Families learn to cope with the struggles of dementia

CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) - The chances of developing dementia are dropping for people with at least a high school education, according to new research. But experts warn that with the aging of baby boomers, dementia is becoming a much bigger problem. One of the dangers involves elderly parents wandering from their homes. 

FOX 32’s Larry Yellen has a look at how a west suburban family is coping with that problem, and what the experts have to say.

“I just don't want my dad's legacy to be the dementia,” said Jan Noel.

Noel's parents, Don and Jeanette Warren, made headlines three weeks ago when they disappeared. The Wood Dale couple left on a Tuesday morning for a doctor’s appointment, and they were found  a day and a half later, 23 miles away in Deerfield.

Along the way, security cameras caught them at a gas station in Cary. They were also spotted at a Dunkin Donuts in Chicago.

“This wasn't the first time. I knew before this time that he shouldn't be driving. And our whole family did,” said son Dan Warren.

It seems to be happening more and more often. Three days after the Warrens disappeared, Aurora police issued an alert for another elderly couple, Marilyn and George Spieler, who were found safe in Indiana the following day.

“Fortunately, we've had a pretty mild winter. The horrible scenarios are when mom and dad wander off into below-zero weather and freeze to death,” said law expert Kerry Peck.

Ten days after the Spieler case, 83-year-old Olga Villareal, who suffered from dementia, wandered from her Northbrook home. She was found dead the next day.

Peck says there are usually warning signs before such incidents, but more and more often, nobody's  around to notice.

“The problem is in the mobile world we live in, when the adult children don't live in the Chicagoland area, they don't see their parents often enough to be able to gage those subtle changes,” Peck said.

Those subtle changes, Peck says, might include failure to pay bills, memory issues, repeating conversations, hoarding, and trouble driving. The Warren children say their mom suffered from serious dementia for several years, but with dad, the warning signs had just begun.

“He was always sharp as a tack. He was always on top of everything, the bills. The bills weren't getting paid. He was asking now, multiple questions like my mother,” Warren said.

People exhibiting early signs of dementia will sometimes see it themselves, and recognize they need help.

Gerontologist Fidel Castillo of UI Health says some even willingly give up the car keys.

“I have a couple of cases that even the seniors, they tell me I think that this is the time for me to give up this, because I don't feel safe behind the wheel. And I don’t' want to cause an accident,” Dr. Fidel said.

The Warren children, however, were reluctant to strip their dad of his independence. They like to remember him as the  strong leader who founded the nationally-recognized Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps of Rosemont. They don't want his legacy defined by the 36 hours that he and their mother went missing.

“Thank God that they were found safe, because I can't imagine the other alternative,” Noel said.

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