Alzheimer's Services of Cape Cod and the Islands

By Sean Corcoran

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

It is estimated that about 8,500 people have Alzheimer's disease on Cape Cod and the Islands, and the number is expected to skyrocket when the baby boomers begin retiring. Alzheimer's Services of Cape Cod and the Islands in Hyannis is one of the organizations at the forefront of providing information, comfort and support as families face the disease.

Rich Havens of Forestdale first noticed his mother having trouble five years ago. At first, she just stopped doing the crossword puzzle and reading the daily newspaper, as had been her habit. Soon she couldn't balance her checkbook, and she started getting lost easily in the neighborhood. Havens essentially had to take over his mother's life, a task that can be difficult, both for the caregiver, and for the person with Alzheimer's, who often is confused by everything going on.

Rich Havens: "I always tell people there is a hump - and you can't really define it - there is a beginning, there is an ending, and as you progress. . . the hump means the point when the person who has the disease is no longer combative. The person accepts . . . once you reach that hump and go on the other side, it is a lot easier for the caregiver because then the decisions that you have to make on behalf of their health and wellbeing, you no longer have to worry about having to do battle with the one who has the affliction."

Havens' mother died last December. But before then, as the disease progressed, his search for information and support led him to Alzheimer's Services of Cape Cod in Hyannis.

Group meeting: "Good morning, good morning . . . ladies and gentleman, There are so many things to remember. . Great article . . . Walking and how that help. . . Anyone have anything remarkable happen that they want to talk about? I had a semi-annual physical the other day . . . "

On Tuesday mornings at ten, an early stage support group meets at Alzheimer's Services. Much of the talk is about ways people can keep their minds active. Researchers believe that keeping the brain nimble may help prevent the spread of Alzheimers. Some read newspapers aloud or do crossword puzzles. One man says he listens to the ball game on the radio each night, concentrating so he can picture every play in his mind.

Group meeting: "Does anyone here keep a memory notebook, or any type of calendar or schedule to keep them on track? I do . . . "

Most participants are brought to the group by their spouses or children, who then go meet together in a different room to discuss the issues they face as caregivers.

Eighty-Six-Year-old Trenor Gridell's wife died two years ago from complications related to Alzheimer's. He now volunteers for Alzheimer's Services doing filing and answering phones.

Trenor Gridell: "We met in our hometown many years ago, in Dighton, Massachusetts. Many people might not know where that is. But we were married for over sixty years. It was a very happy marriage. "

In the days after his wife first was diagnosed, Gridell sought out support groups. His sole purpose, he says, was to find out what he needed to do to keep his wife at home with him as long as he could.

Trenor Gridell: "We just had to face it, that's all. It was a situation where she was going to be deteriorating, and I learned a lot about the disease from the support group. . . We help one another. It is quite a process of mutual support."

Alzheimer's eats away at people's memories. Simple ways of functioning - how to brush ones hair or teeth, or how to get to the coffee shop down the street - all that can be lost, seemingly over night.

Kathy Pastva is the executive director of Alzheimer's Services of Cape Cod and the Islands. She says the disease can be particularly frightening, emotional and difficult to handle for the caregivers.

Kathy Pastva: "The primary family caregiver becomes sort of that person's memory, if you will. So that they're needing to remind that person of what to do next or where they need to be. And it can be exhausting. When people call us, even if we're not able to solve the problem entirely, just talking to someone who understands what this disease is and how it changes folks, and the kinds of challengers care givers face. I think that, in general, caregivers feel really good about being heard and being understood."

Pastva says that when people are first diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, it is common for family members and friends to retreat into denial. The person seems Ok, except for a little memory loss. But this is the time, in the early stages, for families to talk and for people to get their affairs in order. Decisions and preparations must be made, and Alzheimer's Services of Cape Cod is there to help.

Alzheimer's Services of Cape Cod & the Islands
712 Main Street
Hyannis, MA 02601
508-775-5656 Office hours: M-F: 8:30am-5:00pm
mailing address:
P.O. Box 953
Barnstable, MA 02630.

Broadcast October 6, 2005

Sean Corcoran reports for the Cape and Islands NPR Stations.