ALZHEIMER’S: A time to lead the way

Friday, August 28, 2009
By Brandy Dolce

Brainscans of Alzheimer's patients

Brainscans of Alzheimer's patients

“Memory is the only way home,” author Terry Tempest Williams once said. But what happens when memory leaves us, and there is no one to show us the way?

When former Manasquan resident Jack Sturtevant called the police to tell them there was an intruder in his house, the police rushed over. But when they got there, he pointed to an enlarged picture of himself as the perpetrator. Police then taped over the picture with sheets of paper and told him the intruder was gone, according to his son, John Sturtevant.

Sturtevant said his father was suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease, one of several disorders that cause the gradual loss of brain cells, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s Web site. Approximately 4 million Americans have the disease that was once considered rare, but now, research has shown that it is the leading cause of dementia, an umbrella term for several symptoms including a gradual loss of memory, problems with reasoning or judgment, disorientation, difficulty in learning, loss of language skills and decline in the ability to perform routine tasks.

“It’s very hard to deal with emotionally,” Sturtevant said.

In 2000, when his mother was on her death bed, Sturtevant said she told him that she hadn’t been telling her children everything about their father’s condition in an effort to protect them.

“My father was doing weird things,” he said. “There were clothespins with notes all over the house. It was heartbreaking. Dealing with my mother’s death from cancer was easier than this.”

“My father was doing weird things,” he said. “There were clothespins with notes all over the house. It was heartbreaking. Dealing with my mother’s death from cancer was easier than this.”

Sturtevant placed his father in Sunrise Assisted Living Facilities, Wall, a posh Victorian-like senior home. But his father’s memory began to decline, he said.

Deb Wade, assisted living and Reminiscence coordinator for the home, said Jack Sturtevant would become angry when he would miss meals because he couldn’t remember what time the meals were at.

His son, however, said he began to come to terms with his father’s condition when he started coming to the support group for families who have loved ones with Alzheimer’s. The groups, which are every third Wednesday at 7 p.m., are open to anyone who wants to find out more information about Alzheimer’s, Wade said.

To Sturtevant, his father was “healthy as a horse,” but Jack Sturtevant’s mental state was waning.

“Thank God for the support group here,” Sturtevant said. “I shed more than a few tears.”

“In our meetings we laugh, we cry – there’s a lot of emotion that goes on in the meetings,” Wade said. “You can see it really helps.”

Now Jack Sturtevant is a resident in Sunrise’s Reminiscence program. The program offers residents with Alzheimer’s the safety and security of a smaller environment while providing them with the same surroundings the residents without the disease have, said Julia Fraser, senior executive director of Sunrise. A large screen television, sitting area, oversized kitchen and dining room, as well as a small courtyard give the Reminiscence area the look of a country home rather than a sterile hospital ward, which it is not.

“Basically we’re taking their hands and leading the way now,” Wade said. “Someone with memory impairment doesn’t know if they’re coming or going. We give them a higher quality of life, because they’re not afraid anymore.”

Non-Alzheimer’s residents also live in the home which houses a bird, an orange tabby cat, a black and white longhaired cat named Blizzard, and Sam, a black Labrador retriever. But no one, including the animals, are kept apart from one another unless they want to be.

Functions like ice cream socials take place in the Reminiscence area, which Fraser said brings all the residence together while teaching those without Alzheimer’s not to be afraid of the residents with the disease. Families of the residents are also welcomed to the home and even sign an agreement that they will remain a constant presence in the resident’s life, Fraser said.

Ultimately, Sturtevant said he has learned not to correct his father or push him to remember things that he can’t like a doctor’s visit from which he may have just returned. Instead, Sturtevant has learned, as Wade said, to “just join the journey.”

For more information on Alzheimer’s disease, visit or call 1-800-272-3900.

-This article appeared in The Asbury Park Press

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