Nov 252013
 

When it comes to caring fwoman sleeps on the sofaor a parent, spouse or other loved one, sleep is not for beauty. It is essential to maintain health and the energy needed to be a caregiver. Uninterrupted, restorative sleep (7 to 9 hours) is recommended by most experts.

But for many of the nation’s 65 million family caregivers, sleep is an elusive luxury.  In fact, a National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) study on caregiver health risks found 87 percent of those caregivers surveyed suffered from insomnia.

If you suffer from insomnia or sleep deprivation, you are at risk for numerous health issues. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), more than 50 percent of people older than age 65 suffer sleep disorders that ultimately shorten their lives. This deprivation of sleep is called sleep debt. In an interview with WebMD, Susan Zafarlotfi, Ph.D., clinical director of the Institute for Sleep and Wake Disorders at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey, said, “Sleep debt is like credit card debt. If you keep accumulating credit card debt, you will pay high interest rates or your account will be shut down until you pay it all off. If you accumulate too much sleep debt, your body will crash.”

Insomnia typically is a function of not being able to relax our minds and our bodies. To get some sleep, try these tips from Dr. Lawrence J. Epstein, associate physician, Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard University:

1. Create a sleep-inducing environment: a dark, quiet, comfortable and cool room.

2. Do not use your bedroom for anything other than sleep or sex. No television, no laptops.

3. Make sure you do not eat at least two to three hours before bedtime, and avoid caffeine or alcohol close to bedtime. Note that smoking can cause trouble sleeping.

4. If you are tossing and turning at night and you cannot get those eyes closed, try drinking green or chamomile tea before bed or put a lavender pillow near your head to aid relaxation.

5. Create consistent sleep and wake schedules, even on weekends. Our bodies have internal clocks called circadian rhythms that synchronize our active and rest states with biochemical reactions in our bodies. Circadian rhythms are based on light/dark cycles, with light having the most impact on our ability to get to and stay in restorative sleep.

For caregivers, it is time to awaken to the fact that sleep may be your best medicine.  Sleep well.

Excerpted from A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care by Sherri Snelling (Balboa Press).

 

About the Author 

Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club and author of “A Cast of Caregivers – Celebrity Stories to Help You Prepare to Care,” is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self-care” while caring for a loved one.  She is the former chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving.

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Nov 142013
 

lehmann

Next month, Mary Margaret and I will have been together 50 years.

She is a very positive gal, extremely caring and inclusive with her friends. I am not always a social animal. Mary, however, is very outgoing and makes new friends easily. These days, we are attached at the hip… but it wasn’t always this way.

In 2009, I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

After I received the diagnosis our lives changed. At the time, Mary Margaret and I were living in California, but this news caused a great sense of stress, so we relocated to Minnesota to be closer to family. Moving wasn’t difficult – it actually took a weight off our shoulders. Then one of my wife’s friends said “Why don’t you call the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24-hour helpline?” That really changed our lives. Not only have I become very involved in the Association, but so has Mary. During our career years, we really did very little together – now we do everything together. Our connection to the Alzheimer’s Association and shared commitment to raising awareness of the disease has brought us closer together as a couple.

Before I received the diagnosis, Mary and I were absorbed in our separate professional lives: She had her activities, and I had mine. If we got together on a Sunday, it was a big deal. It’s almost like we are dating all over again. She has turned me on to subjects I wouldn’t normally be interested in, and we have immersed ourselves in an eclectic series of programs. She is an avid reader and I’m not; however, through themed book presentations I have been able to learn something new with Mary, and that was a different experience for me. In turn, I have turned Mary on to the arts and now we are both passionate about visiting museums. There isn’t a local museum we haven’t been to!

We support each other.  The experience for caregivers and care partners is unique to the relationship. Mary and I support each other on a daily basis; we have to. She is the social contact, the “hostess with the mostess”, and I am her assistant, you might say, helping in the ways I can. I’m not a terribly patient person, so I am trying to be more patient, which is the least I can do.

The biggest thing that I notice is her relationship with other caregivers. I have a deep respect for the sacrifices that caregivers make every day to support individuals like me who are living with the disease. Today, there are more than 15 million unpaid caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias in the United States. The role is demanding; they are our lifeblood.

Mary Margaret’s compassion extends beyond our relationship. She spends much of her free time talking with other caregivers; learning from others and offering support. She has hundreds of followers from all over the U.S. on Twitter, and she will refer articles to them to get feedback and exchange ideas. Compassion is in her genes! During National Caregiver Month, I want Mary Margaret and other caregivers to know that I am grateful. THANK YOU!

What makes a caregiver in your life special? Leave a comment here on the blog, or leave a tribute for a caregiver or care partner at the Caregiver Center.

About the blog authorKen Lehmann is a member of the Alzheimer’s Association 2013 National Early-Stage Advisory Group (ESAG), and he pays tribute to his wife and very special care partner Mary Margaret during National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. As an Advisor, Ken encourages others living with the disease to avoid worrying about the past, but to “live in the moment.” 

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Dec 032012
 

In the summer of 2011, my sister Gina and I held the distinction of having two parents in the hospital at the same time. On top of that, they were in different hospitals; one hour apart. I was drawn to our mother, and my sister was pulled to our Dad. We didn’t pressure each other. Our natural abilities paired with what each parent needed at the time.

Gina is a doctor in teacher’s clothing. She can read hospital monitors and converse with doctors as if she is their colleague.

That’s what my father needed as he suffered with lung cancer. My mother needed an emotional touchstone, while doctors ran test after test to determine whether she’d had a minor stroke and the extent of her dementia.

That would’ve been all well and good if I wasn’t also a mother of four, a wife, an adjunct professor, professional actress, small business owner, and writer who occasionally likes to sleep. (My list is no longer than most people these days.)

To be there for my Mother I had to borrow from all of those areas at a cost. When I was with her, I felt guilt for not tending to my other roles and vice versa.

This wasn’t going to be temporary, either. After her one week hospital stay, we transferred her to a nursing home with a dementia unit. She would not return to the home she’d lived in for forty-six years.

Embracing the role of caregiver

I felt responsible for my mother’s well-being, as if she were one of my children. It wasn’t until I embraced that notion that I found a way to manage the responsibility.

Attention given to mommy wasn’t “taking from” — it was “a part of” being a caretaker to my whole family. My heart was already open to taking care of Mommy. Embracing her as a dependent enabled me to open up my life and see a bigger picture.

Also, it didn’t take away from my Mother’s dignity, grace or everything she’d accomplished in her life that she needed my care. Circumstance had converted our relationship. I needed to let go of being “the child.” That label no longer applied, and I had to make a mental shift in my thinking to move forward.

I suppose I could have left my Mother’s care to the nursing home but the magnetic pull was always there.

The adoption of another dependent was the best way for me to take on my role as caregiver. A role that chose me but I was honored to play.

Learn More:

About the Blog Author Tania Richard
In addition to being a wife, mother, writer, actress and teacher, Tania Richard was a caregiver for her mother, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2011 and passed away the following year. In the short time Tania was her mother’s caregiver, she learned a great deal about the challenges caregivers face.

2013 ALTY Blog Award Nominee

Nov 062012
 

This blog is dedicated to three of our First Ladies who have led the crusade for caregivers: Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan and Rosalynn Carter.  All three are passionate advocates for our nation’s 65 million caregivers because they have taken the caregiving journey themselves.

Hillary Clinton – The Congressional Caregiving Champion

Photo: Numinaimages

It was a poignant moment when I read last November 1 that Hillary Clinton had lost her 92-year-old mother, Dorothy Rodham.  Poignant for two reasons:

1)    November 1 marks the beginning of National Family Caregiver Month

2)     Clinton had been a long-time advocate of the nation’s caregivers when she was a Senator from New York.  She supporting several pieces of proposed legislation that offered more services to support those family members who are providing 80 percent of the long-term care to keep a loved one living at home as long as possible. 

Her mother’s illness, a topic that was kept private from the invasive world of 24/7 news media, made Clinton one of those caregivers she had championed so often in Congress.  In an interview from Clinton’s campaign days for the Democratic presidential nomination, she credited her mother with giving her the tools — and toughness — to enter politics.  In the end, her mother had also given her daughter the tools to be a compassionate caregiver.


Photo: Richard Guinon/Dreamstime

Nancy Reagan – The Loving, Long Good-bye to a Spouse with Alzheimer’s

Nancy and Ronald Reagan’s touching affection for each other was evident in the letter former President Reagan wrote to tell the world he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  In this letter, President Reagan not only helped shine his celebrity spotlight on a disease which many Americans did not understand, but he also highlighted the concern he had for Nancy who would be caring for him.  He understood the difficult emotional toll it would take on his wife.

 

As the caregivers of today’s more than 5 million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease know, Nancy lived the last 10 years of her husband’s life known to dementia caregivers as “the long good-bye.” While Nancy had the resources to care for her husband in ways most Americans do not, the emotional toll it took on her cannot be ignored.  

What was perhaps most heartwarming was that the strained relationship Nancy had with her stepchildren and with her own son and daughter actually improved over the course of President Reagan’s disease diagnosis and decline.  Family dynamics are sometimes difficult to navigate during caregiving and can lead to added stress and strife.  But, in this instance, it brought a family closer together which is one of the gifts that can come from caregiving.

Since President Reagan’s passing, Nancy has become a passionate advocate for Alzheimer’s disease awareness and education and especially advocating for the research around embryonic stem cells that can hopefully lead to a cure.  She also speaks about her personal caregiving journey and the need to recognize caregivers as a crucial part of the “care team” around a loved one.

Rosalynn Carter – Caring for Parents On Both Ends of Her Life

Photo: Wayne Perkins/The Carter Center

Long recognized as one of the pioneers of the caregiving movement, Rosalynn Carter is known for her famous description of the life event of caregiving in America:

You have been a caregiver

You are a caregiver

You will be a caregiver

Or someone will be caring for you

 In her book, Helping Yourself Help Others – A Book for Caregivers, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter writes, “We can learn to approach caregiving as a blessing as well as a challenging task.” 

She knows of what she speaks firsthand:  Rosalynn was only 12-years-old when her father was diagnosed with terminal leukemia.  As the eldest daughter, she helped care for her ailing father and supported her mother by also caring for her younger siblings.  She took up caregiving again for several relatives with cancer after she left the White House and most recently was caregiver for her mother who died in 2000 at age 94.

Rosalynn’s gift to caregivers comes from a lifetime of understanding the challenges — emotional, physical and financial — that accompany caring for a loved one.  A long-time devoted and determined advocate for those Americans with mental health issues, Rosalynn Carter is also behind the founding of the Rosalynn Carter Institute (RCI) for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, Georgia.

While women may be seen as “the power behind the throne,” these First Ladies are proof that women also put the heart into caregiving.

 Learn More:

About Blog Author Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self care” while caring for a loved one. She is the former chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving and is currently writing a book about celebrities who have been caregivers.

Oct 192012
 

Choice is a luxury and usually a gift.  As a caregiver to a loved one, the absence of choice is a difficult concept to grasp when you are accustomed to the illusion of choice and control in your life. It is earth- shaking to have circumstance thrust upon you, pushing you towards decisions that may go against your grain. – Tania Richard

My mother was diagnosed with dementia in the summer of 2011.  At the time, my youngest kids were three and one. My blended family includes my husband, four kids and a large sheepdog living in a three bedroom townhouse. There was no room for my Mother to live with us comfortably, and no funds to pay for a 24-hour caregiver, which she needed because she could not be left alone.

My parents didn’t plan for their retirement. Their choice determined that I had few options when it came to choosing where my mother would live. The nursing home with a dementia unit I chose would have to be one covered by Medicaid.

She would be fed, clothed and housed with no adornment or extra amenities. My Mother, a private woman, would share a room with two other people.

I could choose to wreck myself over the fact that my Mother was living there, or I could choose to accept it and focus on the fact that she was safe and physically sound.

I had to remind myself that my Mother had not been living a quality life for the past year as her home fell into disrepair and her hygiene declined. The nursing home would be an improvement. I would have to tell myself that every time I visited her.

She was happy in her new environment and made new friends. My Mother before her diagnosis would never have been happy in the nursing home. My Mother with dementia was quite content.

Finally, I felt as if I could make a choice that would empower me and the Serenity Prayer was a guiding force:

            God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
           Courage to change the things I can,
          
And wisdom to know the difference.

 These are wise words for caregivers to live by as they navigate the world for the person in their charge.

Learn More:

About the Blog Author Tania Richard
In addition to being a wife, mother, writer, actress and teacher, Tania Richard was a caregiver for her mother, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2011 and passed away the following year. In the short time Tania was her mother’s caregiver, she learned a great deal about the challenges caregivers face.

Aug 302012
 
Shirley is a full-time Alzheimer's caregiver

We spoke with Shirley Sillman, wife and caregiver of Bob Sillman, who was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s in 2007.

Have you noticed stigma or jokes about Alzheimer’s in pop culture?

Of course.  But we (society) tend to mask our fears and misunderstanding though humor.  I do it every day.  If I didn’t joke or laugh about it — especially with Bob — I would probably be a wreck.  Do jokes marginalize and ultimately stigmatize the disease?  My view of the world these days is pretty selective, considering caregiving is a full-time job.  I haven’t noticed that pop culture has had the chance to really address this disease, I think because of how misunderstood it is.

Were you surprised by the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s?

With all of the information at our finger tips these days,  it surprises me more when I see the blank look of people who don’t know what to say or do when they learn Bob’s has Alzheimer’s.  I often wonder if people are more uncomfortable with themselves than with the disease.  On one hand, leprosy can be held up as an example of a disease which holds the ultimate social stigma society can offer.  The condition is terrible, and even in the absence of actually encountering someone with leprosy, we’re all conditioned that those afflicted are outcasts and should be avoided at all cost.  Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, invokes a very honest insight into what people know about the disease (and importantly, how to react to someone with this disease).   Where is the collective conditioning that you find with leprosy (or any other disfiguring, immediately degenerative disease)?  It’s not there.  Nobody has really explained to us how to act and cope with this one.

How did you deal with the stigma?

I can only answer this as it relates to my own circle of friends and family. I deal with it as directly as possible.  In the case of family, friends and neighbors, the best approach has been to educate them early on and as much as possible.  Not unlike the shock you see after an accident or catastrophic event, people need (in some cases want) to be instructed what to do.  I believe laying down all of the facts and telling friends, family and strangers how they can help Bob is crucial. In the absence of understanding is fear and uncertainty.  It’s really easy to look away when you can’t identify with and understand what you don’t know.

What advice would you give other families dealing with stigma associated with Alzheimer’s?

Don’t let it spread in your social circle — your family, friends and neighbors.  You cannot (and should never) force anyone to cope with what they are unwilling to handle, but certainly know your facts about the disease and educate those closest to you. You can hope that some of what you impart and share with them will make it to another set of ears that may have a desire to learn more.  That’s how ignorance is overcome: one person at a time.  Ask people 30 years ago about the symptoms of heart disease and compare those answers to what people know now, and I’ll bet you’ll find that all of that public education about heart disease has paid off.

What would you say to the people who believe the stigma surrounding Alzheimer’s?

This is a tough one. Because until people are directly impacted and affected by what they fear (or do not understand), it is unlikely that they will change their mind or perception about the disease.

Learn More:

Shirley and Bob Sillman Sillman live in Oklahoma where they are very active with their local Alzheimer’s Association chapter. Bob was recently featured in a Walk to End Alzheimer’s television ad. Their team, Forget Us Not, has raised nearly $5,000 to support Alzheimer’s research, programs and care. To find a Walk to End Alzheimer’s in your area, click here

Jul 302012
 
Photo courtesy of Kristine Walsh

Caregiving blogger Sherri Snelling spoke to actors Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker about their journey in caring for Jill’s mother who has dementia.  At the heart of their story is family and how “eat, pray, love” may be their new catchphrase when it comes to caregiving. 

What struck me the most when I spoke to Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker – her partner in marriage, career and life – was that in all things they are a team.  We even did the interview with the two of them together, at their suggestion, and it gave me a glimpse into how their special bond of support, respect and caring for each other is a recipe for all couples who face a tough caregiving situation.  In fact, their story is about love of family and food and the ingredients needed to keep it all cooking.  Jill and Mike are like salt and pepper shakers – two distinct personalities and characters – but you never pass one without the other.

We all watched them as one of our favorite TV couples in the 80s and 90s in their roles on the Emmy-winning series L.A. Law (what boomer woman can forget the famous Venus Butterfly episode?).  Since then, both Mike and Jill have thrived as solo artists – Mike as an actor and as an acclaimed author, and Jill as a continually sought-after star on stage and screen with her latest turn in the movie, Young Adult.   However, it is when they are performing together – whether it is playing the couple in Broadway’s Love Letters, or caring for Jill’s mother with dementia – that they really are at their best.

 Our House in Umbria

For many years, New York City-based Jill and Mike, have been vacationing with friends – sometimes for weeks, other times for months – in the lovely Italian countryside in the Spoleto Valley of Umbria, Italy.   This is where the couple recharges – the sumptuous food that infuses Mike’s meals, the chilled wine, the warm people, the beauty of the olive trees and the vineyards versus the urban jungle – it is their version of Cinema Paradiso.

It was on one such trip about six years ago that Jill and Mike went from the calm of their Italian reverie into the storm of caregiving.  Jill’s mom, Lora, was 87-years-old at the time and had been living in a Santa Barbara, Calif., assisted living facility for several years with her husband, Ralph.  Although Lora had been hard of hearing for more than 40 years and had been experiencing some memory lapses, she was in pretty good health for an octogenarian.  But Jill had recently grown worried.  Her mom had started having paranoid fantasies according to Ralph and she had survived a fall, which according to the Centers for Disease Control puts 2 million seniors into emergency rooms every year, and Ralph was not in good health.  Just a few days into their latest Italian sojourn, Jill and Mike got the call that Ralph had died.

“All of a sudden I felt so far away,” says Jill.  She had been anxious of leaving her mom before this trip and now the guilt washed over her for not being by her mom’s side.   As the weeks rolled by after Ralph’s funeral, Jill’s daily phone calls to her mom could no longer bridge the 3,000-mile distance.   After a few in-person visits and more falls, it became clear to Jill that her mother needed more care. But, moving her into the assisted living’s dementia care center seemed wrong.  Jill still was not sure Lora was “there yet,” Lora would be isolated from neighbors and friends and as Jill says, “It just wasn’t family.”

While at first Mike felt some resentment as his Umbrian dreams were put on hold and his concerns mounted about the toll this would take on his wife, he said, “Jill’s focus was on her mom but my eye was on Jill.  My new job was to help her do the right thing.”

 Mamma Mia!

One of the toughest decisions for caregivers, especially those 7 to 8 million long-distance caregivers of older parents, is wondering whether it is better to have them live in a special facility that can provide the care they need or move them into your home or closer to you so that you can care for them.

“My mom was calling people at all times of the night, wandering off and eventually it got to a point where she was physically attacking the nurses caring for her after a bad fall,” says Jill.  “One night we went to dinner with our son Max, and he said what I had been in denial about, ‘you have to move Lolo to New York City.’  At that moment I looked over at Mike and he just nodded and I knew this is what we had to do.”

Many caregivers of older parents, even those who are married or who have siblings who can help, often tell me they feel “all alone.”  While Jill is an only child, the secret ingredient in her caregiving situation is that she never had that feeling – she had Mike.

“It was a huge moment in that restaurant when I looked at Mike and I just knew no matter what, he was going on this journey with me,” says Jill.  “Believe me, the last thing Mike wanted to do was have my mother in our lives every minute.  Even though he loved her, Mike felt my personality changed, and not for the better, when I was around my mother.” Now, not only would Mike have Lora in the same city but he would have to live with the “two Jills.”

What came next is something almost all caregivers face because so few families have that essential caregiving conversations before a crisis hits. (In fact, only one-third of all caregivers have had any conversation with their older loved one about long-term care.)   Jill and Mike had to look for the paperwork to close Lora’s bank and other accounts; they had to deal with Lora’s expired passport and driver’s license to get her on the plane to New York.  They also needed to find a memory care facility in New York City, and the list didn’t stop there.  After the move to New York, it eventually became clear that although Lora needed almost constant care, the facility that Jill and Mike found for her was not a good fit.

Caregiving As An Ensemble Show

The solution came when the apartment literally across the hall from Jill and Mike became available and they moved Lora (whom the family calls Lolo) in.  Around the same time both son, Max, and their daughter, Alison, from Mike’s first marriage, found themselves living in New York and helping out with caregiving duties.  Alison, who is a chef and personal caterer, cooks most of Lora’s meals, Max gives his parents some respite by playing companion to his grandmother (when he is not playing drums in his band) and two professional nurses round out the “a la famigla” that Mike had always envisioned as part of their Italian excursions but is actually now playing out in the Big Apple.

Photo courtesy of Kristine Walsh

“We could not have planned it better but going through this experience really brought us together as a family,” says Mike.  Besides the familial ties, Mike believes his gifts from caregiving are that he and Jill have become even closer and that he is now more realistic about his future and how he will want his family to care for him.  Jill told me that she feels caregiving has taught her to “just let things happen and to not be in denial because it doesn’t serve you.”   She also feels it has improved the communication she and Mike have and his support has allowed her to really discover who she was through this experience.

As the “Tuckerberry” family gathered recently for Lora’s 93rd birthday, Jill and Mike have proven successful as both co-stars on screen, in life and in caregiving.  When I think of Jill and Mike, I think of Julia Child’s quote, “…nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should.”

Learn More:

About Blog Author Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self care” while caring for a loved one. She is the former chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving and is currently writing a book about celebrities who have been caregivers.

Jun 012012
 
Lee and Val

I’m Valerie Ferrero, wife, mother and care partner. My husband Lee was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s (also known as early-onset Alzheimer’s)  in November 2008. This is the beginning of my story…..

It is difficult to know what action to take, what plans to make, or what the future holds when you don’t have the answer to the “elephant in the room.” It took more than seven years for us to get Lee’s diagnosis of younger-onset Alzheimer’s.

We began noticing problems when Lee was in his early- to mid-50s. He was the CEO/President of a local non-profit. I realized that things were worse than I suspected when his staff started calling me to find out what was going on or why he missed a meeting. I had been noticing early signs for some time by this point.

I really didn’t know that the problem would turn out to be Alzheimer’s. For one thing my husband was young.  Alzheimer’s happened to older people — or so I thought. He kept telling me it was the stress of his job, and I preferred to think that rather than any alternative.

In our quest for answers, we visited the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2006, where Lee was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment and Executive Dysfunction. The doctor prescribed a low dose of Aricpet and suggested that Lee might want to retire. He also stressed that Mild Cognitive Impairment does not necessarily turn in to Alzheimer’s. The doctor wanted us to return in a year.

We returned home and went about our daily lives. We saw a bit of improvement in Lee’s memory issues. But as the year went on, I was still hearing from his office and noticing changes myself.  Lee has always been a “people” person. Suddenly, he didn’t want to go to events or meetings. I sensed changes in his personality.  Negativity was creeping in where it had never been before. The little things were slowly becoming bigger issues. My once confident husband was losing his self-confidence. He began to second guess himself. And he worked longer and longer hours to make up for the loss of work time in the day.

His work was still stressful and he had become distant and defensive.  Things were getting progressively worse. We returned to the Mayo Clinic about a year and half later. The first visit we were there for several days. This time we flew in and out the same day.  The diagnosis was still Mild Cognitive Impairment and Executive Dysfunction.  The doctor wanted to continue to monitor his progress.

Again, we continued on in our everyday world, but friends were beginning to ask if anything was wrong. Lee was showing more signs of something being very wrong and of considerable stress. He had convinced himself that it was only work-related stress, but by this time I could no longer ignore the “elephant in the room.”

Our children were very aware of the problem from speaking with him every weekend and when they visited. The same story would be repeated over and over again. The same question asked over and over again.  This was creating a great deal anxiety for me. I was working and trying to balance the situation at home. It became increasingly difficult. I really needed answers.

I began to notice several troubling changes. He became dependent and seemed to need to know that I was around. This was something totally alien to me. I finally mentioned to our doctor that we needed to do something closer to home. This is when he mentioned the University of California, San Francisco. Another patient suffered similar problems and had had good luck at UCSF.

We scheduled the appointment as soon as possible. Our daughter, Jenny, was pregnant with our grandson John at the time. Our son, Eric, lives in Manhattan. Eric offered to go to the clinic with us. At first I resisted thinking of his costs and time. Fortunately, I relented and he met us in San Francisco. He set up the hotel rooms and everything for us. It was really helpful to have him there.

We were scheduled for early in the morning. I brought copies of all of the records from our never-ending quest for a diagnosis. The day before the visit Lee had an MRI of the brain. We picked up the CD of the scan to take with us. Lee went off with a couple of doctor’s and Eric and I met with other staff. They asked a lot of questions, and I gave them the records we’d brought with us. A little after noon, Lee and the doctor came out. The doctor said that we needed to return about 2 p.m. for a meeting and review of the morning.

Off we went to lunch on the campus. We arrived back at the memory clinic and waited in a conference room with a long table. We were joined by the different members of the staff that the three of us had been meeting with earlier, as well as students and some other doctors. There was a doctor from England. Dr. Bruce Miller, the memory center director.

Dr. Miller asked what we wanted to get out of the visit. My response, “answers.” He then explained the diagnosis. It was “Early Onset Alzheimer’s” (now often referred to as “Younger Onset Alzheimer’s).  He did several tests right there with Lee and asked him a number of questions. The other doctors also asked questions.

Dr. Miller advised Lee that he would have to retire. Lee didn’t think that retiring would be necessary. Eric asked Dr. Miller, “Would it be feasible for my Dad to get another job? He thinks that all he needs to do is get another job without stress.” Dr. Miller advised Lee that retirement was a must. He would not be able to work again. He could get another job and not remember what he was doing one day or why he was there. He recommended doing any of the things that we really wanted to do in the next couple of years.

Even though I was expecting to hear something like Alzheimer’s, it was still mind numbing to actually hear it. Dr. Miller asked if Lee would be willing to make a video for students. He wanted to demonstrate a highly functional, articulate younger than usual person with Alzheimer’s. Lee readily agreed.

We went back to the hotel and called our daughter. Even though she too knew the probable outcome, she was in tears. We were all both physically and emotionally drained. The next morning Eric headed back to New York and we started the four hour drive home.  We talked a little but were really feeling the weight of the diagnosis and lost in our own thoughts.

Forward to today: On most days, I understand and accept the diagnosis. Some days, however, I wonder if there’s been a mistake. For a brief, shining moment our world seems normal.  Then in the blink of an eye, we’re back in the reality of the situation. But while Alzheimer’s complicates our lives, it doesn’t end them. We try to live more in the present and to educate ourselves as much as possible about the disease. Knowledge helps us cope. We  attend a support group for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s and their care partners,  and we volunteer for the Alzheimer’s Association whenever possible. They give so much too so many that we like to give back whenever we are able.

Read Lee’s experience receiving a diagnosis of younger-onset Alzheimer’s.

Blog author Val Ferrero is a Senior Admissions Advisor with California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.  In 2008, Val’s spouse Lee Ferrero was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since that time, Val has committed herself as a care partner and advocate in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Val and Lee have been married for 41 years and together have 2 children and one grandchild.

Mar 092012
 
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This post originally appeared on the ChicagoNow blog, “Ask Dr. Chill: Practical Answers to the Toughest Caregiving Questions.” It is being reposted here with the author’s permission.

Almost eight years at the Alzheimer’s Association — five at the Utah Chapter and close to three at the National Office right here in Chicago — left equally enduring imprints on my mind and heart. The mental imprint is analytical, bridging science and people in the shape of a fervent belief that a cure is inevitable.

The imprint on my heart is much different. It’s in the form of my own grandmother, who died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia at the age of 89. It’s a delicate imprint, and it still hurts sometimes, even though she died more than 20 years ago. I see her face in almost every person I meet who has the disease.

It is because of these imprints that I took great interest in the Alzheimer’s Association’s recent release of its 2012 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures Report. This compendium of facts is impressive and startling. For a very cool visual summary of the toll that Alzheimer’s disease takes on individuals, caregivers, families, and the health care system, check out this 2-minute video marking the report’s release:

It gave Dr. Chill the chills…and some tears. According to the report, there are more than 15 million caregivers in the United States caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. In 2011, they provided over 17 billion hours of care valued at more than $210 billion.

But here’s the thing that really disturbs me. Caregivers don’t only care for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. There are caregivers for people with cancer, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and those who had a stroke among other health complications. Some of you reading this blog may be caring for someone with a developmental or physical disability. Others might be taking care of someone who is simply having trouble maintaining independence due to the normal course of aging.

The numbers in the Alzheimer’s Association’s report are stunning, but they paint just one swath of the caregiver landscape. I started to wonder how much of the landscape remained. Some digging turned up a 2009 report—the most recent I could find that provides general numbers — compiled by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP. Caregiving in the US states there are 65.7 million caregivers in the United States caring for someone who is aged, disabled, and/or ill. Now that’s really stunning.

Remember that mental imprint I described? The analytical, more objective one. When I hear these kinds of numbers, my mind turns toward concepts of magnitude, awareness, research, the badly mired health care system, graphs, charts, grant proposals, and yes, cool videos that send shivers down my spine. In other words, I see the big picture.

But if you recall that other, more subjective imprint inside me — the one on my heart — I see a different vision. Try to imagine these massive numbers melting together into an indecipherable glob of hurt. What I see is one caregiver, one that represents the hundreds I’ve known over the years. She is tired, distraught, scared and doesn’t know where to turn for help. She feels incredibly alone. Yet she is not alone. As we’ve learned, she is literally in the company of millions.

It’s a bittersweet reality.

About Guest Blog Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D. is a freelance writer specializing in caregiving, psychology, and aging. Her blog, “Ask Dr. Chill,” provides practical answers to the toughest caregiving questions.

 

Feb 032012
 

As millions tune in to the Super Bowl this Sunday, I am cheering for one football wife who tackled her husband’s dementia with a game plan to keep their lives as normal as possible and in the process found her calling as a caregiving advocate. Her passionate plea to the NFL, one of the most powerful organizations in sports, resulted in the “88 Plan,” a break-through long-term care plan that gives security and support to former players and their families when it comes to brain-related illness.

While this story is about caregiving, football and dementia, at its heart, this is a love story.

For Love of the Game . . . and the Man

When it comes to the gladiators of the gridiron, he was the Charlton Heston or Russell Crowe of his day. But, in the end, it would be his wife – on the sidelines of his entire career – who would become the warrior at the center of the action.

When John Mackey, No. 88, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992, he was only the second tight end to receive the honor. He was and still is considered one of the best tight ends to ever take the field. In fact, Mike Ditka, himself a Hall of Fame player and the first “pure” tight-end to be inducted into that rare club of exceptional players, stated that Mackey should have been first.
As a Baltimore Colt, where he played all but the last year of his career, John scored one of the most famous plays in NFL championship history. It was Super Bowl V played in 1971, that John caught the nail-biting pass from quarterback Johnny Unitas that first careened off the hands of the opposite team’s player, grazed the fingertips of his teammate and finally wound up safely in the arms of John who then ran it for a then- record 75-yard touchdown. It was this decisive play that helped the Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys and won John his coveted Super Bowl ring.

Twenty-one years later, as John took his place in football’s pantheon of great players for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, right by his side was the woman who had been in that same spot since his college playing days, his wife, Sylvia. Theirs would prove to be a true love story, challenged only by a devastating medical diagnosis.
Little did either John or Sylvia know that day in 1992 that 14 years later, John’s toughest battles would be fought off the football field with his lovely wife serving as both tackler and blocker. At age 65 John Mackey was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a degenerative disease caused by the rapid deterioration of the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.

Tackling Dementia

What makes Sylvia’s story one of inspiration is that this diagnosis could have sacked her (in football parlance) but instead she did not let this devastating news knock her down. One incident that highlights the special challenges that dementia caregivers face was played out at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport.

“John and I were on our way to the Super Bowl – we never missed one and I was determined this was something we were going to continue to do – it always made John happier as we got ready for these annual trips,” said Sylvia.

But, this year was different. There was an incident with the TSA airport security that almost took them both down – literally. Her husband, proudly wearing his Super Bowl ring and trademark cowboy hat, refused to remove these items and place them on the conveyor belt to be scanned. In his mind, he did not understand that there had been a 9/11, he did not understand why they did not recognize him, and ultimately he thought they were trying to rob him of his precious possessions.

As John grew more frustrated with the TSA agents who, unaware of his diagnosis, thought he was just being a belligerent traveler, the agents grew increasingly irritated and finally tackled him but not after chasing the six-foot two-inch 220-pound former football player who dragged the agents several feet through the airport until several more agents joined in, handcuffed him and took him off to jail.

All the while, a tearful and frightened Sylvia was trying her best to explain to the agents and the curious onlookers that her husband was the NFL great and one of Baltimore’s favorite sons, John Mackey, that his illness meant he had no ability to understand what was happening, and ultimately she begged the officers to let her proud husband go. She collapsed while they dragged her confused husband away, and thought to herself, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore.”

Hemingway wrote that courage is grace under fire. When Sylvia caught up with her husband at the police station, John was back to his typical, jovial, social self – signing autographs for many of the police officers who finally recognized the NFL great. It was at this moment as her husband basked in the bright light of his fame, that she realized she could not give up on her husband or herself. That is when her courage took flight.

Instead of deciding that attending future Super Bowls or other travel would be out of the question, Sylvia got to work contacting the head of TSA at Baltimore/Washington International. She explained her situation and asked for his help to allow her husband to travel – especially to the sporting events and autograph signings that he truly lived for and were important to maintaining some type of normalcy in their lives.

The TSA executive designed a plan with Sylvia to have John brought through a private area where they could scan him without incident and without his having to remove items precious to him. In addition, the TSA executive also would contact the TSA executive at the arrival airport to explain how similar treatment of John upon his return flight out of their airport would be helpful to avoid any similar, dramatic incidents that neither party wanted.

And, these special plans are not just for those with famous last names. One lesson all caregivers can take from Sylvia’s travel strategy is to plan ahead and ask a lot of questions. Most airports will work with caregivers on the special travel needs of their loved ones.

The Final Play

Sadly, John Mackey lost his battle with dementia and passed away in 2011. A few years before losing her husband, Sylvia had written a passionate letter to then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue asking for more support for retired players when it comes to their long-term-care (LTC). In his decade-long career, Mackey made about $500,000 – a salary that many back-up players make in one season today. The LTC plan was championed by current Commissioner Roger Goodell and was adopted by the NFL in 2007. The “88 Plan,” was named to honor Mackey’s jersey number and provides retired players suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, ALS or Parkinson’s disease with $88,000 annually for long-term care or adult day care or $50,000 to secure care at home.

Today, Sylvia is a board member of the Association of Frontotemporal Degeneration (AFTD) and speaks to caregivers across the country about the impact of dementia on families.

As the Giants and Patriots prepare to square off in Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLVI, Sylvia’s message to all caregivers on this game day – and every day – is to “Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.”

This is an excerpt on Sylvia Mackey’s story from Sherri Snelling’s book on celebrity caregivers and the lessons of love and caring that will be published in November, 2012.
©2012 Sherri Snelling

Learn More:

About Blog Author Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling, CEO and founder of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers with special emphasis on how to help caregivers balance “self care” while caring for a loved one. She is the former chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving and is currently writing a book about celebrities who have been caregivers.

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