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The Lord is with them

Alzheimer's cannot rob Jeanie Murphy's family of their faith
by Tom Kendra | Photography by Holly Dolci
“Hail Mary, full of grace …” As Kathy Lytle begins to recite the rosary, the words cut through the fog of
Alzheimer’s disease, reaching a place deep within her mother yet untouched by the disease.
“… the Lord is with thee,” responds Jeanie Murphy. Even on her worst days, the prayer snaps Jeanie back
to a familiar place and the rest of the words just flow.
The effect is similar when Kathy or her brother Butch take their mother to 11 a.m. Mass each Sunday at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Church in Grand Haven, where they are fixtures in the back left-hand corner of the church. The consistency and familiarity of the Mass make Jeanie comfortable.
“Even in her current state, her faith is the center of her life,” says Kathy. She, her siblings and her twin sons have walked with their mother and grandmother on her journey from being a vivacious, active woman to the gradual decline brought on by the disease.
At 91, Jeanie often gets confused, wants to go home to see her parents and three sisters, worries about when her seafaring husband will be back from his latest voyage (he died in 1999) and sometimes does not recognize her children. All are typical behaviors for those experiencing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
But amid the confusion are moments of clarity – and, my, do her children and grandchildren cherish each one, because they never know which will be her last.
“There are moments where we connect and it’s so special,” says Kathy, 55, the youngest of Jeanie’s
three children. “That is one of the reasons that I come to see her almost every day, because I don’t want
to miss any of those moments.”
Jeanie, of Allen Park, Mich., has lived at the Grand Pines Assisted Living Center in Grand Haven since July of 2013. Her room is in “The Terrace,” a specialized memory care unit. Jeanie was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease about 10 years ago, and moved closer to family when she could no longer drive and her memory worsened.
Two of her adult children live nearby. Kathy lives in town and visits almost every day, often with her identical twin sons, Vinnie and Louie, 15, who are students at Muskegon Catholic Central. Butch Murphy, a member of St. Mary Parish in Spring Lake, visits his mom as often as his busy travel schedule allows. Marilyn, the oldest of Jeanie’s three children, lives in Ann Arbor and makes regular trips across the state to spend precious time with her mother.
Jeanie has lived her entire life as a quiet, but strong woman with a powerful Catholic faith, who had no problem in her younger years doing the daily,behind-the-scenes work while others got the glory.
“She was always the unsung hero,” Kathy recalls. Jeanie was a longtime member of Epiphany Parish in Detroit and St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Allen Park, and shared an amazing bond with her late husband,
Vinnie, a ship captain.
One of Kathy’s earliest memories of her parents is walking into their bedroom to say goodnight, only to find them kneeling next to their bed, holding hands and praying. They would always invite her to join them.
Those memories, along with those of her father kneeling and praying in the pilot house before each of his voyages, come flooding back to Kathy and her siblings each time they pray with their mom.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain that results in dementia. It is estimated that 1 in 10 people over age 65 and almost half (47 percent) of those over 85 suffer from Alzheimer’s.
While functions like short-term memory and judgment are devastated, studies show the centers of
emotion in the brain remain largely unaffected until late in the disease.
That emotional link makes regular visits so important – as frustrating and sad as they can be. “Sometimes
it’s hard to go see Grandma, and she’s gone downhill quite a bit from when she first came over here,” says her grandson Vinnie, a sophomore at Muskegon Catholic Central. “But I always feel better after seeing her, it’s kind of hard to explain. She has brought our whole family closer together.”
Vinnie and his twin brother Louie are a breath of fresh air at Grand Pines, where their enthusiasm and patience regularly bring a smile to their grandma – and other residents, as well.
Those are proud moments for Kathy, who can see how her faith-based response to her mother’s condition is providing valuable life lessons for the boys.
“I want her to know every day that someone cares,” says Kathy. “We love her with all our hearts. I believe that God uses these situations to make us better Christians – to be patient, to give when it doesn’t seem to matter, to love no matter what, to lay down our lives every day just as Jesus would.”
Visits with an Alzheimer’s patient can be awkward. There are many of the same questions, often followed
by stretches of silence as the visitors search for the right thing to say, something that will evoke a smile or a word from the patient.
In one of those moments, Vinnie and Louie each grab one of the stuffed animal dogs (named Gus and Sam) next to their grandma’s chair and start playfully nipping at her. Jeanie immediately breaks out in
her trademark, slow-spreading, beautiful smile. And then she starts nipping back at the dogs with her hands.
“I know I have learned patience from visiting her, that’s for sure,” says Louie. “Grandma has taught us a lot of virtues, actually. But we have fun, too.”
The boys also regularly recite poems with their grandma, notably Woodland Beach, written by Kathy’s
Aunt Shirley. When that poem starts, much like the prayers of the rosary, the old Jeanne returns and she recites it word for word.
Kathy acknowledges that slowly losing her mother has been “heartbreaking” for her and her family. And she knows she could never do it without Jesus by her side and the Catholic faith that has always bonded her family, now stronger than ever after almost three years of selfless caregiving.
“Mom’s illness has brought us together,” says Kathy, as her mother looks on, seemingly nodding her
head in agreement. “This journey has made us better people, better Catholics.”

Even for those with a strong Catholic faith, Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia can be exhausting for family members. Nancy Megley knows this, which is why she is always ready to help.
Megley is the part-time parish nurse at St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Grand Haven. She provides hands-on care and acts as a liaison between those in need and Catholic and secular organizations and support groups.
“To have someone from the Catholic Church visit weekly with the Eucharist can have a powerful effect,”
says Megley. “We have seen the benefits for the patients, but also for their caregivers.”
Megley oversees 22 ministries in her role, including many that directly affect those with dementia in the Grand Haven area.
The most well-known is the team of Eucharistic Visitors, who bring the body of Christ on a weekly basis to those confined to hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living centers or their homes. Megley also coordinates her parish’s Stephen Ministry, where Catholic volunteers go through 50 hours of training to provide ongoing Christian care to the hospitalized, terminally ill, bereaved, elderly, disabled or those
dealing with a job crisis, loneliness or other issues. As a parish nurse, Megley also connects parish members to outside community resources. With the rapidly-expanding numbers of people affected by
Alzheimer’s and dementia (estimates are that 14 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s by 2050), more
groups are being formed each year.