How 5 Inspiring People Give Gifts of Time
Time is the most precious commodity; these people spend it helping others.
Tending to CaregiversNancy Coleman-Zacharias
Hometown: DeSoto, Texas
Married with one daughter and two grandchildren
At first the signs were subtle. Nancy noticed that Claude, her husband of 44 years, couldn’t sign his name. He forgot certain words. Then, suddenly, his symptoms became unmistakable. He inexplicably bought two cell phones. A doting family man, he wouldn’t play with their grandson. In the spring of 1997, doctors confirmed that the 70-year-old had Alzheimer’s. “It happened so fast that it floored me,” says Nancy. “Overnight the disease took over his brain.”
Soon Claude couldn’t comb his hair or brush his teeth. Nancy became his caregiver, and she gave up her daily walks, trips to the library, and even Sunday church services to stay with him. “I felt so alone,” she says. In 1999 Nancy called the Dallas chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association (AA), a national nonprofit that finances research into the disease and provides support for families struggling with it. There Nancy found a group with whom she could share her feelings. “The others knew what was happening in my life,” says Nancy. “And they stood by me when I needed it most.”
Claude passed away in 2000, but Nancy’s dedication to AA didn’t wane. She raised funds and spoke about her experience at health fairs and nursing homes. “I’m a very private person,” she says, “but I wanted to get the word out about the way Alzheimer’s impacts a family.”
In 2002 Nancy started her own AA-sponsored support group. Every month since then, in three-hour sessions, she has met with a group of up to 30 caregivers. Over tea cakes and chicken-salad sandwiches that Nancy makes, she covers the gamut―from legal and financial issues to dealing with grief and loss. “Nothing in life prepares you for this disease,” says Sharon Everett-Washington, an attendee and a middle-school counselor, who grappled with her mother’s diagnosis. “Nancy took my hand and was with me every step.” In another group, Nancy befriended Paul Zacharias, who was coping with his wife’s Alzheimer’s (she later died in 2006). Their caretaking experiences bonded them, and they married in 2008 (the two are shown here).
Nancy’s energies remain focused on AA. When AA advertises the group in local newspapers, Nancy insists that her home phone number and e-mail address be included so people can reach her directly. Many days she is on the phone for hours, offering an ear as total strangers pour their hearts out.
“Some days I’m so emotionally drained, I have to go to bed,” says Nancy. “But I keep doing it because caregivers need to be heard and understood. As long as I am physically able, that is what I will do.”
Next: Helping Women in Need
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