More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s — the most common form of dementia — according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
New Human Support Services dementia specialist Monica Vasquez knows the area’s aging population is not immune to this suffering and is working to bring dementia awareness to the forefront.
Doing so will require a two-pronged approach, with one approach being community engagement, and the other, classes for learning how to care for a loved one with dementia.
“A lot of people are picking this up and seeing the need for it in the community. And we’re grateful for that,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez, who has been at HSS for less than a year, will go around to businesses and entities in the area to present strategies for recognizing and dealing with elderly residents with dementia. Her first of these community presentations was at the Columbia Police Department.
“I think it was great. They asked a lot of good questions,” she said. “And actually, as soon as I was done, they started talking amongst themselves about people they know, like, ‘Remember so and so who always comes in here and accuses his son of stealing?’”
Vasquez said she hopes identifying the symptoms of dementia will help people understand when their elderly neighbors or friends may be in the early stages of such a condition.
“This is a small town. We see people all the time,” she said. “So unlike their son who lives miles away, you might notice something. It could be they’re not as well kept, they’re not taking care of themselves, or you see a difference in their driving.”
Once people start recognizing the signs and symptoms, Vasquez said the best approach is to think outside of the box in these situations.
“If you’re a store owner, you might put up a sign for the restroom. The person may have been in there before and knows where the bathroom is but they forgot,” she said. “So it’s just really simple things you can do.”
The savvy caregiver class is six weeks long and will be provided at four different times throughout the year. For each six-week session, about 10 to 12 individuals can participate. Vasquez said the class will include such lessons as defining the role of the caregiver and teaching the caregiver validation techniques.
“It’ll be things like learning how to calm someone down with dementia when they become anxious or confused,” she said.
The challenge, Vasquez said, will be getting caregivers to understand the benefits of the class so they don’t feel discouraged to continue with the sessions.
“I hope that people are ready to ask for help. It’s hard to get out of the house if you are that person who’s caring for someone,” she said. “And others who have done this program say that you’ll have people not coming back after the first session just because they don’t have time.
“Or you’ll get someone who gets frustrated and says, ‘I don’t need this. This is a waste of my time.’ But what the statistics are showing is that they’ll come back later on.”
As of now, the class dates for the first six-week session have not been set. Vasquez said she is looking for a location in the area to host the class.
HSS Executive Director Anne King said the savvy caregiver class will be provided for free, thanks to a $20,000 grant through AgeSmart Community Resources in Belleville. The grant also covers the community outreach aspect of the program.
According to King, the program is part of a larger dementia-friendly initiative through the Illinois Department on Aging. Vasquez brings a Master’s degree in gerontology, the study of aging, from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville to the role.
In addition to that, she spent some time working with senior citizens with developmental disabilities at Clinton Manor Living Center in New Baden. Vasquez said she hopes to continue providing services for the aging population outside of the current program.
“Everything we do here at HSS is about educating and serving the community. That’s what we’re hoping to do here with the new program for senior citizens,” she said. “And we want to figure out how to expand this and look for other opportunities to provide services for this age group.”
One idea she would like to incorporate is an adult daycare in the community. The idea, she said, is meant as an alternative to putting senior citizens in retirement homes.
“Yes, I understand there’s a time and place for having them live in a retirement home,” she said. “But so many people have worked hard to build a life in their current home.
“And then to be taken away from that and put into a room where all of your stuff has to fit in one section is not something you want to see happen. I’m all about avoiding that if at all possible.”
Those interested in having Vasquez speak at their business or organization, or for more information on the savvy caregiver course, contact HSS at 939-4444.