Expanding Alzheimer’s Care, Grassroots Nonprofit Readies For May 11 Walk

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Aging , Health

Dozens of people took part in last year’s Dave Birtwell Memorial Walk. COURTESY PHOTOS

HARWICH It seems almost everybody on the Lower Cape has a story to share about a friend or family member with Alzheimer's disease or dementia, and there's a growing need for support, counseling and programs. This weekend, a special fundraiser will take place to support the grassroots Alzheimer’s Family Support Center of Cape Cod, which offers a range of services, all free of charge, covering the full range of the disease progression.

Organized years ago by former Harwich Council on Aging Director Barbara-Anne Foley as the “Remembery Walk,” the event is now called the Dave Birtwell Memorial Walk for Alzheimer’s. It’s not only an important fundraiser for Alzheimer’s Family Support Center (AFSC), but it’s an opportunity for socialization for individuals and caregivers. The walk happens on May 11 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Brooks Park, Harwich Center, and while they are not required, donations will be accepted.

Through support groups held in every town on the Cape and in more than 800 client contacts every month, AFSC is working to make lives easier for people with Alzheimer’s and related dementia, co-founder and Executive Director Molly Perdue said.

“Until there’s a cure, there are actually things people can do to make their lives easier,” she said. That often means “stabilizing” the individual by providing support for the problems that arise because of Alzheimer’s, Perdue said. While AFSC helps hundreds of families, there are many others who have not taken advantage of the group’s free services.

“Still 50 percent of people don’t get a formal diagnosis,” she said. “We’re trying to help people start breaking down the barriers of stigma and fear.”

Melanie Braverman, development and cultural director and co-founder, said a key objective is to reduce the isolation that comes with the disease. She runs a support group in Brewster that includes members who are in various stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia, “and they’ve become really good friends,” she said. When one member had trouble finding the right words to tell a story, the group played a kind of charades to help her communicate. The result was that the group had fun, the storyteller felt supported, and the other members were empowered to help her.

“It’s about bringing people back into the community,” she said.

Another way to build community is through special events like the Birtwell Walk, which is specifically designed to be dementia-friendly. The event happens around midday, not in the early morning, a time that can be challenging for people with dementia and their caregivers. All participants get name tags, to reduce the anxiety that comes from not being able to remember names. As in the past, the event will include live music from the Sound Dunes, but this year the walk will feature a dance floor, where an adaptive dancing program will take place. Volunteer Ed McManus will run the barbecue, and there will be various resources available for participants. Walking the short course is also purely optional, and there are other activities for those who have trouble walking. There will also be lots of resources for caregivers.

“If caregivers are going to give you three-and-a-half or four hours of their life, you’ve got to help them,” Braverman said.

A key goal of AFSC is to help caregivers with strategies, techniques and information that can reduce frustration and improve care. Building on a highly successful event last year, the group is holding a day-long conference on June 26 called “A Positive Approach to Dementia Care,” featuring nationally renowned specialist Teepa Snow. The event will happen at the Barnstable Performing Arts Center, 744 West Main St., Hyannis, and is free to attend. For information or to register, visit www.AlzheimersCapeCod.org or call 508-896-5170. Respite care and continuing education credits are available. More information about the conference will be available at the Birtwell Walk this Saturday.

Walkers can also learn more about the free memory screenings offered by AFSC. Clinical Director Vaughn Harding said people who frequently have trouble finding the right word, or who experience unusual confusion, should first have a medical check-up, and should then consider being screened. Some memory loss and confusion can be caused by medical problems not related to Alzheimer’s or dementia, and can be reversed if caught early enough. Memory screenings are not a diagnostic tool, but can provide a baseline for comparison with future screenings, Harding said.

The Dave Birtwell Memorial Walk is made possible by support from many local businesses, as well as the Friends of the Harwich Council on Aging. Additional business sponsors are needed; for information, contact Braverman at 508-896-5170. People are welcome to take part in the walk without making a financial contribution, and can also give without walking.