Keeping active to stay independent longer

John Deys has seen many changes in his wife, Joanne, since she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, but one difference that seems small yet brings great sadness is her approach to spoiling her grandchildren with candy.

Originally from the Netherlands, John and Joanne like to share Dutch dropjes, the salted black licorice, with their family.

“Our kids would say, ‘No, no, that’s OK, that’s enough.’ And then she would say (to the grandkids), ‘Have a few more, don’t tell Mom and Dad.’ Now she takes that box, sometimes after they’ve gotten a few, and she’ll put it underneath the chair,” says John, 83. 

“She’s changed from giving it to hanging on to it.”

Joanne, 81, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s more than 10 years ago. The changes that follow are inevitable, but still hard.

“You learn to live with it. Let’s put it this way: it’s foreign to both of us. We’ve been married for 61 years in April,” says John, through tears. “This is not her. It’s rough.”

Joanne’s health is declining to the point that John is planning to move her into long-term care. But he believes he and Joanne have been able to live at home together for as long as they have because of Joanne’s participation in two downtown Lethbridge day programs that are run by Covenant Health.

The first program, Bridges, uses recreation therapy to help seniors or those with geriatric conditions work on cognitive and functional skills. Activities range from weight training to cooking and baking to playing cards and board games. When a participant’s health declines to the point that they’re not able to follow along, they move into the adult day program, which is intended for those with advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s and has smaller groups and higher staff ratios.

“There are some recent studies that say you can’t ever completely reverse dementia but there are ways you can slow it down: exercise, mind games and things like that,” says Kadie Bruce, Supervisor for Seniors Day Programs.

The two programs are staffed by a large multidisciplinary team: recreation therapists and assistants, a physiotherapist, an occupational therapist, RNs, LPNs, healthcare aides, a dietitian and a pharmacist.

There are 89 Bridges participants and most attend two days a week. After participating in Bridges on Tuesdays and Thursdays for about six years, Joanne switched to the adult day program a few years ago. 

Anne Miller visits with Kadie Bruce while using one of the exercise machines available at the Bridges program.

Anne Miller, 73, started attending the Bridges program just over a year ago. She’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous disorder that often causes tremors, stiffness and slowing of movement. Anne was drawn in by the presence of a full-time physiotherapist and the structure of group fitness classes.

“It’s not much fun to exercise by yourself. I tried,” she laughs. “Let me tell you, it’s hard.”

Anne doesn’t feel comfortable driving anymore and she is unable to stand long enough to cook and bake at home. But she says Bridges gives her some independence and she finds community by talking and exercising with other people with similar experiences.

“It is nice to have people in the same boat,” says Anne. “The social aspect is nice. And it gives me incentive to get up in the morning and do what I have to do to get here.”

Anne’s husband, Doug, agrees.

“Not only physically have they seemed to slow down the progression of her Parkinson’s, but also she enjoys the social interaction.”

John Deys talks to Kadie Bruce, Supervisor of Seniors Day Programs.

For caregivers like Doug and John, the day programs give them a much-needed break, too. While Anne is at Bridges, Doug runs errands, buys groceries and goes to medical appointments. John still maintains their home and large yard, and he uses that time to work outside or even just relax with a cup of coffee.

“I don’t have to worry for five hours,” says John. “It’s respite to me.”

After one year at Bridges, Anne is already seeing the benefits.

“It does keep you independent for far longer. And I like the thought of being proactive, having some control over my disease process and my life,” says Anne. “It gives you an opportunity to take charge of your life, really.”

Contribute to The Vital Beat

Have a story to share about health care? An idea for an article? We value all contributions.

Submit an idea