Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month

It’s June –  Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. Did you know that? If not, no worries. I’m here to tell you all about it. Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month is a time to help raise awareness about a disease that affects millions of people world-wide. Though researchers know a lot about Alzheimer’s, they still don’t have a cure, which makes the disease still a mystery. That’s why purple is the color designated to Alzheimer’s, because it symbolizes mystery. But purple also represents magic, and it is that magical day millions of us are waiting for, the day when we can say with confidence that Alzheimer’s no longer exists, that it is no longer a threat to us or our loved ones. During the month of June, the Alzheimer’s Association encourages us to wear purple, to spread a purple light in honor of all affected by this life-robbing disease.

To learn more about Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month,  I encourage you to read this past Sunday’s special section of the Burlington Free Press. Here you will find my article, “Agitation in Alzheimer’s, about the latest research involving an investigational medication to help reduce agitation in those living with the disease. In the 31-page section, you’ll also find personal narratives about individuals with Alzheimer’s, stories about the role of caregivers, support services available, and the community’s efforts to raise awareness.

Happy June!

Wear purple; wear hope.

 

“The sky is already purple; the first few stars have appeared, suddenly, as if someone had thrown a handful of silver across the edge of the world.”

Alice Hoffman, Here on Earth

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Transportation for Seniors

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I’m here to share with you my latest interview with ITNAmerica, a nonprofit transportation network for seniors serving fifteen states. “Why the interview?” you might be wondering. Have you ever thought about how you would manage your day-to-day life if you couldn’t drive? Do you ever think about what you’ll do when you’re old and frail, or old and ill, and can’t drive? While I don’t lose sleep over it, I do think about it. I think about how I’ll get to the grocery store, the bank, the movies, and, of course, the wine outlet. The answer: because my immediate world has left me with few emergency exists through which I can escape such dread-filled questions.

My eighty-eight-year-old mother-in-law, who lives in a condo down the hall from my husband and me, is blind in one eye and has dementia. She cannot driven; by choice she has not driven for years (God bless her), and depends on family for transportation. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, she prefers not to leave the house very much. When my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the dents and scratches scarring the front and rear of his car left me no other choice but to take the keys away from him, he had to learn to accept that caregivers would be driving him to and from the bank, doctor’s appointments, and his favorite Italian restaurant. And because it was an older driver who slammed into me, and seveny-two others, while I was visiting a farmers’ market in California years ago, I can’t help imagine how all seventy-three of our lives would be much different if the driver had access to transportation services, and was willing to use them.

I learned about ITNAmerica while researching news articles for a writing project and, ironically enough, learned that the founder, Katherine Freund, experienced a similar tragedy to mine and dozens of others: In 1988, an eighty-four-year-old driver ran down her three-year-old son. He survived, but suffered a traumatic brain injury. Instead of letting herself get swallowed-up by anger, Katherine, an inspirational speaker who has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and on CNN, and has won numerous awards recognizing her work around public health initiatives, made lemonade out of lemons (forgive me for the cliched proverbial phrase). She built and supported community-based senior transportation services.

Like Katherine, I too feel summoned to advocate for the most efficient and cost effective transportation options for the older population. While here in Northern Vermont we have Neighbor Rides and Special Services Transportation Agency (SSTA), I’m not sure that’s enough. After all, an estimated 25% of Vermonters will be sixty-five and older by 2030. Believe it or not, Vermont ranks higher than Florida when it comes to age: 42.8 versus 41.9.

What transportation options for elders are available in your community? Maybe you’re twenty-nine, thirty-three, or fifty, like me, and saying this to yourself: it’s too soon to plan for when I’m eighty, eighty-nine, one hundred.

But I must agree with Jodi Picoult: “Time is an optical illusion- never quite as solid or strong as we think it is.”

 

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Long-Term Care Costs

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I like to believe that I’m too young to think about who will take care of me when I’m old and frail and can no longer prepare my own meals, bathe myself, or even tie my own shoes. But my father’s personal narrative has taught me to plan ahead: I now have an advance directive, and hope to have enough money set aside for long-term care costs, like an assisted living, or, do I dare say it? Nursing home. A place that most of us hope to avoid. We remind our loved ones, over and over, “Never, ever put me in a nursing home.”

My father spoke those exact words to me, time and again, in the years before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, at age seventy-one, though he punctuated them with what might as well have been an exclamation point: “If you do, I won’t live a year.”
I wanted to guarantee my father that I would never “put” him in a nursing home. As his health care proxy (HCP), I did all I could to follow through with his documented wishes: “It’s my expressed desire not to be placed in an assisted living facility, or nursing home, or any other institutionalized living arrangement.” During the early phases of my father’s Alzheimer’s, he was able to stay at home with a paid companion a few hours a week. But as his disease progressed, he required full time care, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

He didn’t have a wife to care for him. I live in Vermont with my husband, my older sister lives in California, and my younger brother and his wife have demanding jobs, with two young children in tow. None of us could have easily packed away our lives and moved in with our father; we had to hire a home care agency. But no way could the three of us afford the exorbitant cost of upwards of $14,000 a month for trained home care staff and case management services. This is when we cashed in on my father’s foresight: Because he’s a perennial over thinker, and could afford it, he had purchased long-term care insurance (LTC) – a policy that covers personal care in the home or institutional setting – years earlier. We managed, barely though, to keep my father at home for three years. Yes, the inevitable happened, and he’s been in a nursing home for a year now – a nice nursing home with attentive staff, decent food, lots of activities, a flower-bordered patio, and a pastel-painted dining room with tall windows.

But what happens to those who can’t afford the prohibitive price for long-term care insurance, or the out-of pocket costs for home care services – services typically not covered by insurance – or the fees for a nursing home? In the U.S, with the older population – people sixty-five and older – at nearly close to fifty million, which is predicted to nearly double to an eye-popping ninety eight million by 2060, I imagine those kinds of questions are being asked at a lot of dinner tables. My husband, his siblings, and I, ask one another those questions as we scramble to piece together a plan to care for his eighty-eight-year-old mother, who is blind in one eye and has dementia. Her dementia is at a stage where she doesn’t need to be in a nursing home or an assisted living facility. But she no longer drives, and needs assistance preparing some meals and doing household tasks, she is also at high risk for falling. But she doesn’t have the funds to pay for home care. That leaves her with one option left: family. For now, one of her sons, who recently resigned from his job, is living with her full-time. But that’s not sustainable, financially or emotionally, for her son. Fortunately, my husband comes from a large family, and his siblings are willing to sign up for shifts.

Here’s why having family available to help is a saving grace: Taking into account three types of care – assisted living, independent living, and memory care – the average monthly cost in the U.S. is nearly $4,000. The Northeast is the most expensive in the nation: just over $5,000 a month. The average daily cost of nursing home care runs about $250 a day for a private room, more than $90,000 a year. But nursing home care is a whole different animal from other types of elder care, and this is where it gets confusing: If you, or your loved one, need nursing home services on a temporary basis – due to an illness or injury – and you have Medicare, great, the government will pick up your tab, but, of course, only if certain requirements are met. And they’ll pay the full cost for only so long: exactly twenty days. For the next eighty days, you get to pitch in: about $130 a day. On day one hundred, Medicare is no longer an option. And they don’t pay for long-term nursing home care. If you can’t afford LTC, and you don’t have Medigap – a non-government insurance plan – and are not a veteran, that’s when you dig deep into your pockets, cash in life insurance policies, reach out to family, praying you haven’t done anything to offend them, or, to qualify for Medicaid, sell just about every last possession you own, including your house.

That’s why procrastination isn’t your best friend. Where do I start? You might ask. A Place for Mom, the largest senior living referral service in the U.S., offers tips on how to prepare for the kind of care you might need as you age. If you believe you’re immune to aging, even after reading this post, I should share with you what James Salter, author of All That Is , has to say: “Age doesn’t arrive slowly, it comes in a rush … You are the same and still the same and suddenly one morning two distinct lines, ineradicable, have appeared at the corners of your mouth.”

Since I can’t bear ending on a minor key, I’ll leave you with this: You have a voice, so don’t be afraid to use it. Speak out, share your concerns about the rising costs of long-term care, even if your voice is out of tune: As Joni Mitchell says, “The more out of tune voices the better.”

 

This above post was originally published on June 3, 2016 at Strategy Health Care

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Music and Memory

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While researching the effects of music on memory for an article I recently wrote for my local newspaper, I had the opportunity to speak with a participant of an adult day program in the area. Like most of the other participants, he has Alzheimer’s. When speaking with him, he shared with me his life-long passion for classical music, and invited me to listen to one of his favorite albums that he just happened to have with him at the program that day. He slipped it onto the 1940’s turntable situated in the center of the homelike furnished room, then lowered the needle onto the record. He started humming to the piano solo, snapping his fingers, sweeping his arms through the air, performing a music conductor’s dance.

The music did something for him, to him. Perhaps you know what that feels like. When you hear a specific song from your past, what happens? You can’t help but time-travel in your mind, linking that song to a long-ago, meaningful event, like the day you got married, or your high school senior prom, or the one, and only, time you sang Karaoke. Research indicates that listening to music activates regions in the brain responsible for motor activity, emotions,  creativity, and autobiographical memories. Listening to music is particularly beneficial to those suffering from memory loss, whether it’s from a traumatic brain injury, dementia, or Alzheimer’s.  Music calms ceaseless brain static, helping one to focus on the present and recall  long-term memories.

Dan Cohen, a social worker who founded the non-profit Music and Memory, recognizes the benefits of music, particularly for those suffering from memory loss. His wish to be able to listen to his favorite 60’s music if he were living in a nursing home was the driving force behind his idea to bring iPods, or other digital music technology into elder care facilities, with the  goal of delivering personalized music to the residents, thereby improving quality of life. The miracle-like effects of Music and Memory are evident in the documentary “Alive Inside.” The film features a nursing home resident wearing an iPod, listening to his favorite Cab Calloway songs. Within seconds of hearing the first song, he re-awakens, the music stirring him from his sedate, nearly unresponsive state. His eyes snap fully open, his voice singing in a clear vibrato, as if someone just reset his memory’s circuit breaker.

When I told my husband and two of his adult daughter’s, Rachel and Hannah, about Music and Memory during a recent family gathering we decided to make a list of our favorite songs to share with one another. We each took turns playing them on our iPhones, and, as we did, something remarkable happened: a flash-flood of melodic memories. “Hobo’s Lullaby!” Hannah called out. “Remember, Rachel, Dad used to play it all the time.” Then it was Rachel’s turn: “I learned this Fleetwood Mac song on my guitar. When was that, like ten years ago?” When I played “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, I felt as if I was back in high school again, singing out loud with my friends, “And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon …”

Which songs jump start your time-travel engine? Where do those songs take you?

 

 

 

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Visual Art and the Brain

Do you enjoy drawing, coloring, painting? So what if you are not a Picasso or a Van Gogh.  What I’m about to share with you just might inspire you to head out to your local art shop for colored pencils and a drawing pad. Research suggests that creating visual art enhances memory, and improves interactions between certain parts of the brain. Based on feedback from a small group of retirees, improvement in brain functioning may also strengthen one’s psychological state of mind.  This seems logical. After all, as researchers say, “The creation of visual art is a personal integrative experience—an experience of ‘flow,’ in which the participant is fully emerged in the creative activity.” With that integration, brain connections are strengthened, which, in turn, boosts self-confidence.

For individuals with a TBI, art is a form of therapy. It restores connections in the brain damaged by trauma. This restoration process is called neuroplasticity: the changes in nerve pathways of the brain that affect behavior. Yes, we can actually re-wire our brains by intentionally changing the way we think and do things. Since 2010, therapists at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), at Fort Belvoir, Virginia have been using art as a tool in treating war veterans who have sustained TBIs.

Art therapy does more than help to heal an injured brain. Jackie Briggs, a therapist at NICoE says, “For service members who might already have trouble expressing themselves … art therapy gives them a chance to use free expression, allowing whatever needs to bubble up from below the surface to be seen and evaluated.” When thoughts “bubble” up, service members gain a better understanding of their symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, and depression. With that deeper understanding, their relationships benefit, because they are able to effectively unearth their buried feelings and thoughts.

At NICoE, service members decorate blank papier-mâché masks. The reasoning behind using this form of art therapy is based on how trauma works; it blocks the part of the brain responsible for speech and language. The image of the mask itself is tangible, a concrete method of showing how service members are feeling. As one of the therapists at NICoE says, “the masks have given service members a visual voice.” The added benefit is that they know they are not being judged, or critiqued. Making the masks affords them the opportunity to explore, engage in the process of creating something that encourages free expression.

The formof art doesn’t matter. Art is art. Juliet Madsen, a veteran of two wars who sustained a TBI when a roadside bomb hit her convoy, likes to doodle. In an email exchange with her this past fall this is what she had to say about doodling:

Doodling stimulates your creative side, allows your body to calm down, takes the active stresses and puts them on the back burner, can sometimes give you an artistic answer to your problems if you open to it, and gives you a time out… I am a big fan. Once you are an accomplished Doodle Artist take a set of colored pencils to your work or thin point sharpies, then you are really working it.

Juliet inspired me. I bought myself a sketchpad and sharpie and started doodling. I’m now a big fan too!

Are you a doodler, a painter, a sketcher, a creator of masks? If not, why not join in. Grab a sharpie, a pen or pencil, a paintbrush. As Juliet said, “Stimulate your creative side.”

Cheers to free expression, to an integrative experience – and to a healthy brain!

If you want to learn more about the masks service members have created, read the “The Invisible War on the Brain,” published in February 2015 by National Geographic.

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/02/table-of-contents

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Stress and Aging

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With the holidays fast approaching, what comes to mind? The scent of pine, fruitcakes, latkes, fasting, the seven principles of Kwanzaa. What about stress? Crowds, too many family gatherings, pressure to buy gifts with money you don’t have – all kinds of stress. Sorry to be a downer, but during this time of year I can’t help but think about the consequences of stress.

Though it’s an act of survival, meaning we either flee from or fight against harm, stress also speeds up the aging process. It wreaks havoc on the brain, heart, skin, and more. Of course, if we think about aging long enough, and what might happen as we age, we become stressed. Many of the older people I met during my stint as a wellness nurse for the aging population used to caution me, “Don’t get old, it’s no fun.” So aging itself causes stress. Michael Verano, a therapist who writes and speaks a lot about stress, and calls himself a “stress therapist,” calls this the “chicken and the egg scenario.” In other words, what comes first, stress as a result of aging, or aging as a result of stress?

Verano also asks why seemingly intelligent people “have stress reactions when they know the reaction will have no impact on the situation?” For me, I know, intellectually, that there is no reason to worry about the negative outcomes that might occur in advance of, say, a lecture about writing I’m giving a week from now. My imagination has a way of coming up with the all kinds of dire scenarios: What if I forget my notes? What if I bore the audience and everyone falls asleep? What if someone says I don’t know what I’m talking about?  What if, what if? So, mentally, and emotionally, I worry.

Maybe my worrying is how I cope? Is it how you cope? Verano suggests that most of us believe stress is a coping mechanism, and he has gathered a list of statements to support that exact sentiment. For example, expecting that something bad will happen helps reduce the emotional pain if that negative outcome does occur. With this in mind, Verano came up with ideas to counter-act what he calls a “sea of stress.” My favorite one is putting a time limit on stress reactions. Verano encourages us to set a timer for, say, fifteen minutes, and freak out. But he cautions us not to do so around expensive items, or in public places. If we did, then we might really have something to stress out about.

Now that I’ve pressed you to think about your own stress level and, therefore, have most likely made you stressed, I hope this post helps.

Happy holidays!

 

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