- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

For Mari Snyder, like a growing number of Americans, today’s gift-giving opportunities provide a poignant reminder of the costs of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Mother’s Day has a whole new meaning to it now that my mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s,” said Miss Snyder, a D.C. resident whose 72-year-old mother was diagnosed within the past two years. “Even if it is a sunny spring day, there is a gray feeling, not only for what the day means, but for what is coming in the future.”

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative neurological disease that evolves into debilitating memory loss and dementia, and particularly affects short-term memory. It has no cure and ends in death.

About 4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and about 19 million Americans have said they have a relative with the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the country’s largest volunteer health group supporting research and treatment for the disease.

Statistics about local Alzheimer’s patients were not available, but the Alzheimer’s Association says that about half of nursing home patients have the illness or a related disorder.

Local nursing home and hospice workers said children of Alzheimer’s patients should reach back into their parent’s childhood for symbols they can remember.

“My mother loved dolls,” said Helen Fitzgerald, training director for the American Hospice Foundation in Washington and whose mother had Alzheimer’s. “She was living in a nursing home, and I gave her a doll, which she stroked and stroked.”

She said elderly female patients often lose sight of their sexuality, and children could do well by giving gifts, such as perfume, that remind them of their femininity.

“I once met with four women whose mother was very ill in a hospice,” she said. “The girls said she was always proud of her nails and wanted them filed with bright red polish. So I sent one of them to the gift shop in the hospital to buy polish. She did, and all the sisters filed and polished their mother’s nails.”

Experts say music and soothing photos are also a good idea, as are identification bracelets, easy-to-remove clothing and photo albums. Notes, videos and voice recordings can give mothers the chance to reuse gifts.

Virginia Pomata, a homemaker in Aldie, Va., said her mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s seven years ago, did not understand why she came to the nursing home bringing gifts last Mother’s Day. “You realize that it is the little stuff you take for granted,” Miss Pomata said.

Experts say the best gift is physical contact, because those with Alzheimer’s still feel and appreciate human touch. What’s more, said Karen Udler, a help-line coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association, some patients can sense a special occasion even though they might not know what day it is. This observation has inspired some care facilities, such as the Clinton Nursing Home in Clinton to bring all its residents into the celebration, regardless of who is being honored.

“Even if [patients] don’t have children visiting, we dress them up and bring them down,” said Denise Jackson, the home’s activities director. “Because any stimulation is better than no stimulation.”

The Alzheimer’s Association suggests that holiday visits not disturb a patient’s routine and that families engage in activities likely to evoke happy memories, such as singing or showing seasonal videos.

“You want to honor your mother, but the biggest challenge is acknowledging that she won’t remember any aspect of the celebration,” said Charlie Farrell, a Reston-based consultant whose mother suffered from dementia for seven years before progressing into later stages of Alzheimer’s.

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