Enfleshing the Love of God to People with Alzheimer’s Disease

by Nathan Hokama

It can be challenging to demonstrate the love of God to those who may not be able to reciprocate any love in return, who may think you’re a stranger to be feared, or who may even be violent and lash out against you. These are the types of patients and clients St. Francis Healthcare System may see more of now and in the coming years as the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease among older adults increases. However, God’s grace is sufficient. Sister Norberta Hunnewinkel, OSF, a social worker who specializes in working with those who have Alzheimer’s disease, showed how servants can rise to the challenge and stir God’s compassion and patience within us to a new level.

SFHS - Dementia Ses#6649046A group of 20 St. Francis Hospice volunteers came ready to learn at the first session on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia for volunters held this past Saturday, February 23.  There was an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response for this special training. Patty Martin, Director of Volunteer Programs, said this session was limited to the first 20 enrollees, and the other volunteers were placed on wait list for another session scheduled for August 17. According to Sister Norberta, dementia falls under the broader umbrella of Alzheimer’s disease, which was first discovered and made by public in 1906 by German neurologist, Dr. Alois Alzheimer, after studying the brains of his patients which showed “neurofibrillary tangles” and “senile plaque.”

Sister Norberta added that genetics is the primary determining factor of Alzheimer’s disease and that its prevalence among males and females is about the same, when taking into account that women generally live longer than men. Sister Norberta also pointed out that brain injuries or concussions can accelerate dementia, and that tests are now available to detect if a person is likely to be afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.

The most sobering fact was that the latest research shows that signs of Alzheimer’s disease can begin as early as age 39 or 40, and that by age 80, there is a 50/50 chance that people will have the disease. In fact, by the year 2050, more than 115 million people worldwide will have Alzheimer’s disease, which is twice the current population of the entire United Kingdom.  Sister Norberta provided practical tips on how to respond and care for those with Alzheimer’s disease.  This included role-playing exercises and opportunities for the volunteers to share their experiences in helping those who have Alzheimer’s disease.

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One volunteer, Judy Brasel, a retired psychiatric nurse who has experience in working with Alzheimer’s patients and a St. Francis Hospice volunteer for a year, said she enjoyed the session because she feels “it’s important to stay updated on the latest research” on Alzheimer’s disease and she appreciated the “great information on how to deal with patients.” Linda Sayegusa, another St. Francis Hospice volunteer, also found the session valuable and wished she had the information when she was caring for her mother-in-law, who was a home hospice patient with St. Francis. During the session Linda shared how her mother-in-law was an ikebana teacher until she was in her late 80s. After sustaining an injury, she could no longer teach, but flower arranging had a calming effect on her.

Finding an activity that patients enjoy is especially important when they feel agitated, a common behavior among those with Alzheimer’s when they feel theyUkulelesmall are surrounded by strangers, their routine is disrupted, are in pain, there is sensory overload, they are being told to do something against their will or want to go home.  “Home” can mean many things, including a feeling of familiarity, the home of their youth, or their own home if they are in an inpatient center. Helen Richardson, a St. Francis Healthcare Foundation board member, said the session was “excellent” and suggested that the session be provided to the community for a fee.

Lehua Castro, another volunteer whose mother is not a St. Francis Hospice patient but is currently a resident at Oahu Care Facility, said she could relate to many of the situations described during the session.  She said the sessions reinforced the need to approach each patient with an “open mind” because you can never plan how your visit will go.

She said there will be good days and bad days for patients, and that means having to constantly look at new ways of relating to patients.  For example, Lehua shared that dancing the hula for her mom and other residents in the nursing home has a way of capturing their attention and touching their hearts.