Program to combat early mental impairment
Post Independent Correspondent
More than 5 million people in the United States suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Exhibiting a range of symptoms including memory loss, disorientation and speech difficulties, the chronic neurodegenerative disorder is most often diagnosed in old age and is commonly associated with seniors. However, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5 percent of these patients develop symptoms well before the age of 65.
This rare condition, known as early-onset Alzheimer’s, often claims the confidence and vibrancy of affected individuals who would otherwise be considered still in the prime of their lives. Many are forced to prematurely leave careers or give up activities they once enjoyed — and as a result, they often shrink away from public life.
Carbondale resident Diane Darling knows the realities of this scenario all too well; in 2013, her sister was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at just 58 years old.
“It was devastating for my sister,” Darling recalled. “She had worked as a top-level professional, and suddenly she had this illness. It was a difficult thing to acknowledge at first.”
Soon after diagnosis, Darling’s sister — whose name was withheld to protect her privacy — began attending an innovative program called The Brain Train at OPICA, an adult day program and counseling center in their hometown of Los Angeles. Specially designed for individuals with early-stage memory loss, The Brain Train strives to enhance and prolong its participants’ quality of life via stimulating activities and opportunities to engage in a safe social environment.
“She absolutely loves it,” Darling said of her sister’s involvement with the program. “It is a place where she can go to feel purposeful and fulfilled, and feel good about herself.”
Darling relocated to the Roaring Fork Valley with her husband in 2014 to realize their dream of retiring in Colorado. Since moving, her family wondered if it might be best for her sister and caregiver brother-in-law to come here as well. Alzheimer’s is a progressive condition that, over time, requires more and more assistance from family members — so Darling envisioned being able to provide much-needed care for her sister in the coming years.
“But she can’t imagine leaving The Brain Train in L.A.,” Darling said. “So I decided to bring The Brain Train here to the valley.”
Darling soon connected with nonprofit Senior Matters, a Carbondale-based group that works with local senior citizens.
“Senior Matters is an incredible organization, and they were thrilled at the prospect of bringing a program like this to the area,” she recalled. “So we began to develop it. I wanted to do this not only for my sister, but to fill a need for other people here living with early memory loss and mild cognitive impairment.”
After months of hard work and preparation, Darling said that the new Roaring Fork Brain Train will officially launch as a free program of Senior Matters in July. Two open informational sessions are slated for March 25 and April 2, at the River Valley Ranch House from 5:30-7:30 p.m. and the Carbondale Library from 10 a.m.-noon, respectively. Soon after, applications for participation will be made available online.
“We invite anyone in the community to come learn more about the program,” she added, “and it is important to note that we welcome applications from people suffering from any kind of early memory loss, not just Alzheimer’s — this could be someone with Parkinson’s disease, or who suffered a stroke, or any other condition that may cause it.”
Darling reported that the Roaring Fork Brain Train has been modeled closely after the successful program in L.A.
“The Los Angeles Brain Train has a good track record, and a proven model that works,” she said.
The Roaring Fork program will meet twice weekly for four hours each day. Each session will be broken into four segments: The first hour begins with yoga or seated exercise, the second hour features art therapy and discussion with a licensed clinical social worker, and the third hour provides crucial time for social engagement with other participants. The fourth hour will alternate each day between music from local senior singing group The Zingers and working with a cognitive specialist to help improve memory recall.
In addition to serving participants, the Brain Train will also provide a necessary respite for their caregivers, who often suffer emotional stress and fatigue.
“There will be an aid available at all times to assist during each session,” Darling noted. “The participants will never be alone — and this gives caregivers peace of mind.”
Darling is thrilled to debut this program in just a few short months. Her sister plans to spend the summer in Carbondale, and will attend sessions along with local participants.
“People who have early memory loss tend to withdraw because of embarrassment,” Darling said. “My goal with this program is to give these people — whose worlds have been reduced by the disease — a place to thrive.”
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