For those battling a neurological degenerative condition such as Alzheimer’s, faith can be a saving grace, a tool to deal with a disease that robs family members of their memories and other cognitive abilities.
“One of the focuses that we do have is looking at and helping patients understand spirituality and healing as a coping mechanism to deal with these really difficult times in their lives,” said Dr. Cheryl Alvarez, director of Clinical Research for Alzheimer’s Family Center in Huntington Beach. “They are looking at dying and saying, ‘What are my values now, what’s important to me and what do I want to make sure I resolve before I go. And so we do hear a lot about that and in the therapy groups we explore those values.”
Spirituality is an element often addressed at the Intensive Outpatient Program, which has been serving about 60 patients five days a week since opening in Orange County in January.
The brainchild of Alzheimer’s Family Center CEO Joanna Richardson-Jones, the ground-breaking program brings together St. Joseph Health, Mission Hospital and the AFC to provide a daily space for seniors suffering from mental health issues to socialize, attend therapy groups and have access to resources that could come them better manage their condition.
“Outside of having a physician provider, there really was no other place for these people to go to get services, which is amazing considering our senior population is just growing exponentially,” Alvarez said. “It’s our fastest growing population.”
Patients at the IOP range from ages 48 to 93, with the average age of patients in the upper 70s. This age group is more at risk for mental health issues, including Alzheimer’s, which accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
“There are so many elements of spirituality at this stage of life, in particular, because our patients are dealing with issues around healing,” Alvarez said. “Some of them are dealing with anger about life not being fair; some of them are looking at their faith and it’s getting stronger.”
Patients who exercise some kind of spiritual belief or faith tend to heal faster and tend to recover better, she added.
“They tend to have better coping skills and better quality of life and their increased faith tends to increase resilience, and so we encourage our patients to look at these spiritual components as a coping skill,” she said.
Those who have been instilled with faith early in life are also more likely to retain it.
“A lot of those memories and prayer and sacraments for most of our patients are what we call crystallized memories,” Alvarez said. “In many cases, they learned these earlier in life and those things stick with them. So it’s not often that that’s not forgotten. They may not remember what they had for breakfast that same day but they remember things that they learned in childhood. And so those early life experiences, even those with neurodegenerative diseases, tend to tend to stay really strong throughout the lifespan.”