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Alzheimer's caregivers need more support

BY LAUREN P. DUNCAN lduncan@paducahsun.com

Since Larry Halvorson's wife Dorothy was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2010, the couple has depended on their monthly or bimonthly doctor visits for care.

In between those visits, Larry is often on his own.

According to Dr. Joseph Ashburn, a neurologist affiliated with Western Baptist Hospital, support groups are essential for caregivers of patients with Alzheimer's or dementia.

"Dementia is different to everybody ... the trick is, there's almost no treatment," he said. "You can make an argument that a support group is the most important thing."

Ashburn said he rarely hears patients ask about a local support group, yet because people are living longer, he's seeing more dementia and Alzheimer's patients. He also handles patients who have suffered strokes or have Parkinson's, which he said both have active groups locally. For Alzheimer's patients and caregivers, there's isn't a Paducah-based group, he said.

Ashburn said he understands how support for caregivers is essential. When a loved one begins to lose the sense of recognition, it can be draining on caretakers.

"Dementia is probably as important to the family and friends as to the patient," he said.

While treatments for the disease are minimal, he advises patients and caregivers to maintain a routine because it helps to stabilize or slow the progress of Alzheimer's. A support group, Ashburn said, can help emphasize that need.

The Alzheimer's Association sometimes offers education sessions for caregivers in Paducah. This summer, Helene French, the community outreach coordinator with the association's greater Kentucky and southern Indiana chapter, has been making trips to the McCracken County Public Library to offer different sessions on early, middle and late-stage Alzheimer's.

However, because guests must pre-register, sometimes there isn't enough participation to hold a session, French said. As far as a regular support group, she said, the association has been in search of a leader to help lead a McCracken County group. Morningstar of Paducah once hosted meetings at Lourdes hospital, but the group no longer meets.

French said it's hard to find a support group leader.

"That's a big commitment," she said. "People donating their time ... it cannot be a marketing person, it's got to be someone that genuinely wants to help people."

Joe Evanko, the leader of a Mayfield-based Alzheimer's support group, can attest to its benefits. Evanko has been leading the group that meets monthly at Graves County Public Library about 15 years. The group sees between 20-25 people most months, he said.

"People will come as long as it meets their needs, and some of the people will come even if their loved one with Alzheimer's dies, or if they're grieving, to share their experiences with others in relation to behavior or grief," he said.

Evanko started the group when he worked for a medical group and saw a lot of Alzheimer's patients and families. He incorporates educational components into the meetings, where participants can talk about the latest medical findings. For example, Evanko said recent studies showed some antidepressants reduce or inhibit the growth of amyloid plaques, which are a major cause of Alzheimer's.

"There's so much we don't know about the disease and there's so much causing it," he said.

Because there are so many unanswered questions about the disease, Evanko said, the other component of the group is giving caregivers a chance to voice their concerns.

"It's sharing, venting, talking about 'how do we handle this kind of thing?'" he said. "'Because my husband keeps asking me to go home and we are home,' kind of thing," he said.

Evanko's group meets at noon the first Wednesday of every month and often includes a free luncheon sponsored by local health groups.

When the group doesn't meet, he said, he encourages people to call the Alzheimer's Association help line, which is available 24-7. Evanko said he'll call it himself to receive help on how to help his mother, who has Alzheimer's.

The Alzheimer's Association hotline can be reached at 1-800-272-3900. Anyone interested in filling out an application to lead a group can find more information at alz.org.

Contact Lauren Duncan, Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.

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