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You & Me: Program helps couples cope with memory-loss diagnosis

Susan Spangler, left, is the program coordinator for “You & Me,” an Alzheimer’s early intervention program for couples sponsored by the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Donna Evans is the support group coordinator for the “You & Me” program. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Alex Bridges - abridges@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- Couples face a hard time when a spouse begins to suffer from memory-loss ailments such as Alzheimer's.

Now the Shenandoah Area Agency on Aging has started a new initiative to help couples at an early stage cope with the problems associated with the diseases. "You & Me" is a specialized initiative focusing on people starting to suffer from memory loss attributed to Alzheimer's, according to Pamela Dodge, director of community care coordination with the SAAA.

The Virginia Department for the Aging estimates that 4,578 people age 65 and over who live in the SAAA's planning district have Alzheimer's, according to the most recent statistics. The SAAA covers Winchester and the counties of Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren.

You & Me is designed to alleviate some of the worry and confusion that often arises in caregivers and patients who receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, according to the SAAA.
The agency's Susan C. Spangler, program coordinator, and Donna Evans, support group coordinator, are heading up You & Me, which the SAAA recently started, though the initiative has been in the works for several years, according to Dodge.

Coordinators of the program plan to address what Spangler described as the "four pillars of brain health." Those are nutrition, physical exercise, stress management and mental stimulation.

"We try to find things that cover all those areas," Spangler said. "We want to try to educate people in those areas and then to find activities that relate to those areas."

A diagnosis of Alzheimer's can be "scary" to both the patient and caregiver, and may cause the person to not want help or companionship or to withdraw from social activities altogether.

"It's a scary disease," Evans said. "We're hoping to get them as soon as they get a diagnosis."

Addressing these issues at later stages of the disease doesn't have the same benefit, Dodge explained.

"We realized we were getting in too late," Dodge said recently, referring the agency's efforts to help couples. "So we know we need to get them earlier."

Dodge cited a 2006 article in The Gerontologist, titled "Dyadic Intervention for Family Caregivers and Care receivers in Early-Stage Dementia" that states "Research has shown that couples have benefited from a structured intervention that involved the person with early memory loss and dealt with care issues before the onset of significant stressors."
Couples in this case go beyond spouses, Dodge explained. The program also is aimed at helping the patient and the caregiver -- this can include life partners or children taking care of a parent or grandparent, Dodge said.

Organizers plan to use the program to offer learning tools and support for both the caregiver and the person suffering from the illnesses.

The program includes the use of memory activities either on the several computers the agency has, low-impact video games with the Nintendo Wii such as line-dancing or stepping, and educational exercises. The computers also can help the caregiver and the client to perform their own research on health and other topics.

You & Me will feature a regular schedule of "mentally stimulating activities," said Spangler.
SAAA workers also will give "homework sheets" to the participants to help extend the activities beyond the center, according to Evans.

The SAAA will run You & Me in the Active Living and Recreation Center in the War Memorial Building at Winchester's Jim Barnett Park. The program will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the client and caregiver may eat lunch provided by the SAAA to participants in the agency's other activities.

As Dodge explained, the program is aimed at helping those people in the earlier stages of memory loss. The SAAA has other programs geared toward clients in the later stages of Alzheimer's such as its socialized group respite homes in the region.

According to the SAAA, "parallel support groups provide a forum with peers to learn more about memory loss, deal with emotional issues, problem solve and plan for the future."
You & Me is available to couples in the area of Winchester, Frederick County and Clarke County where one person has recently had a diagnosis of Alzheimer's or other dementia. A patient and caregiver will meet with SAAA workers for an interview and assessment before their possible admission into the program, Dodge explained.

Contact Dodge at 635-7141 or 800-883-4122, ext. 208, for more information or to arrange a visit to You & Me.


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