It wasn’t long ago that Joan Eisenschenk’s life was clouded with anger and resentment. The cause of the negative outlook stemmed from the fact that her mom, Fran, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Since the noticeable onset of the disease, Joan has been on a sometimes-rocky journey to find peace as her mom’s sole caregiver. 

“I was incredibly angry for a long time,” Joan says as she thinks back to the beginning of this new phase of her life. “I look back on it and I just cannot believe how different things are now.”

The initial journey for Joan began two years ago, but her mom’s symptoms likely started long before that. 

“It’s hard to know when it began,” Joan said of Alzheimer’s. “People with it tend to notice the symptoms themselves and will hide them from others. I think my dad noticed before he passed away, but Mom got very defensive. They argued a lot toward the end of his life and I think that’s why. He noticed and she was in denial.” 

The symptoms became harder and harder to hide. At first, Joan and her family began seeing Post-It notes hanging all over at their Mom’s house. She would be misplacing things and forgetting where they were and believed that someone stole them. On the notes, she wrote things like ‘To whomever took my black jacket, please bring it back.’ The next red flag came when Joan and her siblings noticed that their mom had been spending thousands of dollars and they didn’t know where the money was going.  

“It was after Dad had passed away and we figured out that she was sending money in response to junk mail. After some pushback from her, we finally convinced Mom to move into assisted living,” Joan said. 

As she sorted through the house, Joan found countless plastic grocery bags filled with opened junk mail. Each bag had notes written by her mom about her intentions with the letters. Most had money in them.

“I sorted through every envelope and found many checks and cash that she intended to send to complete strangers and fake organizations,” said Joan. 

In an effort to keep the activity from being detected, Joan’s mom had hidden all of the bags of mail under couch cushions, behind coats in closets and under beds. 

Then, Fran was hospitalized for declining health.

“We realized that she had hidden everything so well, that she was in need of more than what assisted living could offer,” Joan explained. “When my husband and I went to see her in North Dakota after she got out of the hospital, she had lost 15 pounds, was slumped over and had dark circles under her eyes.” 

It was Christmas Eve and Joan and her husband were planning to head back home to Minnesota, but they decided they could not leave Fran. 

“We were either going to stay or take her with us. I often say that we wrapped Mom up, brought her home for Christmas and she never left,” Joan laughed. 

But the smile on her face and the joy in her heart now is admittedly a far cry from how she was at the beginning of this journey with Alzheimer’s. 

“I had just gotten my real estate license and had only been married for about 10 months before Mom came to live with us,” said Joan. “Suddenly I found myself having to be with her nonstop and care for her constantly. I quickly became angry.”

Joan’s anger spread through her whole life, she even took up smoking cigarettes as an excuse to get outside for a break. 

“It’s amazing – you don’t realize how much you complain until you stop complaining,” she said. “I complained to my husband constantly. I was angry that my plans had been interrupted.”

The care became overwhelming as Joan cringed over all the little things her mom would do because of Alzheimer’s: filling soap dispensers up to the top with water; hiding food in her room; asking the same questions over and over again. 

While she had tremendous support from her husband and other family members, Joan realized she needed something more. 

“I knew I needed an outlet – someone to understand me and validate my frustrations,” she said. “I attended an Alzheimer’s support group in St. Cloud with a large group. I was looking forward to being able to vent and talk through my experience.” 

But by the end of the session, Joan had not gotten a chance to speak at all. She left feeling defeated and even more alone in caring for her mom. 

“I gave it another try and went to the next support group, and finally I got a chance to talk,” said Joan. “I talked for a long time about my mom and my struggle. It felt good, but then the discussion moved on to the next person. There was no validation for what I was feeling – for all I had just put out there.” 

Joan left the meeting realizing that while it was perhaps a good fit for others, it was not what she needed. She pondered the idea of starting her own support group with a different focus. 

“I began doing my own research to find something to support me in how I was feeling,” she said. 

That’s when Joan came across a guided meditation that changed her life. 

“The only thing different in my life was that I started taking time to meditate. I truly began feeling more joyful,” she said. “All those little things my mom did that used to bother me stopped bothering me. It was amazing. I was more calm, I had more patience and had more loving kindness.”

Ridding her life of anger and resentment, Joan was finally able to feel a deeper compassion for her mom. 

“She may not have her mind with her all the time, but her spirit is there and that is what I needed to nurture and honor,” Joan explained. “Now, I have a totally different opinion of what I am doing. I realize this is not a coincidence. I believe I was meant to give this care to Mom.” 

Joan has had numerous jobs in her life, but she says this one is the most important one she has ever had. 

“I love taking care of Mom now – I am so blessed to have this opportunity,” she said. 

With her strength and peace in tow, Joan is now taking the opportunity to share her transformation from anger to appreciation with other caregivers. 

Joan is leading a free support group in Albany at Mother of Mercy Nursing Home (the Fireside Room) on the second Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. until noon. The group started meeting in September – the next meeting will be Saturday, Dec. 12. 

This is different than the meetings Joan had previously attended, she explained, in that that the first hour of the gathering is devoted to discussion and releasing the pressures felt as a caregiver, family member, friend or professional caretaker of those facing Alzheimer’s. 

“The time away from our loved ones is valuable,” Joan said. “Taking care of ourselves makes us better caregivers – I have access to a lot of resources and can get people connected. Our time together as a group is about letting out those frustrations and working together to work through them for the good of our loved ones. I do not have all the answers, but we are a community that can help one another.” 

The second hour of the support group focuses on guided meditation. Joan points out that while people do not have to stay for that portion, she encourages them to try it. 

“It has been my rock,” she said.

Joan hopes to, at the very least, help make a difference for one caregiver through the support group. 

“If I can help one caregiver, that means I am helping the person they are caring for,” she said. “It made a difference in my life – I realize now that it is not about me, it’s about my mom. And she has no idea how much she has taught me through all of this.” 

As she sits in the Fireside Room at Mother of Mercy, looking out over the peaceful setting, she is encouraged by her journey. 

“My mom is doing well now because she feeds off of my energy,” she said with a smile. “Alzheimer’s is something that happened to her and it’s scary, but I am blessed to have this journey with her – thank you, Mom!”