Around the Archdiocese

Caring for the caregivers of those with dementia

Deacon lost wife to Alzheimer’s; aims to increase support

By Dan Russo
Witness Editor

DUBUQUE — For a caregiver of someone with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, the toll can be brutal. Mike Blouin, a deacon of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, knows this all too well.

“Over half of the care givers for someone with dementia die before their loved one,” he said.

On March 14, the deacon, who is currently serving at Resurrection Parish in Dubuque, lost his wife to Alzheimer’s after she struggled for eight years. In the later stages of the illness, which can appear as early as middle age and last for decades in some cases, patients need round the clock help. To add to this stress for families, the person with dementia gradually looses the memories that defined them.

“I learned that the process of giving care for people with dementia is different than care giving in other respects,” explained Deacon Blouin. “They are no longer with you.”

Despite the psychological and physical stress on caregivers, there is hope. In cases where the caregivers attend support groups and have other forms of assistance, the mortality rate for them drops significantly. Deacon Blouin is a testament to this fact.

“(My support group) saved my life more than once,” said the deacon. “They become like family to you.”

With his wife Suzanne’s illness fresh in his mind, Deacon Blouin has turned a tragic loss into a way to serve others as part of his ministry as a deacon. Although he now lives most of the year in Florida, he is back at Resurrection this summer taking the lead in expanding the support group there for caregivers of those suffering from early to mid-stage dementia. The group now meets the second Monday of every month at the parish and is open to anyone.

By the fall, Deacon Blouin hopes the group will increase its meetings to once a week. He is also working to find and train volunteers who can provide activities for the dementia patients while caregivers are meeting and also visit homes regularly to give respite to care givers on a regular basis.

“We hope to have people to give a couple of hours,” said Blouin. “We’re just getting that organized.”

The deacon explained that many people caring for those with dementia may feel alone or reluctant to ask for help, and he’s hoping to change that by having them come to groups to talk about their situations.

In his case, his wife, Suzanne, a long time member of Clarke University’s Board of Trustees, started working as pastoral administrator for St. Mary and St. Patrick Parishes in Dubuque in 2007. She was formally diagnosed in 2008 with Alzheimer’s and had to leave her job. Deacon Blouin eventually retired early to care for his wife, and the couple, who have two daughters, moved to Naples, Florida. Suzanne spent the last several years of her life in a care facility before passing away in March. A celebration of her life was held at Resurrection on April 2.

The Blouins’ story is similar to millions of families across the country. Alzheimer’s, just one form of dementia, now affects about five million people in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. One in three seniors today dies with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. Unless a cure or new treatments are developed, that figure could rise as high as 13.8 million by 2050.

Doctors are not sure what causes the brain disorder, but its progression is well documented. It starts with what appear to be simple lapses in memory — the loss of car keys maybe or the repetition of a question that has already been asked and answered, but forgotten. In the later stages, caregivers are left with a loved one who no longer seems to be themselves, and sometimes can’t remember their friends, children or spouse. In 2015, more than 15 millon caregivers in the United States provided 18.1 billion hours of unpaid care to their loved ones, according to the association.

Deacon Blouin is aiming to play a role, with other volunteers, in expanding the support network in Dubuque for these people. For more information on attending a support group or volunteering to help caregivers in some way, contact Deacon Blouin through Resurrection Parish at 563-556-7511.

Suzanne Blouin and her husband, Deacon Mike Blouin, are pictured above. Suzanne died of Alzheimer’s disease in March after an eight-year struggle. Deacon Blouin is now working to expand support for caregivers. (Contributed photo)