Mary Putnam, 82, is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Right now she can be cared for in the Visalia home of her daughter, Jacqueline Baker, her son-in-law and her four grandchildren.

But Alzheimer's is a progressive disease that over time reduces the memories and reasoning abilities of its victims until they are unable to care for themselves in even the simplest ways.

So while her mother doesn't need that much supervision now, Baker says she knows that could change. Caring for her mother could become an all-consuming task.

It would be a big help, Baker said, if she could find caregivers who could step in for her when she runs errands or goes shopping -- or when she just needs a break.

Pastor Larry Dodson and his congregation at New Life Community Church in Tulare are working to provide just that. Church leaders have been developing a plan to open and operate an adult day-care center for people suffering from Alz-heimer's and other forms of dementia.

"People who don't want their loved ones in a [care] facility 24/7, this is a benefit for them," Dodson said. "They need respite and to know their loved ones are cared for."

Dodson is acutely aware of what Alzheimer's patients and their families endure. His mother-in-law, who suffers from the neurodegenerative disease, lives with him and his family.

He also knows how badly day-care programs for Alzheimer's are needed in Tulare County. The only such program in the north end of the county, the Alzheimer's Day Care Resource Center in Visalia that operated five days a week, closed its doors June 30.

Yvonne Pinal-Wahlstrom, who ran the center during its two years of operation, could not be reached for comment.

Only an Alzheimer's respite program that operated for four hours on Tuesdays at the Visalia Senior Center remains open.

The Tulare Senior Citizens Center had offered a similar Friday-only program, but it stopped in April when it lost state funding. Organizers said they expect to have it running again some time in August.

With the closure of the Resource Center, the nearest day-care programs for adults with dementia are in Porterville and Hanford. And while another adult day-care program is in the works for Lindsay, it's still up to two years away.

None of those is a practical option for people in the north end of Tulare County, said Dodson, "Who from Visalia or Tulare is going to drive people 30 miles? That's why we want to open one [here]. ... We have the program on paper, and we have the staff lined up."

All the church needs is about $15,000 in "seed money," which would come from donations, he said. After that, once the program is on its feet, the plan is to pay for it through client fees -- $7 an hour or less depending on incomes -- with donations and grants, Dodson said.

One other thing Dodson and his fellow New Life officials would have to decide is where to house the center. Dodson said he would like to take over the lease on the Resource Center in Visalia, but the landlord is asking more than the $1,100-a-month rent that his church can afford.

If the church can't negotiate a break in the rent, Dodson said it's likely a new center would be set up in Tulare with an eye toward possibly opening another in Visalia some time later.

Of course, either plan depends on New Life raising the money.

"I wish somebody would take [the Resource Center] over, because it's needed," said Barbara Anderson, who ran the Alz-heimer's respite program at the Visalia Senior Center for nearly 10 years.

She said having a place to socialize is important to Alzheimer's patients.

Besides improving the quality of their lives, many people say they believe such activities help slow the progress of the disease, which mostly strikes people over the age of 65 and becomes more prevalent as people get older.

Cheryl Perkins, the adult services division manager for the county's Health and Human Services Agency, and others who deal with families of Alzheimer's sufferers, said caring at home for a patient is physically and mentally demanding.

The care can range from feeding and changing adult diapers to calming people panicked because they can't recognize their own homes and the people around them, to ensuring that loved ones don't wander off and injure themselves.

As such, experts say without periodic respite, families can quickly burn out, some -- particularly elderly spouses or relatives -- ending up in even worse medical shape than the people for whom they were caring .

Velma McMafter, 81, of Visalia knows that problem all too well. Her husband, Bill, 85, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's nine years ago, and she has primarily cared for him.

When it started, "It was very frustrating. He would get lost. He couldn't find his way home.. He would forget people. He forgot where his barber was. ... Now he forgets everything. He still remembers me. He knows his immediate family. But friends, he will forget. I have to be with him all the time.

"It's very difficult. Initially I got very depressed. I got so depressed, I had to go to the doctor. I didn't care of I lived or died. I didn't want to get out of bed," she said.

But medication has helped alleviate her depression, McMafter said, and, "Now I can handle anything -- but I still need to take a break."

She took Bill to the Resource Center once a week before it closed as well as every other week to the Visalia senior center's respite program.

"With a city our size ... we need this," she said of respite programs. "It's just as important for [Bill] as it is for me," adding that her husband was like a child excited to go to kindergarten each time he went to the Resource Center.

"I know when I told him we couldn't go there anymore, they're closing, he said, 'That's too bad.' "

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