Brain exercise helps
As with many families, dementia snuck up on Donna and Don Dalziel unexpectedly. Just two years after retiring at 52, Don began exhibiting strange behaviour. Painting a screen door and building a deck out of mismatched boards were among the first clues that something wasn’t right. His increasing irritability was also out of character.
In an attempt to find a reason for what was happening, Donna took Don to see a specialist. Though she knew there was a chance it could be dementia, she wished for something else.
“I was actually hoping it was a brain tumour, because then there’s the chance you could operate and things could be better,” she says. After an MRI didn’t reveal anything unusual, Don was referred to the Rural and Remote Memory Clinic at the University of Saskatchewan. It was there that Don was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD).
FTD typically strikes earlier than Alzheimer’s disease, between the ages of 50 and 60. Instead of memory problems, changes in personality, behaviour and speech are FTD's early warning signs. It is estimated that two to five percent of dementia patients have FTD.
The diagnosis devastated Donna. “When something like this happens you mourn your soul mate, your lover, your retirement . . . you mourn everything .For a year and a half, all I did was cry,” she says. “And then I decided, ‘you know what? This isn’t working.’”
Transforming grief into action
Donna had to quit her job as a high-school teacher to care for Don, but now has a new purpose: to help Don and other dementia patients enjoy the highest quality of life possible.
She says that although the basic needs of dementia patients are being met, their days are often spent watching television or doing nothing at all.
“The average person is mentally stimulated 300 times a day, while a dementia patient typically receives 40 or fewer stimulating encounters a day.” says Donna. “That’s a decrease of 87 percent. Yet, there’s a ton of research about patients who stopped self-abusive behaviour, spoke for the first time, increased their mobility, or showed unusual peace or happiness when they were mentally stimulated,” she says.
Donna secured a $10,000 grant from the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses to create a mental stimulation program for dementia patients in Prince Albert. The purpose was two-fold: get the patients using their minds again and demonstrate the value of the program to healthcare workers.
In the two care homes where Donna implemented her program, previously inactive dementia patients solve puzzles, build towers out of tinker toys, and play games. Don accompanies her to the facilities and takes part in all the organized activities, which has helped him immensely. Donna is confident that with the help of friends and regular mental exercise, she’ll be able to keep Don at home for a while longer.
Though there is still work to be done, Donna is proud that her program is gaining ground and encouraging change.
“I’ve had several physicians come up to me and say ‘holy cow, this ward has changed,’ and I say ‘it’s because we’re having people do stuff. That’s all.’”
Last Updated: 02/25/13