Sweet Linda. That’s what Bill Southern and the memory care center staff call his wife.
When Linda Southern, 76, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2013, life changed for the Fort Worth couple. Southern was now no longer just Sweet Linda’s husband, but also her primary caregiver.
“Patience is one of the things that I pray for daily in dealing with it,” Southern, 78, said.
The Southerns are part of the growing number of families in Texas and the nation who have a family member with Alzheimer’s. But, Tarrant County experts and residents affected by Alzheimer’s remain strong in their hope for a cure.
Texas Department of State Health Services found 23% of the state’s Alzheimer’s care recipients are in Tarrant County — the highest among the 254 counties. Tarrant County is far ahead of Harris County, which follows with 10.6%.
In Texas, the number of individuals with Alzheimer’s 65 and older is expected to be 490,000 in 2025, a 22.5% increase since 2021, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Leading in numbers for Alzheimer’s
One factor that puts Tarrant County at the top for Alzheimer’s cases may be a matter of how accurately cases are reported, said Sid O’Bryant, who leads the University of North Texas Health Science Center’s comprehensive study on Alzheimer’s among diverse communities.
“Tarrant County seems, in my opinion, to do a better job of actually tracking the cases and identifying the cases,” he said. “Another part of that is that more people are being diagnosed.”
The data may also be a result of Tarrant County already being as ethnically diverse as the U.S. is expected to be in 2050, O’Bryant said.
“This also means that there’s oftentimes larger health disparities because of poverty, because of access to health care and other social determinants that get in the way of access,” he said.
In the same way, demographics are also contributing to the increase in cases.
The Hispanic community, which makes up 30% of Tarrant County’s population, is expected to experience the single largest growth in Alzheimer’s patients over the next 20 years.
Hispanics are currently the youngest major ethnic group in the U.S., meaning more of them will be hitting the age mark for increased Alzheimer risks in the coming years, O’Bryant said.
Another age-related factor is a population shift that increases the number of those who are 65 and older, the ages that are at risk for Alzheimer’s. O’Bryant says he sees many older residents from rural areas move to communities like Tarrant County for better health care.
‘No one is ever doomed to this disease’
Despite the growing concerns over Alzheimer’s, O’Bryant wants people to have hope — especially those genetically at risk, like himself.
“It’s not hopeless,” he said. “I truly believe we can beat it on an individual level.”
Alzheimer’s Support Resources in Tarrant County
Tarrant County has resources available to Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers.
Here are organizations that provide support for affected residents:
O’Bryant has observed a common misconception that those genetically at risk for Alzheimer’s are a lost cause. He says, at most, 50% of someone’s risk for Alzheimer’s is genetic. He wants people to pay attention to the other half of the risk that is controllable.
“No one is ever doomed to this disease,” he said.
Some of the preventative measures individuals can take include having a heart healthy diet, staying socially and physically active, stimulating the brain and monitoring blood related medical conditions that affect the brain.
O’Bryant’s hope also comes from the abundance of resources in Tarrant County. He says there are increasingly more services and organizations that provide social and medical support.
“There is so much awareness now,” he said.
O’Bryant’s interest in Alzheimer’s research started during his graduate program at the University at Albany, when his grandmother was diagnosed with the disease.
He keeps a photo of her in his office, not only as a reminder of why he takes part in the research, but also to recognize his ability to take control and fight the disease.
“I remind myself, just because she passed away from a disease doesn’t mean I’m going to get it,” he said.
Playing for the power of the mind
Joshua Ingram, 45, is among those that have shown support for Alzheimer’s patients in Tarrant County.
The Fort Worth musician has known several friends who have lost their loved ones to the disease.
After witnessing how Alzheimer’s affects patients and caregivers, he has spent the past 10 years performing for several memory centers around the area.
What is the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s?
Dementia is the general term for symptoms that display a severe decline in mental ability, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The symptoms include:
- Other thinking skills
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of Dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 % of cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alzheimer’s symptoms include:
- Behavior changes
- Difficulty in speaking, swallowing and walking
“I can see the power that playing music has on folks who are suffering from dementia and early stage Alzheimer’s,” he said. “So there’s a personal responsibility I feel to do something for them.”
Then came the idea for a 12-hour concert.
Ingram, who performs all of his songs on his guitar from memory, decided to put on an extensive set for the Alzheimer’s Association’s annual fundraising event. Since 2019, he has performed the show three times.
By the fifth hour, Ingram has to super-glue his finger tips to be able to keep playing. His intention is to convey the way his mind continues to work despite his body physically breaking down.
“I keep powering through to show the true power of the mind,” he said. “I believe that we can beat this disease that robs people of that.”
The most powerful reward to Ingram is in the face of the caregivers, who are excited to see the joy it brings to the patients.
“Sometimes they’ll come up and say, ‘Oh my gosh, when you sang this song he came back to us for a minute,’” he said.
Caring for Sweet Linda
In the same way, the most important thing to Southern, as a husband and caregiver, is to bring joy to Linda.
“I can still make her smile and laugh, so long as I can do that, it’s a good sign,” he said.
The memory care center, where Linda spends five days a week, is a helpful hand to Southern, 78, who works full time. The center specializes in care for dementia patients.
Though Linda’s memory recall has declined, Southern says her sweet spirit and love for him has stayed the same. He is certain that Linda is happiest when she is with him.
Southern has found joy in learning new things about his wife, too. A couple of years ago, he discovered that Linda, who used to dislike chicken before her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, now loves fettuccine and alfredo — with chicken.
“I started calling it white meat,” he said. “So we’ll throw it in and we call it white meat and cheese.”
Southern prays there will be a cure for Alzheimer’s one day. For now, as he appreciates the little things, he says he wants to keep Linda’s care at home for as long as he can.
“Nobody can care for a loved one like the one they’ve been with for 37 years now,” he said.
Southern knows best what will keep Sweet Linda happy: Love, patience and a little bit of white meat and cheese.
Sara Honda is the audience engagement and social media fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.