September 30, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

At first, her husbands forgetfulness seemed nothing more than an occasional absent-mindedness, but when he started getting confused on a camping trip, she began to worry.

He couldnt remember how some of the attachments on the trailer worked; later he began driving very slowly; then he couldnt shift gears. One night when it was dark, he couldnt find his way home.

Mildred Miller has kept a diary recording the progress of her husbands Alzheimers Disease.

Dannis Miller, former owner of Millers Cabinet Shop and active in his church, had to leave his La Grande home a few months ago and move into Evergreen Vista, the La Grande nursing home that specializes in caring for victims of Alzheimers Disease and related dementia.

When I walked into Evergreen Vista, I felt this was the right place, Mildred said. It seems they have harmony.

The decision to move her husband to Evergreen Vista did not come easily to Mildred. Since the first symptoms, she has cared for Dannis at home, except on the few occasions when he was hospitalized. When she finally made the decision, several family members said, I shouldve done it sooner.

At first caring for her husband was fairly easy. Dannis was forgetful, and he developed a little stutter. He gave up driving, but he continued to mow the lawn and do handyman chores around the house.

One unusually hot day Mildred came home and found her husband mowing the lawn. Because of the heat, she asked him to stop for awhile. As he walked from the lawn onto the back patio, he fell and broke his hip.

Mildred said she believes her husbands disease accelerated because of the anesthetic, the surgery and the subsequent long recovery.

He became depressed; he went downhill quickly, she said. Hed try to say things and when he couldnt, hed cry.

La Grande psychiatrist Dr. Joel Rice said that upheavals in a Alzheimers patients life can accelerate the disease.

Anything can affect the progress, even minor things will make it worse, he said. Surgery, an illness, even a minor illness, a change in schedule, things that dont usually affect the brain. The brain gets fragile (with the disease).

Dannis did learn to walk again, thanks to Mildreds persistence, but he gradually stopped talking.

Its been about three years since he said anything, she said.

Mildred found help with day-to-day care from her son, Vern, who lives in Tulsa, Okla., and was between jobs.

A lot of times it was hard at night. Hed (Dannis) wake up and get out of bed; so we strung bells around the bed so we could hear him when he got up, Mildred said.

The Millers other children also pitched in, visiting their father often.

He liked to be around family, Mildred said.

Except occasionally, when shed get a little angry, Mildred said caring for her husband was not a burden. After her son returned to Tulsa, she found a couple who helped every day.

Its like taking care of a 2-year-old. You do everything for them, she said. I was kind of scared when I brought him home (from the hospital), but I knew God would help me through it. I prayed a lot.

Mildred said prayer and a sense of humor helped her during the worst times, especially the days when she would grow tired or upset and think,

If I just had a minute to myself.

Dannis did not respond well to any of the medications prescribed for Alzheimers Disease.

He tried two different medicines, but he had serious side effects, including a Parkinsons-like symptom.

One day I had to rush him to the hospital; he was shaking so bad, Mildred said.

Mildred continues to visit Dannis every day; she looks for the good things.

Hell smile sometimes, she said. I think he enjoys the activities there; he enjoys his food.