Fort Mill Times

For this Fort Mill early-onset Alzheimer’s patient, creative engagement and a daily schedule is key

Rita Alley, a Fort Mill woman who has early-onset Alzheimer’s, dances at The Ivey, a non-profit facility in Charlotte’s South Park area.
Rita Alley, a Fort Mill woman who has early-onset Alzheimer’s, dances at The Ivey, a non-profit facility in Charlotte’s South Park area.

Rita Alley follows a strict daily schedule.

She eats breakfast, enjoys exercising, has lunch, listens to music and spends time walking and reading.

Alley’s schedule is nearly identical each day. That’s because she has early-onset Alzheimer’s, and a predictable schedule keeps her from becoming confused.

At just 59 years old, Alley, of Fort Mill, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011. Her now quiet demeanor and slow walk represents the change she has undergone since the start of her symptoms, her daughter Amanda Dingess said.

Dingess and her brother Chris Dingess, along with his wife Crystal, are Alley’s primary caregivers. Alley splits her time between her son’s home in Fort Mill and her daughter’s home in Rock Hill.

During the day, Alley stays at The Ivey Memory Wellness Center in Charlotte’s South Park area. It’s a nonprofit center that provides daytime care for people living with Alzheimer’s and related dementias.

Before her diagnosis, Alley was outgoing and lighthearted, Dingess said.

“She has always been very friendly,” she said.

Chris said his mother has always loved talking to people.

“She’s one of those people that never knew a stranger,” he said.

Alley, the youngest of 10 children, was born on a two-acre farm in Hode, Ky., according to a biography written by Amanda Dingess. Surrounded by her siblings in a three-bedroom house her father built, their favorite past time was pulling pranks on one another.

Alley attended a one classroom elementary school and graduated from Warfield High School in 1970. After attending Mayo Technical College for computer programming, she dropped out and moved home before finishing school.

She had Chris in June 1981 in Florida and moved back to Kentucky a few years later to take care of her parents; her mother had Alzheimer’s and her father had cancer. They both passed away in 1984. Alley stayed in their house to raise her family and had Amanda in 1986.

Alley married Luke Alley, who she met in 1988, in March of 1991. The two had always lived close to each other and both graduated from Warfield, according to the biography.

Dingess said it has always been easy for her mother to date.

“It was easy for mom to attract a man because she has always been beautiful, inside and out,” she said in the biography.

As a stay at home mom, Alley always kept a clean, organized house and took her children to church, Dingess said.

“She was always positive and happy,” she said.

Alley was also a nurturer, and took care of Luke after he hurt himself working for a local water company in Kentucky and was put on disability.

“She was very selfless,” Dingess said. “She took care of everyone in the household who needed any type of medical or emotional attention.”

With money tight, Alley had to be creative and taught her children the value of a dollar, Dingess said. She said her mother has always been independent and stood for her beliefs.

After Luke passed away in 2003 of a heart attack, Dingess said her mother didn’t go out as much, but was still social and joined a women’s church group.

Dingess started to notice her mother was becoming less social a few years after Luke’s passing when she moved out of the house, she said. Alley was starting to become unorganized and forgetful.

“It was unlike her,” Dingess said. “She lost all drive in life.”

Amanda said she remembers a time when her mother, who had come to visit her house many times, got lost on the way.

“We didn’t understand the depth of what was going on at that time,” she said. “It was very devastating.”

Dingess said they eventually had to take her mother’s keys.

“Mom has always been independent, something she’s taught me my whole life,” she said. “It was like we were taking her independence.”

Since 2011, Alley’s condition has continued to deteriorate. Basic functions like showering, eating and getting dressed are hard for her, Dingess said.

However, Dingess said her mother still recognizes her family.

“I thank God for that every day,” she said.

“She has still kept her graceful, gentle way and positive attitude and good sense of humor even throughout this disease taking over her mind and body.”

A nursing assistant helps Alley get ready in the morning and she spends her days at The Ivey, where she is surrounded by those with similar conditions, Dingess said.

“I feel better knowing she’s not alone,” she said. “Every time I pick her up, she’s happy. I love that.”

Dingess said Alley faces knowing what she can and can’t do at times.

“We take that for granted,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine being in that state of mind and not having freedom or independence.”

At The Ivey, Alley follows a similar schedule each day.

At 9:30 am, she eats breakfast prepared by an executive chef, said Janet LeClair, chief operating officer at The Ivey. She said the Ivey views meals as another opportunity for socialization.

LeClair said one of the biggest effects of diseases like Alzheimer’s is losing one’s social network. The Ivey works to build one for members.

Chris said the Ivey’s dedication to socialization has been rewarding for Alley.

“Everyone needs friends in their life and she gets to do that,” he said. “She’s always happiest when we pick her up from there.”

From 10 to 11 a.m., Alley participates in an activity or exercise, such as yoga, or other rehabilitation services that are important for those with cognitive diseases, LeClair said.

“Exercise is huge,” she said.

Alley is served a hearty lunch at noon and enjoys games and musical entertainment at 1:30.

Dingess said her mother loves to dance, play corn hole and listen to music.

“She’s very much alive today,” she said.

The Ivey is designed to be easily navigated by members, and Alley likes to walk everywhere, LeClair said. Leisure time for reading and other activities is also included. She said the Ivey treats their clients as members at a club and named the center in a way to invoke the atmosphere.

“They feel like it’s a home,” LeClair said. “It gives them a sense of pride, respect and self-worth.”

The Ivey provides a number of services to members, including spa treatments, health screenings, health monitoring, creative engagement, social and mental activities and support groups, LeClair said.

“As long as families can hang in, we want to be there to support them throughout the whole journey,” she said. “It takes so much of the burden off the family.”

Though Alley is doing well, Dingess said her mother has had difficulty using utensils when eating.

“It’s been a struggle lately,” she said.

That too is something the Ivey can help address, LeClair said.

Chris said his mother enjoys her time at Ivey.

“To mom, this is like a country club,” he said. “It’s such an incredible place. It is so far beyond what you think of when you think about adult day care.”

Chris said his family will eventually move Alley to a full time facility. They are considering the newly-built Wellmore Tega Cay, an assisted living and retirement community that also provides Alzheimer’s and dementia care.

“We feel very strongly about the services they offer,” he said.

For now, the Dingess family continues to work together as a family to ensure Alley has the best care, Chris said.

“It is an opportunity for us to learn how to love a little better and give back to someone who gave so much to us when we were children,” he said.

Part III of this series looks at new research and other local resources.

Want to learn more?

For more information on how The Ivy can help those afffected by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, go to theivey.com

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