Larry Apodaca cared for his mother, Terry, for nearly nine years as she endured the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease. With the exception of occasional visits from a nurse, he tended to his mom on his own at home because “no one could care for her like I could.”
Larry wasn’t familiar with the services of the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado when his mother passed away in 2013 but, since that time, he has become an outspoken advocate for the Association, taking the message to a largely untapped audience: Latino men caregivers.
“I wish I’d known about these services when I was caring for my mother,” said Larry. “The eye-opening piece for me is how little we know as caregivers. The education the Alzheimer’s Association provides is tremendous.”
As every caregiver knows, the act of serving as a primary source of care for a loved one is an intense experience. No one emerges unmoved or unchanged. That was certainly the case with Larry, who feels compelled to share some of his learnings with others, and he’s chosen to buck several stereotypes.
“First of all, men aren’t likely to talk about intimate details and don’t typically form the kind of relationships that women caregivers do,” he said. “We’re also less likely to ask for help – we think we should be the provider.”
In addition to the work conflicts that many caregivers face, Larry spoke to the challenge of the Latino culture.
“We tend to believe we should handle things within the family,” he said.
Those combined factors left single dad and only child Larry with the challenging solo task of caring for his mom as her condition deteriorated, leading up to her death at age 83. He eventually needed to quit his job as director of donor relations for a Denver-based organization so that he could care for her full-time in his home.
A one-man support group
Since Terry’s passing, Larry has made a commitment to share his experiences and lessons with other Latino men. Given the 50 percent higher likelihood that Latinos will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s – and the fact that women account for two-thirds of all diagnoses – he knows there are more men like him out there.
To prepare himself with more than personal stories, Larry has immersed himself in the Alzheimer’s Association’s catalog of educational programs to help him guide men facing a loved one’s diagnosis.
“The course on effective communication strategies really opened my eyes,” he said. “My main thing now is to point other men in the direction of these resources so they don’t have to go it alone.”
The other value that Larry provides – perhaps most important of all – is an ear to listen and a shoulder to lean on.
In his support group, Larry provides a forum to address some tough questions in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
You don’t know if you’re doing the right things
“It’s almost a relief to be able to talk about the guilt you feel (as a caregiver),” he said. “You don’t know if you’re doing the right things. And when you talk with others in the same situation, you realize ‘it’s not me.’ And there’s value in learning from people who are living with different stages of the disease. It’s still intimidating, but the group helps you to anticipate what’s coming.”
While Larry’s experience – and his willingness to share it – is invaluable to his support group members, he’s getting something out if it too.
“It’s rather cathartic to talk about some of the issues that I hadn’t thought about in a while,” he said. “And it’s reassuring to know I did many things right.”
Perhaps the hardest part for Larry is knowing how the story ends. Until a cure is found, there are no survivors. But he knows that active caregivers instinctively want to look for a bright side.
“As a caregiver, you always want that glimmer of hope,” he said. “You want to think ‘we’re going to beat this,’ or perhaps that there will be a cure found before it’s too late.”
Larry understands the guilt that caregivers can feel after the passing of their loved one – the guilt of feeling relieved. And, after being a full-time caregiver, he realizes that he must find a new purpose for his life. For now, Larry is focusing on helping other men just like himself.
Larry Apodaca’s caregiver support group for Latino men meets at noon on the second Wednesday of each month at Christ the King Lutheran Church, 2300 S. Patton Ct., Denver. Call 303-813-1669 for more information.
To learn more about Support Groups and others services of the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado, click here or call the Association’s 24-hour Helpline at 800-272-3900.