Thinking clearly about dementia

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It’s something we all fear. Between 4 million and 5 million Americans suffer from dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Caring for family members who are losing their cognitive skills is a heavy burden, and Kristina Blocker can offer assistance. The recent transplant from the Bay Area is now living in Granite Bay, offering assistance to local families with a loved one suffering dementia through her business as a dementia-care adviser.

What is dementia care?

I work with the family members who are struggling to understand the disease and to arrange good care for their family member. … I was a nurse in a large hospital, and realized that many families were struggling and didn’t have the support they needed. So, I went into the field, and it is booming.

How does dementia-care assistance work?

We start with a questionnaire, covering medical history and alcohol use, the person’s career and hobbies, living situation, and their cognitive levels. We also pay close attention to the person’s diet and fluid intake. Sometimes something as simple as a diet change will help with some dementia symptoms, depending on what type of dementia it is. Sometimes overmedication can worsen or even cause some dementia symptoms. So that assessment is very important to identify some ways we might improve the person’s functioning.

After the questionnaire, I do a consultation with the patient and family members. Depending how many people are there, it can take three or four hours. Then I write out a care plan for the person, which I’ll help the family implement.

What sort of options are there?

When the person can stay at home—that’s honestly not my favorite choice, because of the risks, and I try to encourage other options—but it is an option, we try to arrange a lot of support. But there’s an increase in longevity of 96 percent with assisted living and memory care, so it’s really preferable.

What are assisted-living and memory care?

Assisted living allows the patient to be as independent as possible. In assisted living, the person functions well enough to get up and get dressed, and can live on their own in a studio apartment. They receive meals and medication reminders, as well as assistance with cleaning and self-care. This is especially useful for people who simply can’t manage running a house, but otherwise their impairment isn’t enough to completely restrict their lives.

Now, memory care is for people who can’t dress themselves—some of them may be so cognitively impaired that they don’t remember what clothing is for. This is a much more advanced level of care. People at this stage may be prone to wandering away—there are people every year in California that this happens to—or be unable to feed themselves. So memory care meets their safety and daily needs. But it also provides activities that can enhance their cognitive abilities, as well as some socialization.

I feel that people who stay at home for too long are at a higher risk for ending up in what most people think of as a nursing home. My goal is to help people live as independently as possible for as long as possible.

How did you get interested in this field?

I started out as a geriatric nurse in a memory-care psych unit in the Bay Area. About 85 percent of the people in this psych unit had dementia. I was really interested in the disease, and then I became a certified gerontologist.

I was fascinated by the activities that can help improve the abilities of people with dementia, and so I became an activity director at a memory-care facility. I saw the pain and the suffering and struggles that the family members were going through, and I decided that assisting them, the family members, was something I really wanted to do.

What should people do if an older person—or anyone in their lives—is showing signs of memory problems?

First, contact a physician. They may need general medical help, or they may need a neurologist. Especially when mom and dad aren’t paying the bills on time, or the cleanliness in the home has changed, or things are being put away in the wrong place—say, for instance, if dad puts the milk in the pantry instead of the refrigerator—we need to pay attention. A lot of family members try to ignore that. They’ll say, “Oh, he’s just tired.” But if there’s a pattern, it needs to be evaluated.

It’s important to get a neurological assessment, followed by a CT scan, which will show the activity of the brain. Alzheimer’s and dementia are actual neurological problems that completely take over the brain. This is not something that’s going to go away or get better on its own. It will take specialized care, and that’s where I come in.

What should we tell children about what’s happening with grandma or grandpa?

The best way is to explain that grandma or grandpa are going through changes. All people change over time. Sometimes you change by going to kindergarten, and sometimes you need help through those changes. That’s what we’re doing now, is helping grandma or grandpa with this change.