Thursday, November 8, 2007

Alzheimer's Awareness Month

Dear everyone,
This is a sponsored post, but I'd like you to know that I chose this sponsor because it is an issue that is very important to me. Usually on this blog I talk about issues that affect children. And usually, I have had jobs that involved helping children. But this past summer, I accepted a new job, working as an activity aide at a skilled nursing facility for seniors. Many of the residents there are living with Alzheimer's.
Before I worked at my current place, I knew Alzheimer's existed, but I never thought much about it. It was just a disease that caused old people to lose their memories, I thought, just one of the many things that happen to people as they grow older. But now that I have come to know... and adore... so many people with Alzheimer's, the fact that this month is Alzheimer's Awareness Month has taken on a new meaning.
Now, when I think of Alzheimer's, I think of Tommy, a man who moved to the USA from China, started a business, became an actual millionaire, and raised three children who ended up going to prestigious universities. He now spends much of his time sitting in his wheelchair, smiling a huge smile at anyone who approaches him, singing songs to them and chattering to them in a combination of English and Chinese, or entertaining them by playing an invisible piano.
Or Don, who can no longer remember his wife's name, but when he sees her he grins and says, "Hello! You're my girlfriend!" Often the words he says make no sense, but when you sit next to him, hold his hand, listen to him, nod and try to respond to what you're saying, it makes his day. I spend a lot of time doing just that, which recently caused Don to look me in the eye and say, "I love you. You stick by me. Its a miracle!"
Or Marie, who up until a few years ago lived independently, but rapidly deteriorated from Alzheimer's. She spoke very rarely but would sit in her wheelchair, her hands fluttering in the air, saying, "Mamamamamama." If you sat with her and held her hand, you could see her anziety decrease drastically, and sometimes she would utter a sentence or two. (Once when I asked her how she had enjoyed her dinner, she replied, clear as a bell, "I didn't like the green stuff!")
Alzheimer's is a degenerative illness that attacks the brain's nerve cells. The memory loss, language skills losses and behavior changes that come with Alzheimer's are not just a normal part of aging. People with Alzheimer's live an average of eight to ten years from the time of their diagnosis, although some live as many as twenty years after being diagnosed. Although some medications and treatments can control the different symptoms of Alzheimer's, there is no cure.
While it is important to continue searching for a cure for Alzheimer's, equally important is giving people with Alzheimer's a good quality of life. It is generally not good for a person with Alzheimer's to be treated in a regular skilled nursing facility, alongside people who are there for physical rehab and recovery from illnesses. A place for people with Alzheimer's should be secure, so that people cannot wander out the door and get lost. It should have different types of activities, designed to stimulate the residents' minds, memories and bodies, and residents should be encouraged to participate in whatever way they are able. They should be able to keep as many of their lifestyle habits as possible... being allowed to wake up and go to sleep at the times they are comfortable with, being able to eat the foods they like, etc. some facilities, like the one I work with, have special rooms designed to bring back specific memories. For instance, there might be a "baby room", with realistic baby dolls, baby food, diapers, powder, baby clothes, a crib, a tape of lullabies, etc. A person who worked in an office might like spending time in a room set up like an office, with a large desk, typewriter, telephone, papers and pencils, etc. It can also help if people with Alzheimer's are surrounded by familiar things from their life... like a favorite quilt, family photos, etc.
Some families of people with Alzheimer's choose to care for their loved ones themselves, instead of placing them in a residential facility. People who choose this option will need lots of support, and can sometimes benefit from allowing their loved ones go to day programs for people with Alzheimer's.
One of the hardest things about Alzheimer's is the fact that family members must watch their loved ones go through this. Adult children must become the caretakers for their parents, watching their parents' memories and bodies degenerate until sometimes the parents don't even recall their children's names or recognize their faces.
The Alzheimer's Foundation provides many services to help people with Alzheimer's and their families. They operate a hotline, which can be a first call for people finding out that they or their loved ones have this illness. They run workshops and conference for those caring for people with Alzheimer's, whether they be professionals or family members. They do many, many more wonderful things for those affected by Alzheimer's.
Perhaps you'll consider buying a holiday gift or two at the Alzheimer's Foundation's estore this year, in order to help make a difference in the lives of people with Alzheimer's and their families. Or, click here for other ways you can contribute.
Thank you for reading this!

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