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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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Helping Heart Disease

Vantage Point: Walk to Mend Hearts

As a child, I folded and cut red, heart-shaped Valentine’s Day cards. As a teenager, I experienced my first broken heart. And as adults, we learn the importance of taking care of our hearts by eating right, exercising, and avoiding damaging habits, like smoking, to avoid heart disease.

Heart disease, a disorder of the heart and blood vessels, affects people of all ages and is the number one killer of women. You should also know about atrial fibrillation (AFib) and stroke. AFib is where upper chambers of the heart beat irregularly, causing dizziness, fainting and a racing, pounding sensation. Stroke is a brain attack that occurs when blood clots block an artery or blood vessel, interrupting blood flow to the brain. People with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke.

People diagnosed with heart problems may feel overwhelmed, anxious, and afraid, opening the door for depression. That’s where Greater Wenatchee Mended Hearts, a volunteer peer-to-peer support organization, comes in to inspire hope through people who are heart patients themselves. I recently had the privilege to attend one of Mended Hearts’ monthly meetings. The room was buzzing with encouragement. Mended Hearts also hosts educational speakers and sends monthly newsletters full of valuable information about heart disease.

One of the most valuable aspects of Mended Hearts is its Heart Patient Visiting Room program that lets heart patients meet other people who have gone through or are going through the same thing. Natalie Noyd, director of the cardiovascular service line at Confluence Health, says peer support coming from someone who has walked the walk helps heart disease patients feel they can get through the experience and aids the overall recovery process. Confluence Health and Mended Hearts work together, mutually spreading heart disease awareness and education, and helping patients, throughout North Central Washington.

Health Alliance provides therapy to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and also offers rehab and testing. Sometimes heart disease runs in the family, so creating habits to help prevent the disease becomes extra important for people with a family history of heart problems. Health Alliance encourages you to learn more by joining the Go Red for Women Heart & Sole Walk on February 6 in various locations throughout Wenatchee.

Walks will also take place at Confluence Health Clinics in Omak and Moses Lake. To learn more about Mended Hearts, call Ann at 509-679-8181 or email mendedhearts91@frontier.com.