Alzheimer's caregiver finds community support (video)

Elena Watts By Elena Watts

Oct. 3, 2013 at 5:03 a.m.

Mary Ann Zepeda, of Victoria, looks through old photo albums with her husband, Ernest, at their home in Victoria.

Mary Ann Zepeda, of Victoria, looks through old photo albums with her husband, Ernest, at their home in Victoria.

Mary Ann Zepeda's knees buckled the first time she heard Ernest Zepeda sing "I Love You for Sentimental Reasons," at Club Westerner in Victoria.

More than 50 years later, the mention of the same song overwhelms Zepeda, 72, for different reasons.

Her husband, Ernest Zepeda, 78, believes he married his Falfurrias High School sweetheart, Hermila, and that he played that special song at her casket when she died.

"That's when my crying spells started," said his wife. "I couldn't take it."

Vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease have robbed Ernest Zepeda of reality and Zepeda of her husband.

"He's lost so much of himself," she said. "He's not the man I married."

The Zepedas' 51-year marriage produced four children and five grandchildren.

However, Ernest Zepeda believes his wife doctored the wedding day images that fill their photo albums.

"I fell in love with his personality, his wit, his looks and his talent," she said. "Everyone loved him. He made them laugh."

Ernest Zepeda served four years in the U.S. Air Force before he spent 37 years as a clerk with the railroad.

Yet, he was at his best in his spare time.

He entertained fans from the 1960s to the 1980s off and on with his band, Ernest and the Continentals.

He crooned old standards, sipped brandy, and played piano, guitar, saxophone and clarinet at the Hunt Club and the Continental Room, both located inside motels on the Houston Highway.

The band also played private parties at Club Westerner, the Victoria Country Club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Port Lavaca.

"He was one hell of a musician," said Jack Torres, 69, longtime drummer for the band. "He had a terrific voice, like Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones with a little Sinatra."

The last time Torres and members of the band played with Ernest Zepeda was about a year ago. They recorded a few jam sessions for their children and grandchildren.

"We noticed he was going down fast," Torres said. "He was reading the music, and his voice trembled."

Ernest Zepeda still picks at the piano but does not sing anymore.

Torres described him as a church-going family man with a pleasant personality.

An angiogram following a heart attack in 1995 caused Ernest Zepeda to have a stroke.

He recovered from both episodes and enjoyed nearly 20 healthy years before the first signs of vascular dementia, caused by the stroke, appeared.

Four years ago, he began leaving water running from faucets around the house. Nightmares filled with snakes began to dominate his sleep. He woke spewing accusations of infidelity at his wife after vivid dreams.

"He has accused me of so much," she said. "It hurts."

One evening, the couple watched television until he confused his wife with an imagined man who was pursuing her.

He grabbed a rolling pin from the kitchen and a belt, hit the armrest of the couch, and confronted the imagined admirer who was his wife: "Look buddy, you need to leave - leave now."

Zepeda acted like she was not scared.

"I said a prayer and asked the Lord to please take care of me," she said.

The dreamtime snakes progressed to delusions of snakes crawling on light fixtures and ceiling fans. Barefoot, he ran outside one night with a flashlight to find the man with a painted red face crouching near their fence.

The family installed a home alarm system to monitor his activity during the wee hours of the night and morning.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's disease include wandering and forgetting how to communicate, which can lead to confusion, embarrassment and panic, said Stephanie Niles, owner of Home Instead Senior Care.

Home Instead teaches redirection techniques for caregivers.

"You can't argue," Niles said. "You apologize, take the blame and change the subject."

Last year, Mary Ann Zepeda quit her longtime ministries to care for her husband. She was a lay minister and coordinator of holy communion for shut-ins at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church.

"There is not a typical day," she said.

She attends support group meetings for families of Alzheimer's patients at Homewood Residence.

"They are loving family members who think they are doing their job," said Diane Galarza with Homewood Residence. "They don't realize they are caregivers who can find relief and support in these groups."

Zepeda's daughter hired Home Instead Senior Care to relieve her mother two hours twice a week so she can attend church services and run errands.

A home health nurse from Citizens Medical Center visits once each week to check Ernest Zepeda's condition.

"God took away two ministries to give me this one," Mary Ann Zepeda said. "I just hope I can take care of him."



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