Ruth Hovland faces a deadly disease every day, but she is not a doctor or a therapist. She is the Memory Care Program Director at Clement Manor in Greenfield, and she works with people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
“Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and the only cause of death among the top 10 in the United States that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed,” according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
“It’s not an epidemic. It’s a pandemic,” said Hovland. The Alzheimer’s Association estimated that by 65, one out of 10 people will have the disease and by 85, 5 out of 10 people will have it.
Unlike other diseases that may have key causes, getting older is the greatest risk factor in getting Alzheimer’s disease.
Hovland’s title at Clement Manor, a continuing care retirement community sponsored by the School Sisters of St. Francis, is more than a profession; it’s a passion. She hopes that one day sufferers can call themselves “Alzheimer’s disease survivors.”
Hovland’s mother, Florence Zahorik, died from Alzheimer’s in 1994. This event inspired Hovland to change careers and try to help those like her mother. The former communications professor at Cardinal Stritch University and later Marquette University, pursued a degree in nursing, a move that Hovland never expected.
“Her life really changed the transitory of mine,” she said.
One of the first indicators that there was something wrong with her mother was when she was unable to make a meal and have everything done at the same time. Difficulty completing such familiar tasks at home is one of the top 10 “warning signs” of Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Hovland described her mother as “highly intelligent” and a “walking current event class;” someone that always had an educated perspective. Hovland thought something may have been different when her mother’s replies became very neutral.
She recalls one particular instance especially wounding – when her mother did not recognize her. After shopping, Hovland’s mother was getting ready to write the check to her daughter and looked sweetly at Hovland and said, “and you dear … what’s your name….?”
Hovland was crushed that her mother not only forgot her name, but was also no longer the person she always knew. This is why Hovland equates the disease to identity theft.
“It is a very slow motion goodbye, where you witness the person you knew, drop off bit by bit,” she said.
Hovland’s mother was diagnosed in 1990 and died in 1994, when Aricept, one of the most popular prescription medications said to alter the course of Alzheimer’s, was not yet on the market.
Today, research has increased significantly. Hovland, who has been at Clement Manor since 2003, noted that the research done in the past 10 years far surpasses that done in the previous 25.
However, Hovland has found something that might hinder the disease. In fact, she helped create it. The Brain Stretch program at Clement Manor began in November 2009, after the program received a grant.
Held within the Adult Day Center, Clement Manor’s Brain Stretch Club combines socialization, physical activity and thoughtful “brain exercise” to build up the cognitive reserve in the brain. The club meets Mondays and Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Hovland said that the brain continues to make pathways when it is constantly challenged with new information or old information. In one Brain Stretch class, a participant requested to learn about geometry, a subject that many do not recall since their high school or college days.
Hovland stressed that Brian Stretch does not prevent Alzheimer’s, but it acts as a way to get healthier. “The earlier we get to the (affected) person, the more they are able to build up cognitive reserve, and can maintain more of the knowledge they’ve acquired throughout their lives,” Hovland said.
She credits the success of the Brain Stretch program as a testimony to living her faith and to her committed colleagues.
“There’s something at work here and it is larger than all of us,” Hovland said. “We’re walking on hallowed ground.”
Hovland said she sees God in the work taking place within the Brain Stretch Club and the friendships that have occurred within the group.
As Christians, Hovland noted, people are called to think of how they can make a difference in the lives of people who are the most needy and vulnerable.
“I can’t think of someone that is more needy and vulnerable than someone that is literally losing their mind,” she said. “These people need other’s assistance, because they do not have the ability to know what to do.”