04/22/04 — Alzheimer Caregivers conference draws crowd

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Alzheimer Caregivers conference draws crowd

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 22, 2004 2:03 PM

Senility. Hardening of the arteries. Mental illness.

All terms once used to describe the behavior changes that accompanied "old age."

Today they might be more clearly defined as Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

"We know now that it's a physical disease of the brain," said Alice Watkins, executive director of the Eastern North Carolina Alzheimer's Association, which covers 51 counties.

The organization, along with Eastern Carolina Area Agency on Aging, sponsored a caregiver education conference on Wednesday at Wayne Community College. An estimated 150 family members and caregivers of Alzheimer's patients attended, along with 23 exhibitors.

"Education should begin at home," Ms. Watkins said. "When families are educated about the disease, then they know how to talk to the doctors, how to make better decisions about long-term care."

Though there is a high prevalence of the disease in those 65 years old and above, it is becoming more common to occur much earlier. There is also a genetic predisposition to dementia, Ms. Watkins said.

"It's something they're working on to try to prevent," she said. "Prevention and stabilizing are where the heaviest concentration of the research is now."

Mary Toler of Goldsboro, married for 42 years, said her husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer's over a year ago. Two of his sisters also have the disease and are in a nursing home.

"Every day is a new experience," she said. "Right now, we're blessed that we can maintain, but we travel back and forth to Duke for treatment."

She said she was surprised at the number of people at the seminar, but that it helped. "Sometimes you think you're all alone," she said.

Melissa Taylor of Goldsboro travels to Florida more regularly now that her father has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Her mother is his primary caregiver but is battling cancer for the third time.

"I'm trying to become as educated as I can, to help her and talk with him," Mrs. Taylor said during a break at the conference. Her father, who will be 85 in June, started showing symptoms more than a decade ago but was not diagnosed until a few year ago.

"It's hard to understand that they have a disease," she said. "You just think of memory loss as something that old people have.

"It's hard to accept and you constantly feel like the person can be different."

She and husband Tim are also parents to three children, ages 8, 10, and 12. The disease affects everyone in the family, she said, so she came to the conference to learn more about how to provide care.

"The way you communicate with the person is very important, the tone of your voice, what you can say to them," she said.

Johnnie Bishop of Goldsboro learned about the conference when she called the Alzheimer's Association for more information. She lives with her 92-year-old mother and has noticed some changes recently that might be attributed to dementia.

"I'm more involved and can see all the things that she does," she said. "I figure I will pick up some points from the workshops and get a better idea of what's going on with Mama, so I can take it back to my siblings."

Urshell Strayhorn of New Bern is a resident care coordinator and oversees 16 patients in an Alzheimer's unit. She said she faces the illness on a daily basis and is usually so busy, that there isn't a chance to sit down and learn more about it.

"I came out to gather more materials," she said of her decision to attend the conference.

Teepa Snow, program director for the Alzheimer's Association, said that first and foremost, it is important to stop blaming the ones with the disease and for the caregiver to change his own behavior.

"Their brain is dying," she said. "Things that are said go into a hole in their brain. ... They can't find it; somebody took the file cabinet and stole it."

She said that years ago, the school of thought was "reality orientation" or trying to bring the person back to reality. We learned "a lot of bad stuff" that doesn't apply today, she said.

"Their reality and my reality can never be the same again," Ms. Snow said. "We have got to stop trying to fill that hole.

"Instead of arguing, what you want to do is go with the flow, but you also want to meet the need. We have got to quit trying to correct things that don't need to be corrected."

Anne Paugh said she was pleased with the success of the conference she helped to organize.

She had extended the boundaries to include participants from Lenoir, Greene, Duplin, Sampson and Johnston counties. She said she also invited those counties to participate in this year's Memory Walk in the fall.