Coping with memory loss: Local organization can help

MARQUETTE – Help for at-home caregivers is a service that may soon see expansion on a national level – given rising costs of in-patient care for those struggling with Alzheimer’s Disease – and the staff at Marquette Adult Day Services work to provide that kind of assistance.

“We have a really caring staff and (caregivers) notice that,” Adult Day Executive Director Melissa Luttrell said. “Family members come home happy, and a lot of them say that they sleep better at night after they’ve been here.”

Estimates show one in nine seniors in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease, and half of those are undiagnosed, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The malady is the most expensive in the country, exceeding the costs of heart disease and cancer. As the cost and prevalence of Alzheimer’s skyrockets and baby boomers are expected to live longer, researchers are seeking more affordable health care solutions, including more in-home care.

Adult Day offers caregivers rest and their loved ones the opportunity to benefit from activity and socialization outside their homes.

“(Caregivers) have always been really appreciative,” Luttrell said. “A lot of them are so stressed out and worn out that they just love having the break.”

The private non-profit organization was established 35 years ago for local seniors and has since narrowed its focus to serving those with memory impairment.

Every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, 11 women struggling with Alzheimer’s, dementia or other memory-related difficulties get together with Adult Day staff for snacks, games and conversation in the basement of Messiah Lutheran Church in Marquette.

One of those women is Bernice Seblonka, who will turn 101 July 7. Energetic and spunky, her age is just one of many things she can recall in spite of her memory challenges. Originally from a small Illinois town, she moved to the suburbs of Chicago with her husband, a railroad engineer. They would kiss at the door every day when he came home, even after they lost a daughter at 16 months.

“It broke my heart,” she said. “I was pregnant at the time. The doctor said to me, ‘Why are you crying-you’ve got a baby in your stomach?'”

Two of her five children have passed away. Seblonka also survived her husband, who died of lung cancer at 64.

“He would smoke in the bathroom, in the middle of the night,” she said. “Don’t do it! I quit – I realized I was blowing money away.”

She credits spinach and staying out of trouble for making it to such an energetic old age.

“Be good. Don’t do too much of anything that’s not good,” she said. “Of course, eating is important.”

Program Director Keith Bush, formerly a special education teacher, said activities at the church include listening and making music with a local musician, painting with a local artist, Tai Chi, trivia and other games to stimulate recall and build interpersonal connections.

Bush described how he and one other staff member made the best of one of the last snows of the season this April.

“It was a nice, wet, packy snow, so myself and Kelsey went outside, got some snow and did an impromptu inside-snowman building,” he recalled. “There was water all over the place.”

That day was the last with the group for one woman, who struggles with severe late-stage Alzheimer’s, Bush said. Mostly nonverbal and nonreactive, she has since moved into a nursing home.

“But she just came alive,” he said. “She was smiling and playing with the snow and throwing it at people and…she was actually saying a few words.”

Even though it’s seen as a devastating disease, Luttrell said people with memory loss still find joy in their lives.

“As a society, I don’t want us to forget that. It’s not just a death sentence,” she said. “I see these people smile and laugh every day.”

She said even if a person doesn’t remember you per se, they remember how you made them feel.

“So I may have to tell someone my name again every day,” she said. “But they know that I made them feel good the day before, so you still can make connections with them.”

Adult Day Services charges a small fee on a sliding scale based on income to offset funding costs, which are mostly covered by federal funds, the Upper Peninsula Commission for Area Progress, local grants and some individual donations, Luttrell said.

“But I have to add that we have a policy to never turn anyone away for inability to pay,” Luttrell said. “That’s been a policy since the organization started way back, and that’s really important to our board members.”

Having moved from the First Presbyterian church on Front Street last year in order to have a little more space, Adult Day is hoping to expand their services to four days a week, Luttrell said. They’ve also just begun a new program called the Alzheimer’s Cafe.

The cafe provides a safe and supportive space for people and families living with Alzheimer’s and other types of memory loss to enjoy a relaxed social setting with refreshments and music.

“Sometimes they may not feel as comfortable going out socially as before,” Luttrell said. “Both (caregivers and their loved ones).”

The cafe meets the second Wednesday of every month from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the east end of Messiah Lutheran Church in Marquette and on the third Thursday of every month from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at Grace Lutheran Church in Gwinn.

For more information about Adult Day Services or the Alzheimer’s Cafe, call 226-2142.