PLAINS TOWNSHIP, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) – It’s a simple fact of life… as we age we are more susceptible to losing our memories. In a worst case scenario, a diminished memory can be a sign of early onset dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. It’s why getting an accurate diagnosis and appropriate care are so important.
While we all forget things at times, there’s a big difference between a modest decline in memory and memory loss that can seriously disrupt your life. The latter can be terrifying. As Eyewitness News Healthbeat Reporter Mark Hiller explains, a Kingston man who began suffering from an alarming loss of memory turned to a unique, local clinic for help.
Keeping a tight grip on the wheel of a driving simulator, 70-year-old Jimmy Gelgot said, “I’m nervous.” It’s the closest he’s come to driving in about a year and a half. “I don’t want to go past the posted speed because once going through a stop sign I had a cop chasing me.”
Even though it’s just a simulation, it’s helping Jimmy get back on the road from his own abyss: confusion and a rapidly failing memory. “Family was losing faith in me. Friends weren’t returning calls. Like I felt like I was in jail.” Feeling like a burden to others became a big part of his personal prison. “My dependency is on too many people. Like go here, go there. My wife has to chaperone me.”
Jimmy’s wife Margie said, “I was very afraid.” She worried her husband was in the throes of dementia. “My biggest concern was that he would forget the people that loved him.” When asked if that included her Margie said, “Yes.”
It was recommended her husband go into a nursing home where he spent two months. But something kept gnawing at her. “I just feel like I’m locking up an innocent man,” she said. The Gelgots turned to Geisinger’s Memory and Cognition Program in Plains Township where its director, Dr. Glen Finney, MD, had one big question. “Is it something reversible or at least haltable?”
Dr. Finney’s team did an in-depth examination and learned Jimmy had been taking prescription medication for more than 30 years to treat bipolar disorder. “In Jimmy’s case there were a lot of medications that, you know, in the past he may have needed but had the potential to have brain impairing side effects.” It’s a vulnerability that’s exploited as we age according to Dr. Finney who recommended Jimmy shift from brain-impairing medications to brain-sparing therapies. “When we did that he got better.”
Jimmy began working closely with Speech Language Pathologist Ann Gerega on a variety of cognitive exercises like operating a computer program called BrainHQ. “BrainHQ is one that has been especially, I think, beneficial for Jim as far as attention, concentration which is a big part of memory… our memory skills.”
Ms. Gerega also treats patients coping with more extreme memory loss like dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease and gets results using a variety of strategies. “We try to make it very functional so that it’s more for day to day activities as well. For example, remembering appointments. For some patients it’s remembering to turn off the stove.. important things.” Dr. Finney added, “It’s like, you know, exercising your brain and picking some tricks up to optimize what you can do and minimize what you’re having trouble doing.”
The Memory and Cognition staff has another tool at their disposal: a state-of-the-art gait analyzer. It measures a patient’s length of step, speed and stability. It does more than help determine if and what kind of a walking aid may be necessary. Dr. Finney said, “We can actually bring people in, have them walk on it before taking any medication, have them take the medication. An hour later we can have them walk again and we can measure scientifically how much they change or whether they change.”
Meanwhile, Jimmy tries to stay active at home with activities like wood burning art and going for walks. Even though he no longer shows dementia-like signs, he’ll continue checking in at the Memory and Cognition Clinic. “We’re going to keep an eye on him over the years and make sure that we’re optimizing his brain health and really, again, bending those odds in his favor,” said Dr. Finney. And keep him on track to living his best possible life but what matters most is summed up by the couple. “I’m back to being old Jim. It’s, like, a great feeling,” said Jimmy while Margie added “I have my husband back.”
One in ten people in America today over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s disease which primarily affects older people. Nearly two million Pennsylvanians are in that age bracket. Memory loss and quality of life matter to all of them and their families.