Staff photo by Allison Potter
Ann LaReau, Alzheimer’s administrator for Home Instead Senior Care in Wilmington, leads a workshop for caregivers on Wednesday, Sept. 18.
Connie Sheppard still learns something new when she attends an Alzheimer’s disease workshop or support group meeting.
Sheppard, who lives near her parents’ home in Wilmington, has been her mother’s caregiver for about eight years following an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis. Her sister and father also help care for her nearly 83-year-old mother, who remembers relatives but has lost her short-term memory.
“What I go for is just to try to get tips to see if other people may be experiencing the same things I am and just to try to find ways to make my mother more comfortable, to make her feel safe, to just try to give her the best care possible,” Sheppard said in a Monday, Sept. 23, phone interview. “It’s really comforting to hear other people that are going through the same thing.”
Sheppard recently attended a workshop led by Ann LaReau, Alzheimer’s administrator for Home Instead Senior Care in Wilmington. It was part of a series for family and professional caregivers, with themes including Capturing Life’s Journey, Techniques to Handle Challenging Behaviors and Activities to Encourage Engagement.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a condition that can affect people’s memory, thoughts, behavior and functional abilities, Home Instead reports.
The group has started its latest series of free workshops and offered home care guides and the Alzheimer’s and Other Dementias Daily Companion smartphone app in observance of World Alzheimer’s Month this September.
“Talking with your loved ones about their life, I mean this really creates a positive emotional experience for them,” LaReau said during the Sept. 18 workshop. “The more you know about them and you relate it to them … makes a huge difference.”
Marjorie Bolyard, a certified nursing assistant at Synergy HomeCare who also provides private duty care, attended the workshop too. She has two clients with Alzheimer’s and a third with another form of dementia.
She recalled a former client who spoke about a black Labrador he used to have. Bolyard brought him a stuffed animal to provide comfort.
“He kept it on his bed all the time, talked to (it),” Bolyard said during a phone interview Friday, Sept. 20. “He was so happy, grinning ear to ear… he still could connect with his dog.”
“He took it everywhere,” Bolyard added. “He could forget his hat but he had to have that dog.”
Sheppard and her sister take their mother out for lunch, a trip to the beach or a ride on the ferry to Southport and other places that hold pleasant memories for her.
Sheppard, a substitute teacher, acknowledges it can be challenging to balance the level of care she wants to provide her mother with her own life and responsibilities. She urges other caregivers to learn as much as they can about Alzheimer’s, reach out to support groups and take time for rest and renewal.
“I also look at it as a privilege and as a calling,” Sheppard said. “It’s just something I feel like I’m supposed to be doing right now… to give back to my mother what she gave to me and to honor her.”
People with Alzheimer’s regress into earlier stages of their lives, LaReau said.
She recalled a client living in a facility who no longer remembered her husband; but she found solace with another man there, and her husband saw them holding hands during a visit.
“It’s so hard on family members when they don’t know who you are,” LaReau said.
Another client was a smoker who regressed to a point in her life before she smoked and suddenly quit — with no signs of withdrawal.
“That’s how powerful this disease is,” LaReau said.
The brain undergoes a gradual dying process with Alzheimer’s, said Carolyn Jones, community liaison with Senior Helpers in Wilmington.
“The person is really not the same,” Jones said in a Sept. 20 phone interview. “That’s the hardest thing for the family.”
Families may be in denial because they cannot understand what is happening until they see pictures of a healthy brain compared with an Alzheimer’s-affected brain and realize it is a physical event, Jones said.
“It’s kind of like the brain is drying up,” Jones said. “This is definitely not something that you can change.”
Early detection and prevention
Medical experts are unsure there will ever be a cure for Alzheimer’s, but the good news is they are shifting from trying to fix a broken brain to trying to prevent the brain from being broken in the first place, said Dr. Daniel Kaufer, director of UNC’s Memory Disorders Program and co-director of the Carolina Alzheimer’s Network.
“Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders like it start affecting the brain years, even decades before we see any signs,” Kaufer said in a Sept. 23 phone interview. “It really offers a potential window of opportunity to intervene. Even though the results aren’t in just yet the change in focus is going to be huge,” Kaufer added. He noted researchers are seeing progress with other memory disorders too.
But while brain imagining tests to identify the amyloid protein associated with Alzheimer’s are possible, they are time-consuming, expensive and difficult, Kaufer said, adding challenges include determining whom to test.
“How do we screen people so we can do it in a very reasonable and cost-effective way to identify people who are at risk?” Kaufer said.
By age 65 roughly one in 10 people have Alzheimer’s, a figure that increases to nearly half by age 85, Kaufer said.
Another challenge is finding the tool to treat patients after early detection.
“We haven’t been able to identify the right wrench to fix the leaky faucet,” Kaufer said.
He used the analogy of a leaky faucet, saying that until recently nothing could be done until the sink began to overflow — or a patient showed signs of full-blown dementia.
“It’s a lot easier, theoretically, to fix a leaky faucet that hasn’t caused any problems than to come in when a sink is overflowing,” Kaufer said. “Up until now we’ve spent most of the time trying to unplug the drain.”
Meanwhile, the best way to prevent or lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s is everyday lifestyle choices involving a healthy diet, exercise and management of medical conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, Kaufer said.
“Whatever is good for the heart is good for the brain, and vice versa,” Kaufer said. “The common denominator there is really blood flow and nutrients.”