GR dementia conference will be repeated next year

July 12, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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The looming dementia crisis inherent in the large and aging baby boomer population will be a growing threat to many dreams of retirement, but people in West Michigan are becoming better prepared for it, thanks to the efforts of Clark Retirement Community.

Inspired by a similar educational conference on dementia that has taken place in southeast Michigan for eight years now, Clark organized a one-day conference at Calvin College this spring that drew many more attendees than expected — and there definitely will be another conference next year.

The Heart and Spirit of Caregiving conference on May 5 at the Prince Conference Center drew approximately 380 attendees.

“We just about died, we were so happy,” said Chris Simons, dementia services coordinator at Clark, which has headquarters on Franklin Street in Grand Rapids.

She said Anne Robinson, executive director of the Optimal Life Designs in Dementia Care in southeast Michigan, helped Clark staff organize the event, starting two years ago.

Robinson thought it might draw 150 attendees, while Simons estimated they might see 300, “but we really outdid ourselves,” said Simons.

A recent report from the Alzheimer’s Association predicts that the number of Alzheimer’s patients will increase from a little over 5 million today to more than 13 million in 2050. Medicare costs for Alzheimer’s patients will increase from $88 billion today to $627 billion in 2050.

Simons said that 60 percent of people over the age of 65 develop some form of dementia in the remainder of their lives. When people think of dementia, they think of Alzheimer’s — but Simons said there are actually many different types and degrees of dementia, and Alzheimers is just one of them.

Simons, who has worked in the field for 35 years, said that up to 1987, elderly people in residential facilities who were suffering from dementia were heavily medicated and/or kept in restraints. Then Congress passed the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987, which requires that every residential facility provide care that will enable the dementia patient to attain or maintain the highest practicable physical, mental and psychosocial well-being.

“What we find is that not all facilities educate their staff as often as they should,” said Simons.

Many of the caregivers don’t have regular opportunities to attend educational conferences, “so we decided a couple of years ago this was something we wanted to do,” she said.

At that point, Clark staff members had been attending the Lillian and James Portman Conference for six years. It is held each year at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, led by Anne Robinson.

Clark Retirement Community launched the conference here in collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Michigan Chapter and Robinson’s organization, with the planning committee including 77 professionals representing organizations from Kalamazoo to Traverse City. Those organizations included Pine Rest, Porter Hills, Sunset Manor, Byron Center Manor, Life House Properties, Spectrum Hospice, Heritage Community of Kalamazoo, Health Care Associates, Angel Care Home Health Care, Oakcrest, Pilgrim Manor, Metron of Cedar Springs, Maple Creek, Evergreen Commons, Ionia Community Health, Walker Medical Instruction Services, Bishop Hills, Northview Manor and others.

Topics at the conference included the changing nature of sexual intimacy, creative approaches for responding to negative behaviors, communicating with and supporting family members, a first-person perspective from a minister suffering from dementia, and strategies for dealing with caregiver grief when dementia patients expire.

The panel of presenters, who are internationally known in the field of dementia and long-term care, included Daniel Kuhn, director of the Professional Training Institute, Alzheimer’s Association Greater Illinois Chapter; Karen Stobbe of Pioneer Network in Rochester, NY; and Jitka Zgola, an acclaimed author of several books related to dementia and Alzheimer’s.

The conference in Grand Rapids was specifically for caregivers, employed either at a residential facility or one of the agencies that send them into the community to work with elderly dementia cases still living on their own.

“People with dementia can live independently for quite a while, too,” said Simon. “We have a few people in their townhouses that, with a little bit of help from family, are still functioning and driving, that sort of thing.”

“Eighty percent of people with dementia do not live in long-term care; they live at home,” she added.

What has become evident in long-term care of dementia patients is the crucial role of the caregivers. That care should be “relationship-based.” said Simons. The caregiver needs to “get to know the resident to be successful and for (the resident) to be successful.”

“You have to know their life story,” she added.

Because of the importance of the caregiver in dementia, the first West Michigan dementia conference in May was actually a celebration of the caregivers, complete with a dinner in their honor at the end of the day. It was, in effect, “a celebration of their work and thanking them for what they are doing.”

Next year, Simons said, “we hope to reach more” dementia caregivers, either at their own homes or in their employment, “and make them feel good about their job, because it’s one of the most important jobs there is.”

Simons said they also knew that many organizations and many individual caregivers cannot afford some conferences offered around the country, which can cost more than a $100 per day to attend. The West Michigan conference was $75, but groups of three from the same organization were discounted to $60 apiece.

The date and details of the conference next year are not yet set, but Simons said she expects it will again be at the Prince Conference Center at Calvin College.

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