Caring for those who can’t care for themselves
Program offers suppport for staff who take care of parents with dementia

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs


Nancy Brandt and mom

Nancy Brandt, a book binder at Doe Library, visits with her mother Kay, 86, who is in the early stages of dementia.
Peg Skorpinski photo

12 September 2001 | The past year has been an emotional roller coaster for Nancy Brandt, a bookmender at Doe Library.

Guilt, frustration, hope and grief are among the feelings she confronts every day as a caregiver for her mother, who is now in the early stages of dementia.

“Things are always in flux,” said Brandt. “Some days, it seems like she’s back to her old self, and I’m so happy. Then on other days, she’ll forget how to tell time, and I realize I must give up certain expectations of her.”

Brandt isn’t the only one on campus facing this difficult situation. As Berkeley’s work force ages, the number of faculty and staff juggling work with elder care is increasing.

Those caring for parents or in-laws with cognitive impairments face many obstacles. These menacing diseases slowly rob victims of their mental faculties, and there are no known cures.

The transformation is devastating for those afflicted, and takes a mental and emotional toll on caregivers.

“I felt terrible about taking her away from everything that she knew,” Brandt said of relocating her mother from her life-long home in Los Angeles to an assisted-care facility in Berkeley. “But I was concerned for her safety. She was having trouble remembering how to use her house keys.”

Brandt, an only child, is solely responsible for her mother. This commitment that can weigh heavily.

“I fantasize about going away on vacation, but it’s out of the question,” said Brandt. “Sometimes I think, ‘I just want my life back,’ but then I feel terrible for having these thoughts. I love my mother dearly and know she can’t help what’s going on.”

While caring for a loved one with dementia can be stressful, balancing those duties with work adds additional pressures.

Caregivers must manage medical appointments, unexpected crises and a myriad of other demands, along with their own personal and professional responsibilities.

Brandt uses much of her vacation and sick leave time to cover absences, and sometimes arranges alternative work schedules with her supervisor.

Kate Gong took a more dramatic step. The long-time accountant in Financial and Business Services retired last summer to care for her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and her husband, recently diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“I hung in there for about six months after my husband fell ill, but after a while, it all came crashing together,” said Gong. “It’s a struggle because you always want to do your best work, and at the same time, provide the attention that is needed at home.”

To help them cope with their dual lives as caregivers and workers, both Brandt and Gong turned to CARE Services and its elder care program, housed at the Tang Center.

The workshops, support groups and individual counseling offered there — mostly at lunch time or after work — provide a forum for caregivers to share their feelings and gain valuable information.

“These are heartbreaking issues that shouldn’t be dealt with in a vacuum,” said Norma Grimm, an elder care counselor with CARE Services. “We want to let people know they’re not alone, that many others are going through the same thing.”

“The support group is a safe place for me to talk without being judged,” said Brandt of the twice-monthly meetings. “I can learn from others and share things that I’ve discovered.”

“It was great to know I could get help right here on campus,” said Gong. “To be around people who could relate to what I was going through was very comforting.”

Other staff have become active in the fight against the disease. Ed Fields, an engineer in the Radio Astronomy Lab, is organizing a Berkeley team for “Memory Walk,” a three-mile trek around Treasure Island, Saturday, Oct. 6. The event — sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association — seeks to increase awareness about this disease and raise funds for services and research.

“People with Alzheimer’s can’t advocate for themselves, and depend on us to do it for them,” said Fields, who has cared for his mother for more than six years. “So many of us are affected by it or will be in the near future.”

While many on campus face the challenges of caregiving, others are working to stem the devastating effects of dementia.

Emeritus Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology Paolo Timiras and her students are studying the relationship between hormone production and the disease.

“In our work with cultured neuron and neuroglial cells, it appears that estrogen helps reduce the production of a particular amyloid protein considered to be one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s,” said Timiras. “Hormones seem to promote the development and activity of neuronal cells and, in this manner, may improve memory.”

Timiras said she is upbeat about her such research, which demonstrates that regeneration of neural cells can happen in old age under appropriate environmental conditions. Identifying these “favorable conditions” could help stimulate the function of the brain and delay the onset of the disease.

For information about eldercare workshops, support groups and counseling, see the CARE Service’s Web site at or call 643-7754.

Those interested in participating in the Alzheimer’s Association’s Memory Walk 2001 on Saturday, Oct. 6 can visit or call (800) 660-1993.


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