malia Bergland. "They're caring for someone that is as healthy, if not healthier, than they are. But they are losing their cognitive functioning."
Kingery's abandonment "may typify the extremes a lot of care-givers feel, but few go to," she added.
Alzheimer's is an incurable, untreatable disease of unknown origin that affects memory and other brain functions in 4 million Americans. It is the nation's fourth leading cause of death among adults.
"We all occasionally forget where we put our keys," Bergland said. "Alzheimer's is when you see your keys and forget what they are for, or how to use them."
Chris Weaner said the average annual cost of nursing home care for an Alzheimer's patient is $33,000. If there are other medical complications, the costs can be much higher, she said.
She also spoke of the emotional burdens on the family of an Alzheimer's victim.
"Even if they're in your home and you're there, you have to constantly watch them," she said. "At one point, I was buying diapers for my youngest son and my father-in-law."
The families asked Congress to make more money available for the round-the-clock care their loved ones often require.
"The No. 1 step is respite care," Chris Weaner said. "If we could have, we would have kept him at home and had someone come in and watch him when we were unable to."
No federal program exists to give families of Alzheimer's victims needed timeout, Bergland said.
"We truly need a program," she said. "Often, caring for Alzheimer's patients is done out of love, so it's not until they reach the breaking point that the care-givers realize they are a victim, too."