Tag Archives: dementia

Life in Grey Dementia

Vantage Point: A Glimpse into Dementia

“It only takes 20 minutes,” Melissa Knott, community relations coordinator for Highgate Senior Living in Wenatchee, told us as she invited Erin Cass, Mary Brandt, and me to participate in a sensory experience called the Virtual Dementia Tour.

Little did we know that the simulation, which helps family members and caregivers understand the overwhelming effects of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, would be an unforgettable and personally revealing experience.

Since I’d learned about the tour beforehand, I thought I knew what to expect as I was outfitted and given instructions, but I was not prepared for my brain to go into survival mode as I entered the room. I hunched as I felt my world shrink, and I tried to look purposeful, even though I’d instantly forgotten some of the simple tasks assigned to me. I felt no impulse to smile, interact with Mary or Erin, or feel anything but a narrow, tunnel-like focus.

It was hard to imagine that just the night before, I was riding a rocket of a horse in a community parade, outwardly waving and laughing. That extroverted person was gone, and in her place was someone who shuffled instead of walked, set the table with a towel instead of a tablecloth, and asked for help but ignored the answer.

Afterward, the facilitator went over how the simulation enhanced each of our unique character traits to give us an intimate, introspective glimpse into what our own life might look like if we were diagnosed. I realized the effects of the disease could make a once big world feel very small, and for someone who’s normally independent and active, how depressing that could become.

Thanking Melissa, the 3 of us started to leave, but Erin turned back. “I need to go see my grandma,” she said, and I wished I could hug mine, who passed long ago from the disease.

As a community liaison for Health Alliance, I have participated in both the Wenatchee and Moses Lake Walks to End Alzheimer’s that advocate a cure and honor loved ones. Much like my virtual experience, these events generate empathy, inspire, and give us the energy to make a difference.

It’s not too early to form a team for a walk in September. Visit alz.org/walk to find a walk near you. And for more information on the Virtual Dementia Tour in North Central Washington, please contact Melissa at Highgate Wenatchee at 509-665-6695 or Laurie at Summerwood Alzheimer’s Special Care Center in Moses Lake at 509-764-1900.

Shannon Sims is a Medicare community liaison for Health Alliance, serving Chelan, Douglas, Grant, and Okanogan counties in Washington. She has four sons and two grandsons. During her time off, she performs as part of a rodeo drill team on her horse, Skeeter.

Love Story through Alzheimer's

Chasing Health: Member’s Love Story of Caring for Wife with Alzheimer’s

As a writer, I get to interview all kinds of people about all kinds of topics, and sometimes I come across a story that gives me goosebumps.

Earlier this year, I interviewed Cary Ulrich, a member who lives in Washington, for the spring issue of House Calls, one of our Medicare newsletters. This former drafter and current fire photographer was kind enough to share his heartfelt story with me.

Cary’s wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago and passed away after we published this article. But for nearly three years, Cary was her primary caregiver, a tough task for a person watching someone he loves suffer from a disease that does not yet have a cure.

I don’t know if I could handle it, but Cary did. And he even found a way to make something positive out of it. Today, Cary leads caregiver support groups and is writing a book to capture how grateful he is for the time he spent with the love of his life.

November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, and with Thanksgiving coming up, I think it’s the perfect time to share Cary’s story of being grateful while making sacrifices. Maybe it’ll inspire you to join the cause to end Alzheimer’s or thank a caregiver.

Take a Minute to Care about Caregivers

Cary Ulrich, a second-year Health Alliance Medicare member, likes a challenge. The one-time drafter and surveyor at an engineering firm went from designing layouts for Wenatchee Valley’s buildings and subdivisions to taking photos on the frontlines of wildfires.

The toughest challenge he faced wasn’t learning the art of drafting by hand before the drafting world went digital, and it wasn’t going out on his first fire call to take pictures of people putting their lives on the line to save others. It wasn’t even a challenge he enjoyed, but it was his most important, being a caregiver for one of the people he loves most, his wife.

Sharon Ulrich was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (a type of dementia) after showing some confusing symptoms, like having visions of everything from Old English-style visitors to spies and people trying to break into her home.

At first, doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Was it depression? Dementia? And if she had dementia, what kind was it? At 63 years old, she seemed too young for that.

While doctors looked for answers, Cary stayed by his wife’s side. From her earliest symptoms and first diagnosis in March 2010 to moving her to an adult home in February 2013, Cary was a caregiver. And he quickly learned that being a caregiver can take its own toll.

“I was on the outside going through everything,” he says. “I was very frustrated and angry at the situation, not at her. I had all those feelings, and no one seemed to care about me.”

He watched his wife’s health get worse while knowing he couldn’t help her get better. The woman who’d walked past his back-row church pew almost two decades ago, the one he thought was way too classy to ever even talk to him, now needed him to be her caregiver.

Cary and Sharon

“It’s a hard process,” he says. “I don’t exactly know how I did it, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve had to let go of what was and just totally accept her for the person she is now.”

Cary never backed down. Instead, he used his experience of caring for a loved one with dementia to help others do the same, turning his negative situation into something positive.

Today, Cary helps run two caregiver support groups, one specific to dementia at the Grief Place of North Central Washington and a more general one at Aging and Adult Care of Central Washington in East Wenatchee. In both groups, Cary gives support and tips to other caregivers because he believes it will help them feel better and make smarter choices about their own loved ones.

“The more you know when these things happen, the more you can kind of accept them,” he says. “You know you’re going to have to change because your loved one has changed and can’t go back the other way.”

He also talks to nursing classes at Wenatchee Valley College and to first responders in different fire districts to help them know how to work with people with dementia and the family and friends who care for them.

Cary takes on other challenges, too, like helping put on the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Wenatchee. Last year, he lined up sponsors, set up, and took photos for the 2-mile event that raised money and awareness.

Wenatchee's Walk to End Alzheimer's

Cary’s selflessness shines through in everything he does, and the man who likes to take on challenges and still goes out on fire calls hopes to make caregivers’ lives less challenging in the future.

“As a caregiver, you have the memories of what was, but all you have is what is. It’s a very difficult place to be. I know what these caregivers are going through, though. And I want them to know they are valued and can still enjoy life.”

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Alzheimer’s Disease Brain

National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month

November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and National Caregiver Month, so on social media, we gave you more info on the disease each day.

In the U.S., there are more than 15 million Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers. Give these people a big thank you! And learn how to join in the raising awareness this month.

More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s Disease, and every 67 seconds someone in the U.S. develops it.

There are approximately 500,000 people dying each year from Alzheimer’s, and it’s the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S.

1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. These numbers could triple with the baby boomers unless we make breakthroughs to prevent or treat it.

Alzheimer’s is the most expensive condition in the nation. The cost to America in 2014 will be $214 billion. Nearly 1 in 5 Medicare dollars is spent on those with Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Almost 2/3 of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. In her 60s, a woman is more like to develop it than breast cancer.

15.5 million caregivers provide 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care for Alzheimer’s victims. More than 60% of them are women.

Find a walk, other ways to help, or more info.

Knit with Heart

Vantage Point: Seniors Knit with Love to Help Others

Before I met with Aїda Bound—a social worker and fierce fighter for civil rights, social justice, the aged, and the underserved—I hoped to impress her with the yarn I was going to donate to the greater Wenatchee Area Hat Project. But as Aїda talked about collecting, sorting, storing, and delivering the hats and the difference the program makes to the (mostly) seniors who make the hats and the children in need who receive them, I was the one who was dazzled.

Health Alliance Medicare employees get the chance to help members every day by giving them great customer service and healthcare benefits. Having a local presence means we can also be involved in North Central Washington communities. Helping others is the principle behind the Hat Project, too. Seniors can join in, even if they are homebound with poor health. Yarn is donated, and hat makers get to choose the design, color, and pattern of each hat and can knit, crochet, or use a loom.

The hat makers know their time and talents are helping others, and it gives them a chance to be creative and social while having fun. One 98-year-old member said it gave her a reason to live. Aїda helped a woman who had dementia and couldn’t remember the pattern keep participating by having her tie knots for quilts made by another member. That way the woman could still benefit from the social support the program provides.

Aїda said, “Love is knitted into each hat and is what makes the difference to the children.” For some kids, choosing a handmade hat may be the first time they have ever been able to pick out something brand-new for themselves.

To donate to the Wenatchee Area Hat Project, please drop off yarn at Wenatchee and East Wenatchee Washington Trust Banks. (They welcome gas card donations, too.)

As someone who donated yarn, it was fun to choose the colors and imagine a senior making something so beautiful for a child in need. If you think a Hat Project could benefit your community, Aїda is willing to help. Call her at 509-888-1953, or email her at gutsgranny@nwi.net.

Balancing Daily Tasks with Dementia

Vantage Point: Summer Activity Opens Eyes, Prompts Compassion

I love all the fun activities that come with summer—festivals, parades, vacations, theme parks, and backyard barbecues. One of my recent summer activities, however, was unlike any I’ve ever done before, and the profound experience will resonate with me for the rest of my life.

I had the opportunity to watch a video of the Virtual Dementia Tour®, compliments of Assured Home Health and Hospice in Moses Lake. The tour gives family members and professional caregivers the chance to experience (as closely as possible) the physical, mental, and emotional challenges people with dementia face every day.

Before the tour, the group takes a short pretest. One of the questions is, “Do you think people with dementia are justified in their actions?” The answer choices are “yes,” “no” and “somewhat.” Most people answer “somewhat.”

After the pretest, the activity alters the participants’ mental and physical abilities when they put on these items.

  • Goggles that restrict their vision, as if they have macular degeneration
  • Headphones with garbled or random background noises, like people with mental disorders experience
  • Gloves with the fingers taped together and with popcorn kernels in the fingertips, and shoes with popcorn kernels in the toes, to represent neuropathy and arthritis

The group then goes to another room. Organizers give participants five everyday tasks, like sorting laundry and setting the table, to complete without help in a certain time frame.

Watching the people go through the experience made me think of being in a carnival maze, where you have a warped sense of bearings, balance, and judgment.

Most participants find the experience eye-opening. Even if they thought they knew what to expect, many didn’t anticipate bursting into tears of frustration or falling on the ground in confusion. Many change their pretest answer about behavior being justified from “somewhat” to “yes” in the post-test.

If you have a loved one with dementia or are a caregiver, I suggest you take the Virtual Dementia Tour. If you live in Grant County and want to sign up for a tour through Assured Home Health and Hospice, please call Julie Johnson at 509-766-2580 or Terri Riley-Brown at 509-765-1856.

ABC’s Nightline featured a powerful story about the Virtual Dementia Tour.  If you don’t take the tour, you can still see what the experience is like by watching this clip.

I hope you make fun memories with family and friends this summer. I also hope you take time to either watch the Nightline clip or sign up for the Virtual Dementia Tour so we can all increase our understanding and compassion for people with dementia.

Using Your Brainpower

Boost Your Brainpower

Challenging yourself mentally raises your brainpower and function, which is shown to reduce the risk of mental decline and dementia in old age. What can you do to keep your brain in amazing shape?

Never Stop Learning

Learning new things in school or classes, at work, and in your spare time all help you challenge your mind, no matter what your age.

As we get older, we get comfortable doing the things we’ve always done. But your brain will benefit from tackling something new. Learning keeps life stimulating, especially during retirement.

Community colleges and park districts offer a variety of courses that allow you to interact with others while challenging your mind. You can try a new sport, learn a new language, take up painting, or learn a skill you’ve always been interested in picking up.

Activities that use your hands, like woodworking, sign language, or knitting, are also great because focusing on your hand-eye coordination works multiple parts of your brain.

Not only will it help you stay sharp, you’ll also feel accomplished. Never stop challenging yourself to learn new things!

Memorize

Learn a new word a day, take up local theater where you learn a small part, learn your favorite poem by heart, or learn all the words to your latest favorite song. Writing things down as you go can also help. This careful listening and learning can help you sharpen your thinking.

Get Involved

Volunteering with a local organization offers you the chance to interact with others, which also stimulates your brain. You can meet new people who are both working and being helped in the community.

Help your church, local library, animal shelter, or even a branch of a larger organization like the Alzheimer’s Association to meet people, work events, and even get active with 5ks.

Eat Antioxidants

Foods like blueberries and dark chocolate are full of antioxidants, which help fight age-related diseases. They can also help delay or prevent cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, and lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

And they’re delicious! Win-win!

Get Moving

Dancing with a partner or in a group may be one of the best physical activities you can do that is also good for your mind. When you dance the salsa, a waltz, or even the electric slide, your brain whirls to keep up with the steps, all while you interact with others around you. Dancing is also shown to help slow the progress of dementia.

Try Something New

Break out of your routine and see something new, like an art show. Taking pictures for social media, writing about it, and making scrapbooks to show your family and friends are all great ways to train your brain to remember the details about your new experience too.

There are many brain games on the market you can try to stay sharp. Lumosity is one online tool you can try, for a fee. You can also try more traditional methods, like chess, sudoku, or puzzles. While they’re not proven to fight dementia, they can help you maintain critical thinking skills.