Hope for the Journey

Memory Care Navigators help clients and families cope with dementia

By Susie Steckner and Ken Reinstein

When Alan Hughes was diagnosed with vascular dementia four years ago, he and his wife Judi felt unprepared for the road ahead.

“We didn’t know to what extent our lives were going to change. We were depressed and confused,” Judi says.

Alan was an accomplished computer engineer: analytical, precise and used to solving problems. But the dementia slowly robbed him of those skills. He grew increasingly forgetful and confused, which eventually forced him to retire from work.

As is the case with many families, the dementia turned the couple’s life upside down. They struggled to understand the disease and make sense of the changing roles in their marriage and daily lives.

Judi felt frustrated and angry at times. “I had a hard time accepting my husband’s changes. He was not the man he used to be,” Judi says. “I was floundering.”

Through a support group, the couple learned about Sun Health’s Memory Care Navigator Program, designed to help clients, family members and caregivers navigate the emotional, psychological and physical effects of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Judi scheduled an appointment with navigator Cheryl Ortega who visited the couple in their Surprise home.

“I was so surprised at the way Cheryl sat and talked to both of us. By the time she left, I was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is fantastic,’” Judi said. Cheryl proved to be a valuable source of information and presented Judi and Alan with options. She worked with them to develop an action plan that brought more order to their lives. For example, they plan each day and write it down, which especially helps Alan keep track of what’s going on and when.

Upon Cheryl’s recommendation, Judi signed Alan up to attend a day program for people with dementia and enrolled him in a dementia research program at the Banner Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City. Alan served in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years, so Cheryl encouraged Judi to explore how the VA could be of help, which she did.

Judi also learned how to communicate more effectively with Alan. “With Alan’s type of dementia, he dislikes any confrontation, so I’ve learned to be calm and to let things go,” Judi says. “He understands me, and I understand him and what he’s experiencing. It’s more relaxed now, which is good,” Judi says.

Although the home visits have ended, Judi still talks to Cheryl at least once a month and knows she can call on her for advice and a sympathetic ear. “I feel like I’ve got somebody covering my back,” Judi says.

Judi and Alan don’t know what the future will bring. But with their action plan in place, they feel ready for whatever may come their way.

“As things change, I know that I have an excellent resource in the navigation program and Cheryl,” she said.

“Instead of floundering, I feel like we’re flying.”

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