STARKVILLE — Once a month, caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients throughout the Golden Triangle and beyond gather either via Zoom or in-person at Starkville Church of Christ.
The group is led by Cindy Walker, a Starkville resident who moved there about 10 years ago. She serves as facilitator of the Caregivers Support Group, which meets at 6:30 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month at the church at 613 E. Lee Blvd., Starkville.
Walker said the group focuses on giving caregivers ideas and resources on how to care for their loved one, while making sure caregivers can take care of themselves.
The group has been in existence for about 15-16 years, she said. There were similar support groups in Columbus and West Point, but they currently are not meeting, Walker said.
The group has about 25 on its mailing list, while 12-15 attend each month.
“We have several members who come over from Columbus,” Walker said. “We have some from Louisville, Sturgis and Waynesboro, who join virtually. We draw from a bigger geographical reach because of Zoom. I didn’t want to split the group up into an in-person and separate virtual group. We’ve grown too close. We’re one family.”
One instance in which she saw the group’s impact was when the wife of one of the members died a few days before one of their meetings.
“I assumed he wouldn’t come,” Walker said. “He came and said, ‘I just had to be here with my people.’ He came and talked freely about his loss. It really felt like the meeting filled his need of having a safe space.”
Walker has been a trained facilitator for the support group for about 11 years. She also served as co-facilitator.
“Our membership ebbs and flows,” Walker said. “People come in and once their journey with Alzheimer’s is finished they bow out, but some stay on. Our group just added three new members last month. Our members range from people just starting their journey and those toward the end.”
The group receives materials and support from the Alzheimer’s Association. According to their website, the nonprofit accelerates global research, drives risk reduction and early detection, and maximizes quality care and support.
The group typically spends one month exploring informational material and the next month sharing each other’s experiences, Walker said. Education programs range from the latest Alzheimer’s research, to financial planning to long-term care options.
“What we try to focus on is that even in this difficult journey, there are moments of joy,” Walker said. “We try to help each other recognize those moments, like a loved one saying something they hadn’t in a while or something they hadn’t shared in a while. This is such a difficult journey. (The group) is a safe place where caregivers can express their feelings without judgment.”
Walker is a retired registered nurse who was in administrative roles most of her career. When the COVID pandemic hit, she was thinking about deactivating her license, but reactivated it to help out a Starkville assisted living facility where her mother, Jewel Jacobs, is a resident.
“(The staff) was so overwhelmed,” Walker said. “Because of HIPAA laws, I had to actually be an employee to help rather than a volunteer. So I worked a bit when I thought I was retired. It was a devastating time but the staff pulled together to get through that. It was a special time with those residents.”
According to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, 35.6 million people are living with dementia worldwide. Alzheimer’s Association Mississippi Chapter notes that there are currently 55,000 Mississippians and 207,000 caregivers who have been affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
Walker noted that there is a desperate need for adult day care for memory-impaired individuals in the Golden Triangle. “It’s unfortunate.”
Walker said her journey with Alzheimer’s started about 20 years ago, when her mother-in-law was diagnosed with dementia.
“I was still working full-time, so we moved her to an assisted living near us in Atlanta,” Walker said. “About the time she passed away, my mother was diagnosed.”
Walker said she serves as a facilitator to help others navigate their journey with Alzheimer’s.
“Over the years, I think of what I did wrong and what I had to learn,” she said. “It’s a tough, tough journey, especially tough when you’re by yourself. I get as much from (the members) as I give to them. We become a family of sorts. Until you’re walking that journey, it is hard to understand the challenges caregivers face.
“Being a facilitator was a volunteer activity that just became a regular activity,” she said.
Walker encourages people who want to join the group to contact her.
“Sometimes they feel more comfortable attending when they know what to expect,” she said.
Walker can be contacted via phone at (662) 498-0025 or via email at email@example.com.