Initiative strives to foster awareness, understanding of memory-loss issues

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It may be a parent or a neighbor. It may be a person ahead in line at the supermarket or the tax collector’s office.

The signs can be subtle and vary widely, from forgetting what day it is or having trouble remembering a word to experiencing vision problems or changes in personality.

Such symptoms may be part of normal memory loss associated with aging. In some cases, they are indicative of a more serious issue, such as cognitive impairment, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Now, a new grant-supported initiative through the Cranston Department of Senior Services aims to help educate community members about what to look for, how to help and where to connect with local resources that are available to support older residents and their caregivers.

“Everyone is going to be touched by this,” said Maria Rondeau, health programs and grants coordinator at the Cranston Enrichment Center. “[We want] to get the word out there with regard to memory loss … We’re not just saying Alzheimer’s, we’re not just saying dementias. There are all different sorts of dementia. And then you have the normal, everyday memory loss that is age related … This has become an epidemic issue.”

The city’s Department of Senior Services recently received a $10,000 grant from the Tufts Health Plan Foundation’s Momentum Fund to focus on increasing the community’s “awareness and understanding of memory loss and aging, normal cognitive decline with the aging process, cognitive impairment, mild or moderate to serve Alzheimer’s disease, and other related dementias.” The hope is to create an environment across the community in which people with mild memory-loss or cognitive issues can remain active and independent.

The initiative is one of 27 projects in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to receive financial support through the Momentum Fund for the current year. It will include presentations and workshops to various segments of the community, including the public at large, caregivers, first responders, businesses such as banks and municipal departments and offices.

“What this grant has done for us is put us on the right track,” said David Quiroa, assistant director of senior services. “It’s important for us to be at the vanguard of what’s going on in the senior community and with senior issues … to make Cranston not only a dementia-friendly community but an aging-friendly community.”

Part of the outreach effort will come in the form of a monthly Care to Connect Café program at the Cranston Enrichment Center. Jennifer Kevorkian, director of social services, said the goal of the program will be to “get people to share their feelings, connect with one another and know that they’re not alone.”

That, she said, will help ensure caregivers and families are “not scrambling when there’s a crisis, which happens so often.”

Adult Day Services case manager Doreen Montaquila has already done presentations on memory-loss issues for the Cranston Enrichment Center’s staff and municipal department directors in Cranston. Workshops are also planned with staff members in city departments that interact directly with the public, including the libraries, police and fire, as well for senior center directors from around the state. The hope is to eventually bring the program to local businesses, as well.

Montaquila said “pre-diagnosis” is a focus of her presentations.

“[We want] to have folks recognize the signs or symptoms of a form of mild cognitive impairment, because a lot of times people will still be driving, still be going into the supermarkets, utilizing the libraries, going into City Hall, and they might not have been diagnosed yet because they can still function in their day-to-day life, but they’re missing pieces,” she said.

She added, “A lot of people can present very, very well … They come in well presented, and then they start talking and you know something isn’t quite right.”

Kevorkian echoed that point, noting the importance of knowing how to identify signs and symptoms in people like those who attend Adult Day Services.

“A lot of times, we see things with these clients that their own family doesn’t see,” she said of the center’s staff.

In addition to the Care to Connect Café and presentations for officials, several programs that will be open to members of the public – including residents of communities outside Cranston – have already been scheduled.

“We’re not limiting people to just Cranston,” Rondeau said. “We’re opening it up to the general public … We’re trying to reach everyone.”

On May 8 at 7 p.m., the Cranston Enrichment Center will host a general information session on memory loss. Dr. Lori Daiello from the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Loss Disorders Center at Rhode Island Hospital will speak, as will a second guest who will reflect on her personal journey with Alzheimer’s.

On May 15 at 7 p.m., the center will host a session focused on caregivers. Speakers will include a representative from the Rhode Island chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, a 24/7 caregiver and Susan Saccoccia-Olson, who will discuss her experience caring for her parents.

Additional sessions will be held through July and August, including a July 9 general information program; a July 23 gathering focused on medication-related dementia; an Aug. 6 program on dementia and hearing/vision loss; and an Aug. 20 gathering regarding caregivers. All of the summer programs will begin at 1:30 p.m.

During the sessions, Cranston Enrichment Center staff and nursing assistants will be present to provide relief for caregivers who wish to attend.

Rondeau said there are also plans for a fall panel discussion, titled “Where is the Hope,” with experts from Rhode Island’s three memory-loss research centers – the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Loss Disorders Center at Rhode Island Hospital, the Memory & Aging Program at Butler Hospital and the George & Ann Ryan Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island.

Senior Services Director Jeffrey Barone said his perspective has changed since making the move from City Hall – where he served as director of constituent affairs – to the Cranston Enrichment Center.

“Years ago, I didn’t have this knowledge … It doesn’t take long to catch on and to sympathize,” he said.

Like Rondeau, Kevorkian, Montaquila and Quiroa, Barone spoke in personal terms in describing the importance of patience and understanding when encountering someone who is experiencing issues associated with memory loss.

“[Perhaps that person] set out to go to City Hall … They might have pulled up, parked in the wrong spot, went into the Briggs building because they thought it was City Hall,” he said. “By the time they get to the tax collector, they’re disoriented and really upset. They’re upset because they know, ‘I used to be able to do this, and now I can’t do it anymore.’”

Barone praised the Cranston Enrichment Center’s staff, calling them “second to none.”

“They have so much compassion for the people that come in here,” he said.

Montaquila echoed that sentiment, saying the community at the center becomes a “daytime family” for staff and clients alike. She also spoke of the “one-stop shopping” the facility provides, allowing people to “age into aging.”

“There’s just so many resources you can walk into this building and take advantage of,” she said.

Quiroa said the personal connections made through the center – and through programs and initiatives like the memory-loss outreach – can make an enormously positive difference in people’s lives.

“The key is to listen,” he said. “It’s amazing. Once you truly listen to someone and you open up to someone, they’ll recognize that and tell you a lot of things.”

To learn more about the Cranston Enrichment Center and its memory-loss initiative, visit cranstonseniorcenter.com.

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