By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
Miller Piggott, executive director of Alzheimer’s of Central Alabama (ACA), recently spoke to a room full of caregivers, physicians, and operators of adult day care providers on a topic many may not associate with her organization—scholarships.
“We provide scholarships for patients to attend adult day care centers, so caregivers can continue to work or get some rest if that’s what they need. We serve 75 patients with that program, which offers up to $3,000 a year,” Piggott explained during the Alzheimer’s in Alabama Annual Conference held in October at the Canterbury United Methodist Church in Mountain Brook.
Families need continued help, Piggott said: “There is one government program that will give you a one-time award of $800. That’s nothing when you think about this disease, which lasts for years.”
The funds help both families who need services and adult day care centers throughout central Alabama.
“We’re … helping them keep their doors open,” Piggott said, noting that some of the facilities are in difficult-to-serve neighborhoods. “If these daycares were not there, caregivers would be very isolated with no other options.”
Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks; it is the most common cause of dementia in older adults. Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning (thinking, remembering, reasoning) and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.
November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month and National Family Caregivers Month.
The ACA is a local organization, which means “the money we raise stays here in Alabama to help Alabama families,” Piggott said. “We serve the 21 counties across the central part of the state, and our mission is to help families keep their loved ones at home.”
The group also provides continence products that are delivered directly to homes, a program that helps 116 families in 17 counties.
“Continence is a medical necessity that’s very expensive,” Piggott said. “People who live on fixed incomes may have difficulty getting the products they need. … These programs make a difference when determining whether or not a loved one can be kept at home.”
The ACA also partners with sheriff’s departments to provide Project Life Saver bracelets, which emit a radio tracking signal to help triangulate where a patient may be if he or she wanders off.
“Sixty percent of Alzheimer’s patients will wander, and those who do will continue to do so repeatedly,” Piggott said. “It’s a really dangerous behavior.”
Project Life Saver is not GPS, which is an advantage.
“It transmits when it’s cloudy, when you’re under trees, when you’re in a concrete parking deck. And you can shower with it,” Piggott said. “The battery life is about two months, [whereas] the battery life on a GPS is so short that it can be a struggle for families to keep up with.”
Every Project Life Saver bracelet emits a unique signal, and each patient with a bracelet is in a database. When there is a call that someone is missing, the sheriff’s department can help find where they are—and they have 100 percent success rate, Piggott said.
Some ACA staffers know first-hand the importance of the services the group provides. Vance Holder, who handles community relations for the organization, said his mother had Alzheimer’s disease.
Discovering that a loved one has dementia can be heartbreaking, he said: “I watched my mother do the mental exam. It was heartbreaking to see that she didn’t know what county she was in, and I thought she did. That reality slaps people around.”
Families need to be prepared to take care of someone who lives with an Alzheimer’s patient.
“I always ask about the caregiving team, because they all need to be singing the same song,” Holder said. “If mama says the sky is green, and everyone says, ‘OK, the sky is green,’ don’t be the difficult one and tell mama she’s wrong and the sky is blue.”
Calls from loved ones seem to increase around the holidays, Holder said.
“After Christmas and Thanksgiving, we get an uptick, [particularly] when they’ve been visiting and notice a difference in their loved ones,” he said. “Or there’s an event when a loved one left the stove on, got lost, or balanced their checkbook wrong.”
The ACA is funded in several ways, including the upcoming Nov. 4 Alzheimer’s Walk at the Galleria Mall in Riverchase. The group also receives support from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Benevolent Fund, grant money, and an endowment fund with Community Foundation.
To contact the ACA, call 205-871-7970 or visit www.alzca.org.