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Alzheimer's can't defeat dementia caregiver

More than 5 million men and women are living with Alzheimer's in the U.S. alone, and with the nation’s aging population, the incidence is expected to escalate. Shirley Thompson, a dementia care professional, knows about the disease and the progress of aging firsthand. She spent nine years caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s, and then another 30 years looking after her husband, who suffered from Parkinson’s, arthritis, kidney failure, and prostate cancer.

By the time they both passed away, “I was completely burnt out,” said Thompson, 77, a retired RN and nurse practitioner. She gave up her nursing licenses and became a secretary, but discovered that she was quite bored. “

After being a caregiver for so long, everything else seems so dull,” said Thompson, who never thought that she’d end up again taking care of the elderly. Today, once again, she is providing homecare and companionship for seniors through Home Instead Senior Care, a Boston area service that helps aging loved ones remain in their homes.

“The best place for a person with memory loss is familiar surroundings,” said Thompson, whose duties range from helping with dressing and bathing, to playing cards or just sitting and talking. “I am only a companion and helper, but those things are as valuable as nursing for many people,” said Thompson. Employment of personal and home care aides like Thompson is projected to grow by 51 percent to 2016, among the occupations adding the most new jobs.

Thompson admits the job was initially exhausting but now she’s in a rhythm, taking better care of herself, as well as her clients, who range from a former opera singer to a retired postal worker. “I’m often reminded of the times when I took care of my mom,” said Thompson, who recently spent a few hours in deep conversation with a 91 year old housebound woman who spun brilliant, albeit fictional tales, of her fabulous life. “It showed me how far the mind and brain can go without being in reality and gave me another level of my understanding of dementia,” said Thompson. “Sometimes you try to push for a breakthrough, and keep trying and trying, but come home drained, because it just isn’t going to happen.”

Q: Recently, new diagnostic criteria has been proposed which put more focus on the various stages of the condition and help identify Alzheimer's before symptoms appear. What do you think of these proposed guidelines?
A:
To be truthful, I have not read the new guidelines. However, this seems to me to one very difficult disease to categorized. Every single client I have ever taken care of (including my own mother) has been different in behavior, length of illness (from early diagnosis), and how the disease was identified.

Q: What would you recommend for others who might want to become a home care aide?
A:
Although no experience is needed, many agencies will train you on issues such as safety, communicating with seniors, recognizing illnesses and depression, and planning different activities. People who work with dementia patients, like I do, get additional support on dealing with advanced Alzheimer’s. You need to be comfortable in someone’s home, caring for them, and dealing with their family. It takes a lot of patience, compassion, and creativity.

Q: You are 77 years old yourself. What will you do if you happen to get Alzheimer’s?
A:
I have no control over that, and if it happens, I won’t be aware of it and my daughter will have to do with me as she wants. It makes you think a lot and recognize things that might be coming down the road. There is no cure for dementia, but thank goodness, medical progress is being made.

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