New University of Maryland Extension program provides tools and skills for caregivers of people suffering with Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders

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August 7, 2023

Over 110,000 elderly Marylanders (ages 65+) suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or some other related form of dementia, according to the Maryland Department of Health (MDH). These cognitive disorders can prove difficult for those living with them, but also for the caregivers who must manage a unique set of circumstances that challenge their own mental and physical wellbeing. 

To help caregivers navigate the complexities of caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias (ADRD), a University of Maryland Extension (UME) Family & Consumer Sciences team of educators has developed a new program using their combined expertise across financial wellness, money management, nutrition, food safety, navigating health insurances, social services, hiring help and much more. To take advantage, participants may enroll in a two-day training course that touches on these areas, offered in-person and virtually. 

“We’re focused on targeting the caregivers – it’s equipping them with better skills to care for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia,” said Alex Chan, UME mental health specialist and lead investigator on the grant from MDH used to develop the class. “Caregivers become so involved in protecting and caring for their loved one, they forget to care about themselves. We challenge the ‘you-are-not-a-priority’ belief.”

“Dementia represents an urgent and costly public health crisis in Maryland,” said Suzanne Barbero, a cognitive health specialist at MDH, which provided the grant to fund the UME outreach program. “Many people living with ADRD rely on informal caregivers, often family members, to provide care and assistance in daily living. Many family caregivers provide health care services, manage medications, and are responsible for transporting their loved ones to and from medical appointments.”

A recent study using the Johns Hopkins Dementia Care Needs Assessment found that unmet needs for people living with dementia and their caregivers are extremely common, said Barbero. “Caregivers in this study reported a number of areas where they desired more information and support, including community resources for memory problems, education about memory disorders, support for themselves, and how to manage dementia-related problem behaviors,” she said.

“The content of the class spans everything our team has to offer,” said Chan. “When you’re caring for someone with dementia, you have to manage their finances because they’re no longer capable. We teach about maintaining your own mental health, communicating with people with dementia, and we also provide nutrition and food safety presentations.”

Given that many caregivers are elderly adults themselves, like spouses or adult children, the class can also provide valuable information to caregivers about maintaining their own physical, mental, and cognitive health.

“We teach the Mind Diet, which is an evidence-based diet proven to slow and reduce the risk of cognitive decline,” said Chan. “Especially in the case of spouses, it’s not only just about feeding those foods to your loved one, it’s also about taking care of your own cognitive health.”

Chan, along with Co-PI Extension Agent Dhruti Patel have also created a private Facebook group to connect class participants and offer them a place to share information and success stories as a virtual support group.

“A dementia diagnosis can really change family dynamics, so you really want to talk with a family therapist, with siblings, or the cognitively healthy spouse. There may even need to be some family therapy,” Chan said. “But you don’t have to do it alone. There are so many resources; they might not always be self-evident or easy to find, but they’re out there. Don’t assume any aspect of caregiving has to be done entirely by you.”

Find the full array of programs offered by the UME Family & Consumer Sciences team.