Living Well with Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's Perspective

3/3/14
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Recently, my husband, Ken, and I watched a PBS documentary about a program for persons with dementia in California. The conclusion ascertained that for many persons participating in the program, there was a much slower rate in the progression of the disease than expected.  My love and I looked at each other and immediately agreed that his experience in the Living Well Program has had the same results for many of its participants.

Living Well: A Holistic Program for People with Early Memory Loss is sponsored by the Minnesota/North Dakota Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, Amherst H. Wilder Foundation and the St. Paul Jewish Community Center (JCC). It is a twelve week program, which offers participants learning opportunities to live well each day with good nutrition, exercise, cognitive challenges, socialization and creative arts.

The outstanding staff, led by Susan Ryan, an occupational therapist from the Wilder Foundation, is welcoming, caring, and inclusive with all their smiles, hugs and laughter.  There is no judgment. ACCEPTANCE is the by-word. The program and staff have sustained and supported my love and me and as a result, we are thriving with Alzheimer’s.

We have learned that a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s does not represent the end to all that is good in life. Staff members focus on the positive strengths of each person; celebrating their successes and achievements. The results are noteworthy and amazing to observe. Who does not thrive with the rewards of recognition and validation?

The program, depending on the focus of the day, includes a myriad of activities such as: painting, clay, movement/dance, writing, poetry, learning about other cultures, learning local transportation options, riding public transportation, discussions on a variety of topics, field trips to museums, restaurants and question/answer information sessions with Dr. Michael Rosenbloom, MD Neurologist, and Dr. Terry Barclay, PhD Neuropsychologist.  Each session begins with 30 minutes of Gentle Aging exercises. The smiles turn to giggles and laughter as the creaks and cracks in our bodies transition to smooth, uninterrupted movements – so important for the brain and heart.
The participants are encouraged to bring their own lunches. I cringed when Ken brought chips and a soda the first couple of times. However, soon, he found that an apple, an orange, some grapes or cheese and slices of turkey were quite delicious and good for his stamina, brain and his heart. Peer pressure can be good!

Depending on the activity of the day, yoga is often an option after lunch. At 1:45, it is time to return home.

No matter how he started the day, Ken always returns home energized, enthusiastic about life and smiling. As a caregiver, I could not be more grateful.

Ken says what he likes best about Living Well is the socialization. He has what he considers “best friends.” This is very new for him. For years before his diagnosis, he withdrew from social situations and friends. He became more and more isolated. Socialization is paramount for persons living with Alzheimer’s.

As if this part of the program were not enough, there is more! Living Well also embraces a Caregiver Café, a safe place for caregivers of the participants to meet. It, too, is located at the JCC, just down the hall. Here, education of the disease as well as discussions in the areas of health and wellness, relationships, sense of self, and managing stress are offered along with laughter and tears. It is led by Jen Finstad, an incredibly knowledgeable, supportive, Wilder master-level social worker. Most days are a “drop-off” day, allowing the caregiver time to themselves, having the Café 4-6 times during the 12-week series.  However, the caregivers have asked to meet EVERY time! “It is important for you to have time to yourselves” is Jen’s reply!

I began Living Well’s Caregiver Café “at high risk of distress.” I tested at “mild to no risk” twelve weeks later and have maintained that status for the last year.

My love and I are living well with Living Well.

Mary Margaret Lehmann is one of the many grateful caregivers for Living Well, along with all Wilder Caregiver Services she has participated in for the past three and a half years.