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Program aims to help Alzheimers caregivers
W Georgia REACH - Luukkonen
Peggy Luukkonen, a Georgia REACH interventionist, holds the guidebook used in the personalized, six-month course for caregivers of people with Alzheimer's disease. After the course, the caregiver keeps the notebook and information on other sources of help. - photo by Special

    Georgia REACH has funding to provide free education and support to 150 individuals, such as family members, who take care of people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia in nine coastal Georgia counties.
    More than halfway through the three-year $600,000 grant, the program has reached only about 50 of those caregivers, including just two currently in Bulloch County.
    “Because it is a free program, it would be a shame to have the deadline come and go without getting a chance to serve everyone who can use it,” said Arminda Perch, an interventionist, as Georgia REACH calls the caseworkers who bring personalized lessons to caregivers’ homes.
    She and Peggy Luukkonen, the other full-time Georgia REACH interventionist with the Coastal Regional Commission’s Area Agency on Aging, are looking for more clients. Based in Brunswick, they and one contracted interventionist work with caregivers throughout the region, which takes in Bulloch, Bryan, Effingham, Chatham, Camden, Glynn, Liberty, Long and McIntosh counties.
    Each caregiver receives a six-month in-home course of instruction involving 12 one-to-one coaching sessions. Usually, nine of these are actual in-home visits, lasting typically an hour to 90 minutes. The other three are telephone calls, although more home visits can sometimes be substituted if there is a need, the interventionists say.
    The program also features a “Caregiver Notebook” and a telephone support group made up of other caregivers. The notebook, which the caregiver keeps after the course has ended, includes a guidebook and worksheets for adapting the material to the individual situation.
    Carolyn Bush, a Chatham County resident, discovered Georgia REACH through a Savannah senior center. Her mother, now 83, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a couple of years earlier, and her need for care and supervision was increasing.
     “I was so relieved, because I was running and doing everything myself, working, taking care of my mom at night,” Bush said. “I was about running ragged by the time Peggy caught up to me, or by the time I caught up to them, and the program just helped me out a whole lot individually.”
    Through Luukkonen’s visits and the notebook, Bush learned to accept and cope with her mother’s symptoms. Alzheimer’s symptoms often include not just memory loss but mood swings and behaviors such as repetitive questioning.
    “Just trying to remember that it is the disease and it’s not them — that’s the toughest part,” Bush said. “You’ll be right in the middle of a normal activity, and then it happens. You don’t ever know when it’s going to happen, but you start picking up their advance moods.”
    Little things can signal a caregiver to change subjects, activities or surroundings in a way that can alleviate the loved one’s distress instead of increasing it, Bush said. As she and Luukkonen both noted, that’s part of Georgia REACH training.

Personalized training
    The course focuses on three ways to help caregivers.
    First, it provides general education about memory loss, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
    “There’s a lot of people who don’t understand dementia,” Luukkonen said. “They’re around it 24 hours a day and yet it’s hard to accept it, and so we educate people about the disease and that what their loved one is going through is something that a lot of other people with dementia are going through.”
    Second, interventionists work with caregivers on specific behaviors their loved one is exhibiting, and how to respond.
    Third, the program gives caregivers instruction and practice in coping strategies. These include deep breathing for stress relief and the use of music for its benefit on the moods of both caregiver and care recipient. Caregivers are also advised to take breaks and otherwise make time for themselves and reminded that it’s OK to ask for help.
     “The bottom line is, this is a disease that there’s no magic pill that’s going to take it away,” Luukkonen said. “And so we work with people on stress management techniques that are going to help them cope.”
    Stress relief is scheduled as a part of the program from the first sessions. But in every case, Luukkonen said, the course is adapted to individual needs.
    “We do a pretty in-depth assessment so we find out what things they’re especially experiencing and we tailor the program to meet their needs specifically,” she said. “So with every one of my clients, I’ve worked on different things, and no session is never the same.”
    Targeted specifically to the needs of caregivers, Georgia REACH provides no direct services to people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. But Georgia REACH interventionists help caregivers find other sources of help, such as the Alzheimer’s Association.
    Bush credited Georgia REACH with giving her information on a separate caregivers’ workshop available in Savannah.

Support group
    She also participated briefly in a telephone support group, which is a part of the Georgia REACH program available throughout the nine-county area. Through conference calls, caregivers discuss their experiences on a first-name, but otherwise anonymous, basis. Each group holds monthly sessions for five months.
    “That was good for me, because I began to see what other people were going through, and they shared with me how they handled certain things,” Bush said.
    All of this is aimed at reducing the burden of caregiving. Some recent research, Perch notes, has identified caregiving itself as a public health concern. While often rewarding as well, she said, caring for a loved one with dementia can be a demanding, full-time job.
    “That’s in addition to whatever their other responsibilities may be,” said Perch. “So caregivers are really working overtime, and that definitely takes a toll.”
    But Georgia REACH has only two recent participants in Bulloch County, and the remaining waiting list is very short, Luukkonen said. The Coastal Georgia Regional Office of the Alzheimer’s Association estimates there are about 14,000 people living with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia in its 15-county service area.
    Funded by the federal Administration on Aging, Georgia REACH is operated through a partnership of the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, the Georgia Division of Aging Services and the Coastal Regional Commission Area Agency on Aging.
    The grant through the Rosalynn Carter Institute provides $200,000 per year for three years in the coastal region. The second year will conclude Aug. 31, said Jennifer Meshanko, case management supervisor for the Area Agency on Aging.
    To inquire about participating, call (800) 580-6860 or visit for more information.

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