This is the first story in an occasional series about the impact Alzheimer’s disease and dementia have on families in the Region.

It seems like yesterday when Mary Ann Spitale, of Hammond, was making sure her children and husband came home to a “wonderful loving meal.” Today, her youngest son, Rich, and his two brothers, Dan and Ron, and sister Connie can only recall those memories as their 90-year-old mother's battles dementia.

"It's really a horrible disease," Rich Spitale said. "I pray to God I never get dementia. It's so devastating, and my mother asks why she's still here and it just breaks my heart." 

Spitale and his brothers have been caring for their mother since 2008 when she was first diagnosed. They alternated shifts until their mother needed extra around-the-clock medical attention and were forced to seek help with caregiving.

Carol Hambrick, of Merrillville, found herself in a similar situation when her husband of 42 years, Van, showed early signs of Alzheimer’s years ago.

"It's been an ongoing grieving process," Hambrick said. "My daughter and I visit him often, but he really has no idea who we are. He loves us because he sees us and knows we care about him, but doesn't see us the way a husband and a father would."

Van Hambrick was a prominent School City of Gary principal and attained a master’s degree in education, so he was no stranger to challenging his mind in regards to his love for education.

"I knew something was wrong when we went to New York for a conference and he struggled with learning simple concepts that he would otherwise master," Carol said. "It was sad and frustrating to see him that way, but we were lucky because as bad as it is, he is not aggressive and angry like some. He actually mellowed as time went by and we feel very fortunate to have a lot of family and friends that are very supportive."

Both Mary Ann Spitale and Van Hambrick are residents of Journey Senior Living LLC, a residential care facility in Merrillville that specializes in dealing with those who suffer from Alzheimer's and dementia.

"There are so many misconceptions," said Blair Minton, Journey president. "I have seen people in their 40s suffer, which is really devastating because some have small children at home. Alzheimer's and dementia does not discriminate."

Van and Carol Hambrick’s daughter, Carol Cribbs, of Merrillville, visits her father regularly and is often accompanied by her 13-year-old daughter, Krista. On a recent evening visit, Carol discussed the challenges of her relationship with her father.

“It’s really not fair because I only have memories to hold on to,” Carol Cribbs said. “I really feel bad for my daughter because she never knew her grandfather because he was diagnosed when she was a baby. It’s so devastating, but she comes with me and enjoys her time with him the best she knows how to. All she has is stories.”

Cribbs said she had a “cool Dad” and her peers and her father's former students would tell her how strict he was as an administrator. She laughed because he was quite different at home and often very playful and more relaxed. Van Hambrick spent his leisure time skiing, golfing and staying active.

Cribbs gets emotional when talking about the “roller coaster” her family goes through and feels that most people don’t realize the impact Alzheimer’s and dementia have on the caregivers.

“They revert to babyhood,” Cribbs said. “He’s really no longer my father. Our roles have changed, and I realized that I am here on this earth to care for my parents just as they cared for me growing up. These are the only parents I got and I’m gonna be there no matter what.”

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