The turning point for Steamboat Springs resident Leigh Hull came when her aging mom could not remember flying out of state for the funeral of a close family friend. When reminded of the trip, the 78-year-old mom still couldn’t remember.
“We thought, ‘We have an issue. We need to look deeper into her memory loss, and we need to see someone, ‘”Hull remembered.
Hull has learned firsthand about the challenges of being a caregiver and a daughter of someone with memory loss.
“It took probably a year of us saying ‘Is that normal?’ before recognizing we needed to get help and get her diagnosed, ”said Hull, who lost her mom to vascular dementia in 2015.
Her family’s experience is a key reason Hull is serving as the volunteer coordinator of a four-part Alzheimer’s Education Series that kicks off at 5 pm Tuesday, May 17, at the Steamboat Springs Community Center. The free series will be presented the third Tuesday of May, June, July and August in conjunction with the Routt County Council on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado.
Hull said she hopes the sessions, which begins by explaining the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, will help people learn what is normal aging and when to dig deeper and see a provider.
According to the National Institute on Aging, Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. Some 76,000 Colorado residents are living with Alzheimer’s, and 1,909 patients in Colorado died from Alzheimer’s in 2019, according to the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado.
Dr. Lawrence Meredith, a neurologist at UCHealth Neurology Clinic in Loveland, said many people experience more forgetfulness as they age, such as forgetting where the car keys are, but people with dementia might forget the actual use for car keys.
Meredith said it is important for family members to notice big changes over time or consistent patterns of decline in their aging loved ones, but he said current medicines for Alzheimer’s disease can only treat the symptoms. The disease has no cure, but Meredith remains hopeful about the extent of research happening currently and medications undergoing trials. He also recommends the book “Contented Dementia” by Oliver James.
Meredith said it is important for aging loved ones with memory issues to seek medical care because there might be an underlying cause, such as thyroid issues, medication imbalances or small strokes. The goal is to keep patients with memory issues safe in their own homes as long as possible, the doctor said.
The Yampa Valley is home to two dedicated memory care units at Casey’s Pond in Steamboat and at Sandrock Ridge Care and Rehabilitation in Craig, but local caregivers say more programs for early-stage dementia care are needed.
Steven Lamoreaux, nursing home administrator at Sandrock, said he would like to see improved resources for counseling and therapy for dementia patients and their families outside of a nursing home setting, especially for lower income families.
An Alzheimer’s caregiver support group meets in-person at 10:30 am the second Tuesday of every month at Steamboat Springs Community Center. The Area Agency on Aging of Northwest Colorado currently offers some grants to provide respite care for caregivers or to help modify homes for safety.
Angel Hoffman, regional director of the Northern Colorado for the Alzheimer’s Association, said she would like to help establish a local “memory café.” The volunteer-organized café would bring Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers together with group activities. Interested individuals can contact the regional director at [email protected].
The Alzheimer’s Association, found at Alz.org, has a variety of free, online resources ranging from education classes to support groups for specific issues. One valuable resource is the national Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900 with help in English or Spanish.
The nonprofit Alzheimer’s Foundation of America at Alzfdn.org also offers support, services and education.
Through her experiences during the five years of her mom’s gradual memory loss and small strokes, Hull knows that patients themselves can be scared by memory loss and try to hide their symptoms.
“They are doing a good job of adapting to their new reality and hiding the symptoms, which is why it’s hard for people close to that person to see the signs and the importance of diagnosis,” Hull said.
One of the toughest parts of caring for her mom during the final year of her life was when her mother would ask about her husband, who had died the previous year. The pain of watching her mom trying to understand the news of her husband’s death over and over became too much.
“We learned not to tell her. We said ‘he’s fine,’ or ‘he is well,’ ”Hull said.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email [email protected]