Alzheimer's: A Disease of Our Time, Part 3

The detrimental effects of Alzheimer's plague not only the sufferers but their loved ones as well. In part three of a special three-part "Eye on America" series, CBS News Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports that the burden for caring for the victim can be as painful as the disease.


When Don Miller was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease it changed the whole family dynamic.


No longer the confident head of a household, Miller had to give up working, driving, and his independence in the prime of his life.


He says the disease is "a very big burden" in the life of his family, adding that it was "obviously nothing we would have anticipated after we got married or after our careers...but Alzheimer's changes everything...right down to the last nickel it changes things."


It especially changed things for his wife Sue, whose role went from career-maker to caretaker overnight.


"My whole life is just sort of turned upside down," she says. "I feel like I'm leading two people's lives. In fact, I feel like I'm leading his life first and when there's a piece left over I have my life."


At his weekly support group, Don Miller acknowledges the stress his wife is under: "Both the Alzheimer's patient is a victim...and the caretaker is a victim...and they are literally locked together."


Sue Miller cooks for her husband, oversees his medication and drives him everywhere he needs to go. The constant strain of caring for him takes its toll.


"Sometimes I think, 'Oh my God, I wouldn't want to have Alzheimer's.' But he gets the better life. He gets to be taken care of and driven around and plans made and I become very resentful," she admits.


They are common sentiments of the Alzheimer's caregiver whose adult partner is slowly reduced to a child just at the time when the couple should be enjoying their golden years.


And the illness can drag on and on. A person with Alzheimer's can live anywhere from 8 to 20 years after diagnosis.


The Millers try to enjoy life one day at a time, a philosophy shared by Bob Becker who is caring for his wife Ruth, also an Alzheimer's sufferer.


"I know this sounds funny, but we really have a lot of fun together. We really do," says Bob Becker.


The Beckers have been married 47 years and have three sons.


Bob Becker chooses to cherish what's left rather than mourning what's lost: "Does it hurt? Yes. Do I sleep well? Not often. But I just feel there's no alternative. I can torture myself about that or I can deal with it and for me the best thing is to deal with it."


According to Alzheimer's experts like Dr. Leon Thal at the University of California San Diego, in the absence of an immediate cure, love and security are the best medicine.


"Don't make children out of them," advises Thal. "Don't belittle them. Allow them to live the full capacity of their cognitive abilities."


For Don Miller that means spending as much time as possible with his new granddaughter Maddie. For Ruth Becker, it meas staying physically active and laughing through the fog of her days.


For the millions of lives Alzheimer's disease has affected, there are simply few other options.



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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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