MAILED: Oct. 7, 1997|
EAU CLAIRE -- Imagine if you were driving home after work and you suddenly didn't know where you were or where you were going.
You pull over to think but you can't figure out how to get home. As you sit in your car, you feel alone, frightened and embarrassed. Embarrassed because you've driven these roads a million times but you just can't find home.
Then, your memory came back as quickly as it left you. Your memory came back, but the loneliness, fear and embarrassment stayed because you know it could happen again.
That scenario would be familiar to the estimated 10,000 people in the 11-county western Wisconsin area who have Alzheimer's Disease, an irreversible and progressive neurological illness that attacks the brain, impairs memory, alters behavior and gradually chops away at your mind and affects everyone around the afflicted person, said Margy Hagaman, executive director of the Indianhead Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.
To help prevent the fear and embarrassment, the local chapter of AA along with the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, offer two simultaneous support groups for people with early stages of Alzheimer's and their main caretakers, Hagaman said, noting the support groups will be offered again this fall.
It's important for people in the early stages of the disease and their spouses or main caregivers to attend, said Karen Danielson, professor of nursing at UW-Eau Claire and a volunteer in the early-stage support groups.
The groups include two leaders -- one from the university and one from the AA chapter -- a student volunteer and no more that eight participants.
"For the people with Alzheimer's, their group gives them support and helps them cope with and understand what's happening to them," Danielson said. "For the group with the spouses or main caretakers, it's more of a combined educational support so they know what to expect from the person with the disease."
The groups with participants who have Alzheimer's talk about what it's like to not remember things, help people plan for the future, and give them a chance to share their early experiences with the disease with others in the same position, Danielson said.
"They need to learn about and understand what's going on with their bodies and minds before it happens, and they need to learn that they aren't alone," Danielson said.
The main caregivers are educated about the disease and taught how to care for and support their mates with the disease.
Getting into support groups such as these is essential because it helps the people afflicted and their families plan for the future, Hagaman said.
"The people with Alzheimer's are still able to make decisions in the early stages, and we want to show them how to communicate their wants and needs to others," she said. "This is so important because many times families wait too long before they make plans in preparation for the disease, and then the person with it can no longer communicate."
While the support groups last only six sessions, the experience lasts a lifetime for participants and leaders, Danielson said.
The people with Alzheimer's get a chance to share and communicate with others, while their spouses learn they aren't alone. Even the groups leaders from campus, like Danielson and professor of nursing Winnie Morse who have worked as leaders in the support groups since the beginning of the program, learn from the sessions.
"I love working with people with Alzheimer's and have learned so much from them," Danielson said. "These people are special and they need all the help that we can give them to live the rest of their lives as comfortably and happily as possible."
For more information, call Danielson or Morse at UW-Eau Claire, or contact Hagaman at the local AA chapter at (715) 835-7050 or (800) 499-7050.
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: Oct. 7, 1997