Alzheimer's symposium: a new perspective on the disease

By Jennifer Lassiter
Star Staff

JOHNSON CITY -- Caregivers and families attended an educational symposium hosted by the Northeast Tennessee-Southwest Virginia Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association at the Centre at Millennium Park yesterday. The all-day event focused on patient needs and innovative caring ideas for individuals with Alzheimer's.
   Jolene Brackey was the keynote speaker for the sixth annual Alzheimer's Education Symposium. Her spunky personality and humorous anecdotes inspired audience members to comment and participate. Brackey spoke on a variety of topics with the hope of changing attitudes toward aging through inspiring minds, rejuvenating spirits and empowering people.
   How does your mood affect the mind of someone with Alzheimer's? According to Brackey, patients with Alzheimer's "mirror" a caregivers emotions. "Keep a smile on your face even though you may not feel like it," Brackey said.
   Patients with Alzheimer's may not be able to understand the words that come out of your mouth, but they do understand body language. Brackey related this to a story about ducks. On the surface, ducks are simply floating along, but underneath, they are paddling furiously.
   "Don't let them see you paddle," said Brackey. "You're in this journey, and if this person is having a good day, then you'll have a good day."
   The key to any person, according to Brackey, is figuring out their greatness. "Find out what they are good at, and compliment them." Brackey used her own personal life as an example by describing herself as an Alzheimer's patient.
   By letting caregivers know a little history about a patient allows them to help the patient remember who they are. Allowing a patient to keep their old worn out chair and "stinky softball glove" comforts them.
   Playing cards with Alzheimer's patients, Brackey said, is a way to trigger memories of the past. Shuffling the deck may bring a smile on their face.
   Brackey described the mentality of a person with Alzheimer's as a child between the ages of 8 to 10 years old, and as the disease progresses, they function as a 4 to 6 year old, until eventually they lose cognitive skills. Alzheimer's, as described by the Alzheimer's Association, is a progressive terminal disease that attacks the brain and results in impaired memory, thinking and behavior.
   People who have Alzheimer's lose their short-term memory first, but can remember past experiences. "People with dementia taught me most of the songs that I know," said Brackey, after singing a solo that she and a patient sang every day while she was a caregiver.
   Music lowers blood pressure and the heart rate. which in turn lowers stress, not only for patients, but, just as importantly, for caregivers. Caregiver stress is on the rise. According to the Alzheimer's Association, "For every person diagnosed with Alzheimer's at least two other lives are significantly impacted as caregivers. These individuals are 63 percent more likely to die in a four year period than their peers without caregiving responsibilities."
   "We are fortunate to learn about Alzheimer's with this generation because they are a generation of gratefulness," said Brackey.
   Brackey talked specifically about a specific mindset that family members and caregivers have when dealing with patients. According to Brackey, many people label what is appropriate and inappropriate for patients, but those are very "powerful" words.
   "We leave them with nothing if we take away their stuff for safety," said Brackey. "Give them their greatness back", she said, by creating a home away from home. She suggested taking pictures of their favorite place to sit and their bedroom, and recreating that atmosphere by bringing personal items to make their new room more familiar.
   Brackey also suggested creating "boxes of greatness", which should include things from their past. Caregivers can also make a game box, sewing box, kitchen box, and jewelry box filled with their possessions and let them "teach you what they know".
   Tracey Kendall, regional director for the Alzheimer's Association, read Brackey's book "Creating Moments of Joy" and heard Brackey speak in Chattanooga. She thought it would be a great idea for Brackey to speak in Johnson City.
   Kendall said, " I hope people leave with a better understanding of how to make a difference, and about the different coping methods."
   According to Kendall, this year's symposium is the largest group of family caregivers that have ever attended.
   Lora Kunkel, her mother and two brothers drove from Monroe County to attend the presentation. They are family caregivers and came to learn about disease. Kunkel's father is in the middle stages of Alzheimer's and has lost some of his cognitive skills.
   In reference to the symposium Kunkel said, "There is a lot of good advice and good suggestions." Kunkel and her family were able to attend the presentation because Broadmore Assisted Living offered a free daycare program to watch her father.
   Kunkel has plans to make a "treasure box" including fishing items for her father to enjoy, since he loved to fish.
   The Alzheimer's Association also presented the Third Annual Caring Hearts Recognition Ceremony to recognize outstanding locals who have dedicated their time to give extra special care to people with dementia or Alzheimer's.
   Brackey, from Iowa, began her career with Alzheimer's patients as an activity director. As her work progressed, she began jotting down ideas that offered positive help for patients. She attended conferences and set up three Alzheimer's units, and began presenting educational seminars.
   Brackey's devotion and passion to help others began empowering families and staff members through training as well as through her business, Enhanced Moments. These tools she takes with her across the country to speak about life for caregivers and people with dementia.
   The Northeast Tennessee-Southwest Virginia Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association can be contacted at (423) 928-4080 or 297 N. Boone St., Suite 1500, Johnson City, TN 37604.