“What Richard Ferry is after is nothing short of a culture change,” says Thomas Grabowski, Jr., M.D. A culture change around how to understand and approach adults with dementia.
The path of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is all too familiar: forgetfulness, medical diagnosis and evaluation, then disease progression. “In the past, the person might be institutionalized, and they’d drop off the map medically,” says Grabowski. They can be, in a word, forgotten.
Richard Ferry objects to this willful disregard. “We can’t forget or ignore them,” he says. “We have to find a way to give them a life. They need our help now.”
Ferry’s stake in the issue is personal; his wife, Maude, now 76, began experiencing memory loss five years ago — after the couple retired and moved north to Seattle. “In the early stages, we did everything we planned to do,” he says. Now that the early stages have passed, he and his family have questions. “How do we engage her? How do we give her peace and calm? And how do we bring her joy and happiness?” Ferry asks.
The answer may lie in a changing understanding of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, says Grabowski. First, dementia takes root early, before symptoms appear. “It’s abundantly clear that what people are doing in mid-life affects their susceptibility,” he says. (His suggestions: stimulate your brain, stay fit and be socially active.) Second, dementia spares some brain areas and capacities — such as the areas that allow people to develop skills and habits — allowing physicians and others to think differently about how patients can be reached and treated.
Grabowski also quotes one of the field’s mantras: “engagement is therapy.” And that’s at the core of what he and Richard Ferry are trying to achieve. More activities and therapies to engage people with dementia in an informed way. And more engagement between UW Medicine’s Memory and Brain Wellness Center and community organizations that help older people.
The center’s team of specialists is ready to provide activities that help train the memory, focus on acquiring skills and habits, encourage fitness (for brain and body), and promote social engagement. In turn, Ferry has committed to funding an outreach coordinator for the center. This staff member will contact families affected by dementia as well as senior living centers, allowing UW Medicine’s expertise in dementia care to make its way into the community.
It’s a matching gift, because Ferry isn’t content with just making a contribution. He wants people to join him in something he finds tremendously important. “UW Medicine has the potential to be an international leader in diagnosing, treating and caring for neurodegenerative disorders,” Ferry says. Potential — and the conviction that it’s the right thing to do.
“We have to recognize that individuals with dementia are real, living people,” says Ferry.