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Beyond Alzheimer’s: Geisinger launches support group for dementia caregivers

DANVILLE – As it debuts its weekly support group designed to help caregivers and family members of those with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, Geisinger Medical Center points out it is now is one of two health systems in the country licensed to offer such a program.

Beyond Alzheimer’s originally was created by Patti Davis, daughter of former president Ronald Reagan, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about 10 years before his death in 2004.

Launched in 2011 at Saint John’s/Providence Health Center in Santa Monica, California, Davis works with co-facilitators to help address the clinical and emotional health of people caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s and various types of dementia.

“Person-to-person contact makes a tremendous difference,” Davis said of her support group in a 2016 interview. “I think being in a room of people who are all going through the same thing, in one form or another, is just in and of itself a comfort and is very healing. Suddenly, you are not alone.”

Geisinger’s facilitator for the program is Dr. Randy Fulton, a neuropsychologist with clinical experience in the diagnosis and behavioral management of dementias.

“Dementia is a term that explains any cognitive decline which impacts day to day living and worsens over time,” Fulton said.

Alzheimer’s is a “clinical syndrome of dementia,” one of several, he said. Risk does increase with age, Fulton said. In their 60s, most people have healthy cognitive function. Getting into their 80s, signs of disease become more common.

While around two-thirds of the population ages well with no evidence of a dementia, about 30 percent display symptoms as they age, he said.

“When we’re talking about such a debilitating disease, that’s a pretty big portion of the population,” he said.

Hallmark signs of dementia include memory problems beyond the benign lapses that can happen to anyone, he said. Quickly forgetting conversations, where someone placed something and other information to the point that it affects someone’s day-to-day living should be cause for concern.

If such memory lapses occur, Fulton recommends talking to a primary care physician. Such lapses can be ruled out as a benign part of the normal aging process, or the product of other issues, such as thyroid abnormalities, poorly managed diabetes, medication or other causes. Labwork and neuro-imaging could help rule out such problems.

Getting evaluated by a neurologist or neuropsychologist would be the next step, he said.

Geisinger developed Beyond Alzheimer’s to meet a community need, as people frequently asked about local support groups, he said.

“It’s just something to offer our patients, where caregivers can come and talk about the struggles they’re facing and sort of share the burden,” he said. “What you see with these groups is that people become resources for each other. You have caregivers caring for loved ones in different stages of the disease.”

Caregivers of people in more advanced stages of the disease may help the caregivers of those in earlier stages prepare for what’s to come, he said. In addition, the caregivers can learn more about how to take care of their own emotional and mental well-being throughout the caregiving process.

Being a caregiver can be draining, and people sometimes forget to look out for themselves when they’re focused on caring for their loved ones, Fulton said.

“It’s the slow loss of a loved one, the slow loss of a relationship and how the relationship to your loved one changes,” he said, describing the emotions caregivers of loved ones with dementia might feel. “The loss of reciprical, shared emotion – the loss of intimacy in many cases. It could be also the loss of other relationships, and of other aspects of their personal life because of their involvement in caregiving.”

Fulton also has personal experience as a caregiver, having helped with care for two grandparents diagnosed with dementia.

“I’ve been through the process myself,” he said. “I share my own process of, looking back, the impact that’s had on me.”

Starting Tuesday, the group will meet weekly from 4 to 5 p.m. every Tuesday in the first-floor community room at the Hospital for Advanced Medicine at Geisinger Medical Center, 100 Academy Ave., Danville. No registration is required. Parking is available in front of the medical center and in a nearby parking garage.

“It’s a free hour for any caregiver of any dementia,” Fulton said, adding insurance of any kind is not necessary.

For more information, call 570-271-6516.

Geisinger also offers a monthly support group for caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia in Wilkes-Barre.

The group meets on the second Wednesday of each month at 1 p.m. at the Geisinger Memory and Cognition Center, 620 Baltimore Drive.

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