DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — It seems from the moment that Judy Merck arrived in town nearly 40 years ago, she’s always been helping others.
As a physical therapist, she treated those afflicted with pain or an injury to restore their well-being.
As a community volunteer, Merck has worked countless hours with civic organizations such as Womancare, hospice, University of Maine Cooperative and her church to make the lives of those around her better.
Through the years, Merck has developed friendships and a special bond with many of those she has touched through her work and community service.
Those friends are now helping her deal with an affliction that affects more than 5.1 million Americans: Alzheimer’s disease.
Merck was diagnosed with having the early stages of the disease last spring.
Alzheimer’s is a progressive neurologic disease of the brain leading to the irreversible loss of neurons and the loss of intellectual abilities, including memory and reasoning, which become severe enough to impede social or occupational functioning. The disease is also known as simply Alzheimer’s, and senile dementia of the Alzheimer type (SDAT).
One of Merck’s friends is Joan Shapleigh, who has known her since 1973. They both worked at Community Health and Counseling Services.
The women are of similar ages, both raised families and both got divorced at about the same point in their lives.
Shapleigh has supported her friend by getting her more involved in Alzheimer’s awareness events in the past couple of years. The two participated on Oct. 6 in Bangor in the Eastern Maine Walk to End Alzheimer’s. The walk is the major fundraiser and awareness event sponsored by the Maine chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
The two women became involved with awareness projects before Merck publicly acknowledged that she had the disease.
They attended a state Alzheimer’s planning meeting last spring when she made the admission.
The participants were all introducing themselves as doctors or caregivers working with Alzheimer’s patients when it came time for Merck to speak.
“Hi, I’m Judy Merck and I have Alzheimer’s,” she told the planning meeting representatives.
From that point, the two became even more involved with the state chapter in promoting Alzheimer’s awareness. They volunteered at the Alzheimer’s booth during this year’s Whoopie Pie Festival in Dover-Foxcroft.
The state chapter also encouraged them to participate in the Eastern Maine Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
The event was the last of 12 that took place duringfour consecutive weekends around the state between Sept. 15 and Oct. 6. The Bangor walk had more than 800 participants and raised $79,222.
For Merck, realizing she had Alzheimer’s was a role reversal that was difficult to fathom for her.
“I’d had a two-week stay at Hibbard’s Nursing Home. It was very enlightening because I had worked there once, and now I was the patient,” Merck said. “The walk is a wonderful event because it supports a wonderful cause. This experience has shown me that life goes on and how real life can be.”
Shapleigh and her friends realized that something wasn’t right with Merck when she had trouble staying focused on conversations. At first, Shapleigh didn’t think much of her friend’s lapses because through the years Merck was known for being forgetful. But after several conversations with their mutual friends, they decided something wasn’t quite right with her.
Shapleigh indicated it was an easy decision for Merck’s friend’s to take a more active role in their friend’s well-being.
“If the roles were reversed, she be there for me, too,” Shapleigh said.
During the state Alzheimer’s planning meetings, Merck was praised by the organization for her bravery in coming forward to share her personal story and working to reduce the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s patients.
Since Merck is still in the early stages of the disease, she still lives in her home outside of town. She has a hen and rooster along with her dog, Buddy, who takes long walks in the woods with her.
Merck also had a goat herd, but she has since given them up. Living in a rural area is something to which the city girl from Indianapolis had always aspired.
She had various pets in her home as a child, but she always wanted to live on a farm.
“I’m a city girl that never really belonged there,” Merck said. “As a child, my mother was pretty tolerant. I had pet rabbit, and my brother had a pet rat. So living on a farm with animals is where I’ve always wanted to be.”
Merck is happiest at her home and enjoys living in rural Maine. She credits the friendliness of Dover-Foxcroft with making living in the community a satisfying daily experience.
“It’s the people. The staff in the town office is wonderful and I love to shop at Will’s Shop ’n’ Save because he is pretty wonderful, too. The whole community has always made Dover-Foxcroft a wonderful place to live,” Merck said.
She wound up in Dover-Foxcroft when her husband was hired by Community Health and Counseling Services.
She graduated from Indiana University with degrees in home economics and counseling.
She followed her husband back to his home state of North Carolina following her undergraduate studies and began working on a master’s degree at Duke University.
The couple later moved to South Carolina and Minnesota before ending up in Maine. Merck was the first licensed physical therapist in Piscataquis County.
She worked for hospitals in Greenville and Dover-Foxcroft and several other agencies in the area.
Earlier in life, she planned on becoming a doctor, but changed her mind following a conservation with a friend about physical therapy. Merck enjoyed her career, which lasted 47 years.
“It is the most wonderful profession that anyone could be in,” Merck said. “It is everything I wanted it to be. You can care for those in acute or geriatric care. Fortunately, I’ve been able to do it all in relieving people’s pain and making them feel better.”
Merck advises those with Alzheimer’s to be brave and find someone to share things with for safety.
She believes it’s important to have someone assist you, whether it’s a family member or a good friend.