Harnett presented an example of how the geriatric medical psychiatry program typically works: A depressed elderly patient refuses to eat and becomes dehydrated as a result; he is then treated with fluids intravenously, all while his psychiatric conditions are still being managed.

“We started this program 21 years ago,” Harnett said, “because psychiatric departments were not doing a good job of taking care of a patient's concurrent medical problems. The program allows us to cover both aspects – and cover both aspects very well. It's a rather unique and innovative approach to care that's not found in our area.”

A commitment to the caregivers

What also makes Lawrence Memorial's approach to dementia care unique is the facility's dedication to strengthening the commitment to caregivers. Lawrence Memorial offers a variety of programs for these individuals, with one of its most prominent being the Alzheimer's Caregiver Education Forum. The program is designed to make caregivers aware of the various community services open to them and their loved ones: from basic elder care to adult day health programs to visiting nursing agencies.

Lawrence Memorial also offers hosts caregivers support groups, which take place once a month from 6 to 7:30 p.m. According to Harnett, the incident of depression among dementia caregivers is well over 50 percent, so making certain they are of healthy mind and body is crucial – particularly since their state can affect the care they're delivering.

“We just want caregivers to know they're not alone in what they're going through,” Harnett said. “I can't begin to tell you how appreciative and relieved they are when they discover such a service.”

“We've seen many caregivers struggle over the years, so that's why we started this group,” said Alison Christopher, LICSW, a senior social worker who runs the support groups with Dauren Nowell, RN, director of Psychiatric Nursing. “Many people feel isolated as they care for family members suffering from this disease. Our goal is to help connect them to the network of programs and services out there.”

According to Christopher, those who attend the support groups possess varying levels of knowledge regarding dementia. Some are well-versed in the subject and just need a few strategies to aid them in delivering care. Others are rather green and come with a multitude of core questions.

Kicking off the support group program back in May, Christopher said her fear was it would descend into nothing more than a teaching session. “I didn't want us to be up there, lecturing to everyone for the entire program. I wanted to get folks to participate and fortunately, that's what's happened. I feel like the regulars who attend our support groups are really starting to have a connection with one another and that's very beneficial for them.”

Caregivers not alone

The statistics being offered by the Alzheimer's Association are sobering: an estimated 5.1 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease; the number of new cases is expected to increase from 454,000 by 2010 to 959,000 by 2050; by 2050, the number of individuals age 65 and over with Alzheimer's could range from 11 million to 16 million.

So clearly, maintaining current programs and developing new ones is key in the battle against Alzheimer's, as well as other forms of dementia.

“We're trying to get the message across to family members that you're not alone when caring for those suffering from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia,” Harnett said. “Even if an individual has a simple question or two, we want to be there for them.”

For more information on Lawrence Memorial Hospital and its services, visit www.hallmarkhealth.org/lawrence.php.

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