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Vigil to shed light on Alzheimers
Everyone at event encouraged to share their stories
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Candlelight vigil
What: Guest House event for National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and Family Caregiver Month
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: First Baptist Church, 751 Green St. NW, Gainesville
More info:

The Alzheimer's Association estimates that 5.4 million people currently suffer from the disease, with 14.9 million family members and friends providing 17 billion hours of unpaid care.

Caregiving for an Alzheimer's patient is one of the most stressful, emotionally trying jobs, often leaving a single relative responsible for assisting the victim.

In honor of National Alzheimer's Disease Awareness Month and Family Caregiver Month, The Guest House will hold a candlelight vigil service at 7 p.m. Thursday at First Baptist Church, 751 Green St. in Gainesville.

Arlene Gerwit acted as caregiver for both her parents, a job that consumed a large portion of her life. Her father, Sam Gerwit, lived with Alzheimer's for nearly 14 years.

It wasn't until he suffered a car accident that things took a turn for the worse.

"He was OK in the house because my mother took care of him. He would eat and sit on the sofa and sleep. Then he started losing bladder control," Gerwit said. "The hardest thing in my life was changing diapers."

They moved out of their split-level home, hoping their new home in Cumming would make taking care of Sam easier.

Things only got worse.

Her mother, Esther, could no longer take care of her husband alone. The weight of responsibility fell on Arlene Gerwit, who suddenly found herself unable to leave the house. Caring for both her parents became her full-time job.

"There's stress, and there's pressure. And then they stop talking," Gerwit said.

"The stress was getting unreal."

Gerwit and her mother placed Sam Gerwit in a facility and visited him every day. A year later, Esther began to develop dementia. She was placed in the same facility, where she shared a room with her husband.

Sam eventually fell into a diabetic coma and died at age 92, five years after being admitted. Esther died five months later.

"The only good thing about it to me is that the patient doesn't know what's going on," said Gerwit.

For Tracy Whitmire, acting as her father's caregiver is an ongoing emotional trial. Bruce Carlson was diagnosed with Alzheimer's four years ago. Watching her father, a former airline pilot and intellectual, slowly lose pieces of his identity was heartbreaking.

"The progression seemed slow at first, though we saw it coming years before the actual diagnosis. The last year has been the most difficult to experience," Whitmire said.

She describes the ordeal as exhausting and emotional, but she says it's the little, sweet moments that make what she does worth it.

"My dad would talk about his daughter, not knowing I was the girl he was talking about. These are the moments I am thankful for," Whitmire said.

Whitmire found The Guest House, a nonprofit adult care center, a few years ago through her work with United Way.

"When we made the decision to take on full-time caregiving, I really didn't know how difficult it was going to be. I knew he wasn't ready for a nursing home or assisted living home, but we needed help," Whitmire said.

The Guest House provided Whitmire with support, advice and most importantly, time.

"They gave me countless hugs and smiles, ‘goodnights' and ‘good mornings', they gave me days and ultimately months to be with my dad, to love him, to touch him, to be with him," Whitmire said.

The volunteers and staff at The Guest House provide stimulating activity for their clients, including arts and crafts, gardening and music. They also provide support and information to families about Alzheimer's and other age-related conditions.

Whitmire recently moved her father to an assisted living home, but continues to work with The Guest House.

"Our journey continues, and there will be more moments of sweetness and of sadness. But we are not alone. I just pray that everyone can find their way to a place like The Guest House," Whitmire said.

At Thursday's event, Whitmire will speak about her experience as a caregiver. Others are encouraged to share their stories as well.

For more information about the vigil or for Alzheimer's resources and information, visit The Guest House online: