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Program brings youthful energy to the field of dementia care

Gillian Hamilton

The Arizona Republic
October 20, 2017

One of the most wonderful experiences of my career happened this fall, as I was brainstorming with two colleagues. It was a passionate discussion about inspiring the next generation of young people to care about people with Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias.

Already one of the top five leading causes of death in Arizona, dementia affects almost half of 85-year olds, drastically changing their lives as memories fade—and stressing their family caregivers. Sadly, as more and more of us get it—fewer and fewer young people are entering the field of dementia care.

What emerged from that discussion was a brilliant idea, that has brought me great joy and given me new hope in the next generation.

We created a college course about Alzheimer’s disease, where students spend four hours a week visiting a person living with dementia, then journal about their experiences. There also are weekly meetings with doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, social workers and chaplains—who share why they love their rewarding careers.

Alison Essary and Dr. Greg Mayer at ASU’s innovative College of Health Care Delivery helped make this vision happen and there are now twelve brave and wonderful students taking the class. Each one is bright and compassionate—and eager to help families being cared for by Hospice of the Valley’s Palliative Care for Dementia program. This unique program is offered free of charge the first month and provides: 24/7 phone support by nurses, in-home educator visits, and physician medication consultations.

We had no idea how successful the course would be. But more than midway through the first semester, our students love it—and so do I! It’s an honor to share some journal excerpts:

Comments after the first week:

“The only image I had of hospice care was of the stereotype where it is a bland and gloomy atmosphere, where the patients are not handled with care and attention. To my surprise though, the care takers were so amazing and I could tell that they loved their job so much and they rocked at what they do. It made me so happy to witness such amazing professionals.”

From a student who as a child was prevented from visiting his beloved dying grandfather:

“Being with Joe felt like I was spending that good ol' time that I always wanted to with my own grandpa during his last days… I'm happy that I can be there for somebody else's grandpa and do good work for Joe and other dementia patients!”

After a few weeks:

“ I definitely left feeling in better spirits than I've been in all week. Grace is quickly becoming the highlight of my weekly routine, and I seem to be a bright spot in hers, too.”

“ I feel like I am seeing a family member now, not just a patient.”

It really is wonderful to think that these students—who want to be physicians, nurses, occupational therapists, psychologists, writers, biochemists—will never forget this. Instead of fearing persons with dementia, they now have a caring understanding of what it’s like to live with this challenging disease. I can’t wait for second semester!

Registration is open now: HCD 394, Introduction to Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

For details on Hospice of the Valley’s Palliative Care for Dementia program, call (602) 636-6363.

Dr. Gillian Hamilton is administrative medical director of Hospice of the Valley