Sunday, January 14, 2007

Precious memories: Alzheimer's patients find favorite items to trigger thoughts of long ago

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

The photograph was in a gold frame. A lady in a long, white dress stood beside a man in a black suit.
But Alzheimer's patient Elaine Stevens couldn't find the words to describe her wedding day. The note on the back of the picture read '1949, married in Stillwater, Oklahoma.'
Mrs. Stevens brought her wedding picture to First Lutheran Church for this week's Thursday Club meeting. The week before, co-director Joyce McKinney said all of the patients were asked to bring a favorite object that had special meaning. The program, 'Precious Memories,' was in honor of the club's first-year anniversary/birthday.
'It's a way to unlock memories, a recollection exercise,' Mrs. McKinney said.
Mrs. McKinney participated in the exercise as well.
She brought her garter from her wedding - and a love letter from a potential suitor to her aunt, Annie Patterson of Holland. It was dated 1908.
While Mrs. McKinney read the gent's longings for love and his sweet request for his ladylove's company, Mrs. Stevens held her wedding picture to her chest, hugging it. Then as the picture returned to her lap, a slender finger, blemished only with age, traced the frame. Her eyes were closed.
The lovely lady, dressed in a red sweater and black pants, seemed like she was reliving the day her matrimonial vows were exchanged.
She could voice no statement supporting that theory.
Mrs. Stevens suffers from Alzheimer's disease, a degenerative disorder that starts with an impaired memory and leads to impaired thought and speech.
There is no cure for Alzheimer's; the prognosis is a period of time spent in complete helplessness, entirely dependent on a caregiver, before death finally comes.
But researchers say constant activity and social interaction can slow the degenerative process, lengthening the time between disease onset and complete helplessness.
'Music is a real important part of the exercises we do each week,' said volunteer Ramona Penney. 'They respond really well to it. It helps get them going.'
Mrs. Stevens can whistle entire tunes to any song and Bible hymn brought to her attention.
The other Alzheimer's patients were dancing at the beginning of last Thursday's meeting. Ms. Penney and Tom Hestand led the floor exercises to music from a CD called 'Lighten Lively.'
'The exercises are made for people who don't have good balance,' Ms. Penney said. 'Most of it is done from a chair.'
Only the middle portion of the exercise program was free standing, and it only lasted for a few minutes.
But all of the action to the square-dance music was lively. Arms were swinging this way and that way, and the right foot was tapping up and down while the left foot was sliding to the left and right.
Alzheimer's patient John Friesner loves music. He won't carry on conversations, but he will sing every word of every song that comes to mind. His fellow Thursday Club members said he communicates through points and stares.
Friesner saw the Temple Telegram reporter at last Thursday's meeting. To him, the reporter was a stranger, so he stared and stared as if he was playing the 'I'll out-stare-you game' that children play.
Once the reporter introduced herself and shook his hand, Friesner grinned as big as he could. He was contented, then, happy to return his attention to the CD exercises.
After the exercises, Ilene Miller, retired Bell County Extension Agent, discussed why it's important to keep thorough notes of why items are special. To do this, she suggested taping an oral history, making an audio-visual presentation of important events and recording special songs and lullabies.
'You already do a good job at that,' Mrs. Miller said. 'I love your storyboards.'
Each Alzheimer's patient in the club had a storyboard, a white poster board with photographs and names of family members alongside a summary of their life's work and accomplishments.
'I was happy to do this program,' Mrs. Miller said. 'There's a lot of people in the county I know of who would benefit from the Thursday Club if they only knew about it. It's a great resource. These volunteers make it possible for caregivers to have this break from daily responsibility. It's a rejuvenating.'
After Mrs. Miller's discussion, patients, volunteers and guests sang a few hymns and closed their meeting in prayer.
Then it was time for the lasagna lunch and birthday cake. They celebrated a Happy First Birthday to the Thursday Club.

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