For those with dementia, friendship is a powerful medicine

Littleton-based group offers love, camaraderie

Posted 6/25/19

Jerry Schaak boasts an impressive resume. Schaak, 63, holds a Ph.D from Yale University, with post-doctoral work at Princeton. As a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of …

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For those with dementia, friendship is a powerful medicine

Littleton-based group offers love, camaraderie

Posted

Jerry Schaak boasts an impressive resume.

Schaak, 63, holds a Ph.D from Yale University, with post-doctoral work at Princeton. As a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, he contributed to dozens of studies of cancer and viruses.

When the father of two college-age girls was hit in the back of the head with a baseball in 2013, he seemed to come away unscathed. But as the months went by, it became clear his memory was going. In 2014, he was diagnosed with dementia.

Now, with his career over and his ability to complete a thought or a sentence continuing to slip from him, Schaak’s brilliant mind has left him with some elements of his old life: memories of his childhood in the Grand Canyon with his father, a park ranger; his love for his wife and daughters; and an easy smile and laugh.

On a warm June morning, Schaak sat in the sun-dappled garden of Littleton’s Depot Art Gallery, sharing coffee and muffins with others living with early-onset dementia.

“It’s great just getting to talk,” Schaak said. “This is glorious.”

Schaak is one of 20 or so clients of Out & About Colorado, a Littleton-based group that provides outings and socializing activities for people in the earlier stages of dementia.

A deepening cycle

Early-onset dementia can be devastating, said Mary Archer, the founder and owner of Out & About Colorado.

“There’s a cycle that happens,” Archer said. “You’re diagnosed, you probably lose your job and driver’s license, you lose connections to colleagues and friends, and you lose the feeling of productivity and providing for your family.”

The cycle only deepens, Archer said, as victims often wind up home alone most days, isolated and confused. They begin to feel unable to have conversations, worsening as friends stop visiting, scared of uncomfortable situations.

That’s where Out & About Colorado comes in.

Archer and her team take groups of up to six people on outings, visiting museums, gardens and art galleries, going for walks in the park or out to lunch.

“The benefit is twofold,” Archer said. “The clients benefit, and so do their families. Their care partner at home gets respite, knowing their loved one is enjoying themselves. Caring for someone with dementia can be a 24/7 job.”

When clients return home, Archer said, it’s often with renewed vigor.

“We’ve given them an opportunity to have conversation. They have a story to share. They’ve been out all day. They’re more alert.”

Schaak was joined at the Depot Art Gallery by other Out & About clients, like Lynn Salvatore, 72, a former hairstylist.

“When I was diagnosed with dementia, I was furious,” Salvatore said. “I’m a very strong woman, but my strength meant nothing. I felt like I wasn’t anything anymore.”

But at Out & About Colorado, Salvatore said, she finds camaraderie and love.

“When I was working, I loved people,” Salvatore said. “My clients were great friends. I lost so much. Here I can have people around me again.”

Difficult diagnosis

Early-onset dementia often takes a long time to diagnose, because those afflicted may not even think it’s a possibility, Archer said.

“They might think they’re just overtired, that they need a vacation,” Archer said.

She had one client, a man in his 50s, who couldn’t understand why he got fired from five jobs in the span of a year, before he was diagnosed.

Dementia is an umbrella term that covers several disorders, Archer said. Some, like Alzheimer’s disease, are poorly understood — and ultimately fatal. Other forms have a strong hereditary component or are linked to head trauma. But prolonged, untreated depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as poor diet and lack of exercise, can also be contributing factors.

All forms of dementia can shorten victims’ lifespans, she said.

“I know everybody in my care has a limited number of days ahead of them,” Archer said. “I’ll help them make the most of these years.”

Archer’s clients have lessons to teach her too, she said.

“They live in the moment,” Archer said. “They don’t live in the past much anymore, and they sure don’t live in the future. It’s about what they’re experiencing right now.”

‘A shining light’

Archer, who holds a degree in sociology and a certificate in gerontology from the University of California, worked for years with seniors in nursing homes and adult day care, she said.

“I kept noticing younger people coming into programs for older people,” Archer said. “I wanted to create something for those people who didn’t perhaps feel as comfortable hanging out with folks much older than them.”

Now in its fifth year, Out & About Colorado has four staff members, and continues to expand its offerings, including support groups for family members — even if their loved ones aren’t clients.

Family members of people with dementia often suffer in silence, Archer said.

“Caring for someone with dementia can be tremendously expensive,” Archer said. “Especially if they were the family breadwinner. Friends and family stop coming around. Spouses talk about social isolation — nobody invites you places if your partner has Alzheimer’s.”

Out & About Colorado is a godsend to Nancy Litvak, whose husband Gary Sindler is one of Archer’s clients.

“He has so much fun with all his buddies,” Litvak said. “Men in general don’t have boyfriends like women have girlfriends. It’s so healthy for him. It’s been such a shining light for us.”

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