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A helping hand: Merryvale showing documentary on dementia

As a young woman, Carolyn Davis built a career as an accomplished musician. She played violin for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, performed organ recitals and taught private organ lessons.

Davis is now 84 and suffers from dementia due to a stroke. She resides in Merryvale Assisted Living center in Oxford, and her daughter, Jerri Johnson of Covington, visits her several times each week.

"I will catch her every now and again, her eyes are closed and her fingers are moving (across the pad that sits on her lap). That's a very lifelong and deep-seated interest that is still there," Johnson said of her mother's passion for music.

Merryvale houses 15 other residents in its memory support unit, many of them suffering from various types of dementia, including that caused by Alzheimer's disease. In the coming weeks, Merryvale staff will reach out to the community and educate them about Alzheimer's, along with other types of dementia, by screening the recently produced HBO documentary, "The Alzheimer's Project." The three-part showing, which takes place at Merryvale at 7 p.m. Aug. 27, Sept. 10 and 17, is free and open to the public.

Merryvale Executive Director and registered nurse Gena McLendon said the documentary is relevant to families with loved ones suffering from a wide range of memory problems, whether due to Alzheimer's, stroke, head injury or some other type of brain deterioration. Families don't have to be considering Merryvale to attend the film series, she said.

"I get calls every week from people with limited incomes. They're in a crisis. They say 'I don't know where to begin,'" McClendon said. "We have a commitment ethically to steer them in the direction of resources. Obviously we want to run a profitable business, but the bottom line is we want to steer people towards resources. It's a public education offering."

The first in the film series is "The Memory Loss Tapes," to be shown Aug. 27, a 90-minute exploration into the lives of seven people living with Alzheimer's. The film illustrates how people struggle to cope as the disease pushes them further into dementia.

"Grandpa, Do You Know Who I am? with Maria Shriver," set for Sept. 10, is designed to help the children and grandchildren of those suffering from Alzheimer's understand what is happening during the gradual decline of their loved one's mental abilities.

The final part, "Caregivers," scheduled for Sept. 17, presents profiles of five different families of Alzheimer's patients and explores the families' struggles, sacrifices and successes.

Following each film, McLendon and a geriatric nurse will be on hand to present follow-up information and answer questions. McLendon said the miniseries, released during the last few months, came recommended to them to by a geriatric nurse practitioner they had been consulting with as they expanded their facility.

Merryvale houses 16 in its memory support unit and 32 in assisted living, but a new addition to the facility will allow 58 in assisted living. The goal, said McLendon, is to eventually have Merryvale house one-third of its residents in the memory unit and two-thirds in assisted living.

Merryvale began expanding to include the memory unit in 2005 when some residents who had lived there for several years developed dementia and required more secure housing. The facility's small intimate setting and practice of keeping seven or eight residents in "neighborhoods" lent itself to serving dementia patients, said McLendon.

McLendon said dementia, and Alzheimer's specifically, is an "incredibly complex issue" that leads caregivers to feel a range of emotions from guilt to grief and forces them to wade through complicated and stressful financial issues.

Johnson said fortunately her late father had procured a financial plan that provides care for her mother. Still, watching her mother's condition deteriorate has been a "rollercoaster," said Johnson. Her mother suffers from multi-infarct dementia, which is caused by a series of small strokes.

"Dementia is cruel. It leaves you with a familiar body and face and just a complete stranger in there. You keep expecting your mother to smile and say 'Hi honey' and you don't get it," said Johnson.

"You kind of look around the room and see all the people there who at one time had been the head of a family, vibrant and robust, and you think 'Gosh, it's all been taken away and stripped away.'"

Johnson said that at first she struggled with the acceptance of her mother's condition but with the support of her husband, who also has a parent living with Alzheimer's, she's made it through.

"You keep expecting the old person and you realize it's not going to happen," said Johnson. "The transition period is a little bumpy, but once your expectations are realistic, it's easier for everybody."

To register to view "The Alzheimer's Project" film series at Merryvale, call 770-786-4688 by Aug. 25.

Contact Karen Rohr at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.

SideBar: If You Go

· What: Screening of a three-part HBO documentary on Alzheimer's disease

· When: 7 p.m. Aug. 27, Sept. 10, 17

· Where: Merryvale Assisted Living Center, 11980 Ga. Highway 142 N., Oxford

· Cost: Free; open to the public

· To register: Call 770-786-4688

· On the Web: www.hbo.com/alzheimers