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For Alzheimer’s Patients, a Place to Be Looked After

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, 89-year-old Sophie Kraft can’t remember much these days.

She takes a shower, then thinks that it’s time to bathe again. She takes off her sweater, then gets confused about whether she’s dressing or undressing. She learns a name, then promptly asks to be introduced.

But somehow, Kraft has branded into her increasingly failing memory the name of the driver who transports her to the Alzheimer’s Day Program at Fitzgerald House in Thousand Oaks.

“She recognizes the lady in the Dial-a-Ride taxi who takes her there and calls her by name--I’m floored,” said Kraft’s daughter, Irene Shelton. “She thanks the people there all the time for helping her. She’s really enjoyed it.”

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To the program coordinators at Fitzgerald House, such testimony provides ample motivation to continue working at Ventura County’s only day-support program specifically geared toward Alzheimer’s patients.

A progressive, degenerative disease, Alzheimer’s attacks the brain, destroys memory and impairs thinking. Patients may become combative and cantankerous, or they may wander day and night.

The disease afflicts 4 million Americans and, so far, researchers have found neither a cure nor a fully effective treatment.

Because of their memory and behavioral problems, Alzheimer’s patients need constant care. They often cannot remember their phone numbers or addresses, and may become confused or exhausted if they wander off unattended.

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That’s where Fitzgerald House comes in.

Whether they’re leading the patients in an ultra-low-impact exercise class or helping them put seed in an outdoor bird cage, staff members try to keep the elderly participants engaged and interested.

In the process, they fulfill an equally important goal--giving the patients’ family members a much-needed respite, a chance to go grocery shopping or see a movie or sneak out to lunch with friends.

But the Alzheimer’s program at Fitzgerald House, which charges $6 an hour, can take care of only a few patients at a time. The program accepts just 10 participants a day for the sessions from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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Two other centers, Oak Tree House in Ojai and Club Camarillo, offer some day-support services for the memory-impaired as part of their general programs for the frail elderly.

Yet even counting those slots, only a fraction of the county’s estimated 5,000 Alzheimer’s patients can find day care.

“It blows my mind,” said Lynn Lewis, project director at Oak Tree House.

“Eventually, people will realize it’s more economical to keep Alzheimer’s patients in their homes with day programs, rather than put them in a board-and-care facility and let the state pick up the tab,” she said. “But we just aren’t there yet.”

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Like Lewis, local Alzheimer’s experts expect more day-support programs to spring up around the county sooner or later.

But they don’t want to wait for “eventually.”

To raise awareness of the disease--and the need for better care--the Ventura County chapter of the Alzheimer’s Assn. has launched a fund-raising campaign. Executive Director James Wortman has set no target goal; the more money he gets, he says, the more good he can do.

As he travels around the county trying to drum up support, Wortman gives speeches heavy on facts, hoping to shock people into donating by the force of statistics.

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“If you’re more than 80 years old, you have a 1-in-2 chance of getting Alzheimer’s, and there’s no cure yet,” Wortman said, echoing one of his stump speeches. “The baby boomers have got to get with it. It’s time to give money to research, time to give money to support day-care programs.”

For now, though, few individual donors open their wallets for Alzheimer’s programs.

The Conejo Valley day-support program squeaks by on a budget of $84,000 a year. Most of that money comes from grants, including federal funds funneled through the city of Thousand Oaks and the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.

“It’s a real credit to the Conejo Valley Senior Concerns that they have opened the first Alzheimer’s unit and are so innovative,” said Sue Tatangelo, a programming assistant at the Ventura County Area Agency on Aging. “They’re working like crazy over there.”

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Because Alzheimer’s patients generally require closer supervision, programs directed at memory-impaired senior citizens often cost more than general adult day care.

Yet cost alone does not account for the lack of programs in Ventura County. Often, experts say, the victims’ families feel so overwhelmed by the disease that they have little time to join support groups--much less lobby for more services.

“They’re financially struggling with the medical bills; they’re emotionally struggling with losing a family member,” Lewis said. “They’re not in a position to be a strong voice for themselves.”

And, in fact, it took a group of senior citizens unaffected by Alzheimer’s to identify the need for a day-support program in Thousand Oaks. Prompted by their recommendations, the nonprofit group Senior Concerns opened the Alzheimer’s wing of Fitzgerald House a year ago.

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Now well-established, the program has a short waiting list and a full roster of activities.

The memory-impaired Alzheimer’s patients mingle with other senior citizens in sing-alongs, do-it-yourself craft hours and short walks. Staffers--one for every three participants--give the Alzheimer’s patients special attention as well.

Relaxing in a sunny courtyard after leading half an hour of coordination exercises, caretakers Stella Silverest and Mary Kay Lee watched over four elderly women, talking to each one in turn and nodding enthusiastically despite the disjointed responses.

They beamed when one patient, Lillian Hurd, told them: “I’m doing all right” as she sipped water from a Styrofoam cup.

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Lee, a staffer who has waived her salary and now works for free, said she loves the program for its emphasis on “the holding hands, the hugs, the smiles.”

And the participants, aged 56 to 98, seemed equally pleased.

Olive Dugan, an enthusiastic exerciser in a pale purple dress, held Lee’s hand throughout the rest break. Next to her, Helen Donovan clucked over her friend, fellow participant Ella Cook.

Meanwhile, the families and friends who care for them outside Fitzgerald House enjoyed a few free hours.

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“I doubt if you can imagine what it’s like (to care for an Alzheimer’s patient),” said Walter Babchuk, whose wife, Deana, attends the program three days a week. “You have to be attentive constantly, just constantly.”

With Deana engaged at Fitzgerald House three days a week, Babchuk has time to tend to his investments and work on his hobbies, knowing that his wife is safely and happily listening to music, making crafts or chatting with friends.

“It’s just incredibly wonderful that a community has made provisions for this kind of care,” he said.


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