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New program aims to help Alzheimer's caregivers

Andrew Hyman
Updated: January 20, 2020 03:25 AM
Created: January 19, 2020 06:01 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) – Researchers through the University of Rochester Medical Center are set to launch a new program aimed to help caregivers looking after loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia. 

The Roybal Center for Social Ties and Aging Research (STAR) will be co-run by the UR School of Nursing and Department of Psychiatry.

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According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.8 million people are living with the disease in the United States, and at least one to four people per patient are serving as a caregiver.

This includes Ralph Olney.

”It’s a horrible disease,” Olney says.

Last year, Olney’s wife of 45 years, Beverly, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. After years of being by each other’s sides, Ralph needs to be with her more than ever.

"Bev can't drive anymore, she can't really prepare a meal like she used to anymore," Ralph says.

As Beverly continues to lose her ability to function on her own, Ralph has taken on more and more responsibility. In addition, he is fighting his own battle against leukemia, a cancer he was first diagnosed with back in 2011.

"Between the two of us, we spend a lot of time in the hospital,” Ralph says. “So it's been a struggle some days."

Struggles, he says, that have left him feeling lonely and helpless at times.

And STAR Center directors like Dr. Kathi Heffner say Ralph is not alone.

"Having strong social connections with other people is really important for our health and well-being," Heffner says.

Heffner says caregivers can lose those connections, which could lead to a rapid decline in their mental health.

Backed by a $3.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the research-based STAR program will work to find solutions for caregivers like Ralph.

"We may not be able to change a lot of the stressful things in someone's life, we can't take away those caregiving stresses," says Co-Director Dr. Kimberly Van Orden.

Van Orden says the research could take years, as the program will include several pilot research projects. Ultimately though, organizers are hopeful they can come up with plans to put people in a brighter place. Van Orden says that would be a place where caregivers can not only take care of loved ones. but also take care of themselves. 

"We really want to help empower people to not let that part go," she says.

Ralph says he’s since found his support system through the Alzheimer’s Association, and his local church, but as this program begins, he encourages other people to take a step forward as he did.

"The best thing a person could do is get some help,” he says. “Don't try to do it on your own, it's impossible."

Requests for STAR proposals will begin in the coming months. If you are interested in participating, URMC is looking for people who are 50 years of age or older AND currently caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s or other related dementia.

If interested, you are encouraged to call (585) 276-6204, or email HARP@urmc.rochester.edu.

The  Alzheimer Association's Rochester & Finger Lakes Regional Chapter will be hosting a symposium focusing on caregivers. The free event will be run on Thursday, March 5. from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. 


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