Alzheimer's strains home and family

Families caring for loved one have a full-time job

July 27, 2008|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Imre Kovacsi kept a nail through a deadbolt on a side door to his Glen Burnie home and a chain with a lock around the front door. He often padlocked a fence around the backyard. But the first line of defense was the lock on the door to his wife's room, which was reversed so she couldn't get out on her own.

He was desperate to keep Kathy Kovacsi, only 57 but suffering from advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease, from wandering out of the home.

But on July 16, she somehow managed to slip out. Sometime between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m., she apparently left through a side door with a loose latch and walked to a nearby fire station. She doubled back, passing her home and climbing into a neighbor's unlocked Jeep, where she stayed for a few hours. She then walked into the woods.

Clutching a blue blanket and one of her favorite toys from a McDonald's Happy Meal, she sat down at the base of a tree, where police found her body six days later.

"She probably just held onto that blanket and sat there and died," said her husband.

Without outside help, Imre's life in recent years revolved around tending to the round-the-clock needs of the woman who had been his sweetheart since college.

His typical day went something like this: After working a night shift as a foreman at a chemical plant, he got Kathy up and took her to the bathroom and bathed her. He made her a bowl of cereal - Froot Loops with fresh fruit - then sat her in front of a television as a VHS tape of movies or PBS programs ran on a loop. He was aided by his adult children, who live at the home.

About 5.1 million Americas have Alzheimer's disease, including an estimated 85,000 Marylanders. But Kathy Kovacsi was part of a smaller group of about a half-million people nationwide who are struck by the disease or other forms of dementia before age 65. To die of complications related to Alzheimer's at her age is still more rare - statistics show that only 2 in 100,000 of those with the disease die between ages 55 and 64.

"A young onset is a poor prognostic sign, and may result in a more rapidly progressing disease," said Dr. Paul S. Fishman, a professor of neurology and director of the Alzheimer's program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Kathy and Imre met at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1968 when he snagged two tickets for a Vanilla Fudge concert and needed a date. He asked the nice girl who sat next to him in calculus, and to his delight she said yes.

"She was extremely nice, and very smart ... I mean, quick with the words. Pull a random word out of the dictionary and she'd have a comeback for you," he said.

After juggling scholarships, grants and several part-time jobs, they were forced to drop out of school by financial issues. Their first home as a married couple was in the Irvington area of Baltimore, "and God, it was a dump," he said, laughing.

Later they moved to another fixer-upper with more property in Linthicum, but their marriage wasn't the same. Imre believes she was starting to show the signs.

"Things were starting to get a little strange, and the marriage was getting sort of strained," Imre said. "For a year or two, she really enjoyed gardening. And then it started going downhill."

She would claim to have taken out the garbage when it was still in the house and would angrily accuse Imre of bringing it back in. At one point, the friction almost led to divorce, he said.

They persevered, but the stay-at-home mother resisted going to see a doctor; Imre suspects she knew.

"I said, 'Kathy, something's wrong. You don't do this kind of stuff; you don't live like this,' " he said.

Kathy's younger sister, Margaret Leach, said she started to notice about five years ago that Kathy was losing a lot of weight, dropping several dress sizes, and couldn't stay out for long periods of time. She seemed depressed.

When the confirmation finally came two years ago that his wife had advanced Alzheimer's, Imre felt relief: at least there was an explanation for her irritability, absent-mindedness, paranoia and depression. But it was no consolation for what was to come.

Mary Kate Kovacsi, 28, said her mother wandered away from the house four or five times before she vanished two weeks ago.

Sixty percent of Alzheimer's sufferers are at risk for wandering, and those not found within the first 24 hours have a 50 percent chance of suffering serious injury or death.

"They may talk about going back to home and be referring to someplace they lived when they were 10 years old," said Teri Bennett, the help line coordinator for the Greater Maryland chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

"Even though they may be in a home they've lived in for the past 20 years, it no longer feels like home because they no longer recognize it."

Imre knew a nursing home was inevitable, but he wanted to keep Kathy at home as long as possible. "It's sort of silly nowadays, but you know what they say: sickness or health, richer or poorer," he said.

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