Alzheimer's Community Member of the Week: Ruth Anne Ristow
(Written by Ruth Anne Ristow)
Ruth Anne’s caregiving experience started as a senior in high school when she became a Home
Health Aid to a 98-year-old woman with Alzheimer's Disease who lived at home alone.
She spent a week living with her at a time. While she didn’t have any formal training on Alzheimer’s or related dementias, she learned it was important to attend to her needs through observations more than verbal communication and it always worked best to meet her where she was at in the moment and respond to her mood and behavioral gestures with patience and understanding. Without any local family of her own, she became part of hers and often spent holidays together in her family’s home.
Dementia struck closer to home when her father’s mother, Ruth Anne’s grandmother began to show signs of cognitive decline related to a vascular dementia and her family began to experience the slow evolution of changes this had on her ability to live independently. During this time, Ruth Anne was in graduate school specializing in Alzheimer’s and Related Disorders. And while she understood what was happening logically, she struggled as a granddaughter to accept the loss of the strong-willed, independent-minded, German, farm woman she knew growing up. Her new favorite memory of visiting with her became her as a sweet young girl (no longer recognizing Ruth Anne as her granddaughter) who brought her McDonald’s French fries when she came to visit. This experience cemented the importance of cherishing moments of joy while spending time with those you love.
Professionally, she went on to become a social worker in long term care and after that held various leadership roles in adult day and residential memory care programs. Over the course of 25 years, her work involved setting up programs and leading teams in providing person-centered care to people with dementia and empowering caregivers to use their knowledge and understanding to develop the best life possible for those in their care. Ongoing education, not only her own but supporting the growth and development of others became a passion and focus of any role she is in.
In 2017, she developed Dementia Redefined, Inc., a local nonprofit servicing people with dementia, their families and care support teams. Their mantra, ‘Redefining dementia with a better understanding.’, is operationalized through the work they do to empower others with information, reduce the negative stigma associated with having dementia and enhancing knowledge and understanding needed to reduce the burden of care support.
Recently, they were able to add a respite care grant program offering stipends to local caregivers needing extra support with ‘time off’. This was made possible through donations in honor of Leslee Gollins, the wife of one of our board members who passed away after a fourteen-year journey with Alzheimer’s Disease. Currently we are working with a group of volunteers, community-based professionals, on the development of a day long educational event for individuals with dementia, their care partners and support service providers. Entitled, Perspectives on Dementia, this event will be like no other educational event currently being offered in that the program is being spirited by those directly impacted by the disease. The day will be filled with information sharing, support and community building initiatives.
(Click image to go to Dementia Re-Defined.com)
Receiving a diagnosis is a daunting experience and while it can offer a sense of relief to finally know what is happening to yourself or a loved one it is often met with a whirlwind of emotions, questions and often fears. Our society has elevated a negative stigma with a focus on loss and deterioration, leaving a person feeling desolate from the beginning. Ruth Anne’s hope is that with a current shift in social media and more and more people coming forward with how they are living life well with dementia that others will find encouragement and begin to look at this journey through a different lens. It is often helpful, after taking a deep breath, to try and stay in the current by focusing on remaining strengths. Developing a plan for both the person with dementia and their care partner to practice self-care and total wellness is important. All too often, a support person moves into a primary caregiver role too quickly sacrificing personal health and well-being. This approach is never successful for the long haul and should be reconsidered. Making plans early on should involve health care and financial planning while the person with dementia can still actively engage in the process. Most importantly, finding ways to support the autonomy, dignity and ultimately the spirit of the person with dementia to the best of our ability is the ultimate goal.
You can find Ruth at the following:
Dementia Redefined, Inc. website: www.dementiaredefined.com