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Alzheimer's Association, New York City Chapter

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Years ago, local coffee shops, post offices and pharmacies served as informal gathering places where neighbors of all stripes socialized and exchanged stories. For one Washington Heights community, those days are still here.

Perched on a corner of Audubon Avenue in a primarily Latino neighborhood, the Santa Clara pharmacy is a place where compassion is given out in large doses every day. Anna P’s mother opened the store in 1960, the first Latina to graduate from St. John’s pharmacy program. With her husband as her business partner, she ran the store for over 40 years. Anna now continues the tradition of dispensing medication and kindness to neighbors in need.

In 2004, Anna’s parents were living in a 3rd floor walk-up near the store. Anna was married and had a good job with a law firm. While her parents’ health had been declining, she did not grasp the extent of their problems until she received an alarming call from a long-time employee of the pharmacy. Anna needed to come home.

Her father, Herbert, had been slowly losing his memory. The family attributed it to “old age.” When he began hallucinating, no one realized it was a symptom of his dementia. Anna’s mother, herself ill with diabetes and epilepsy, became deeply depressed. Anna quit her job and took over the pharmacy. She eventually moved in with her parents while her husband and two children remained in the Bronx.

When her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2005, Anna didn’t know where to turn. Ironically, Herbert received his medical care steps away from the Memory Center at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, but was never referred there. The only bright spot during this period was VNS nurse Tina Vargas, who recommended home care. Anna began to private-pay for a home health aide, not realizing her father was Medicaid-eligible.

Anna was already providing financial support to her 93 year-old grandmother. As her finances dwindled and the separation from her family began to weigh, there were moments of desperation. Responding to a TV advertisement for a Caregiver Hotline, she spoke for three hours with a counselor who referred her to the Alzheimer’s Association. Anna feels her life changed on that day.

Soon after calling the NYC Chapter’s 24- hour Helpline, Anna and her husband John came in for a care consultation. No longer able to afford their $1,500 a month apartment in the Bronx, the whole family moved in with Anna’s parents. Nights were especially difficult due to Herbert’s wakefulness. The only solution they could imagine was for John to stay up all night with Herbert and sleep during the day when the aide came. They felt more hopeful when the care consultant recommended a diagnostic workup and medication evaluation.

Stunned to learn her father was Medicaideligible, Anna began to assemble the documents for home care. But before she was able to apply, Herbert was hospitalized. The care consultant helped facilitate transfer to a geriatric psychiatry unit, where experienced staff adjusted his medication and helped Anna accept that nursing home care was needed. A good placement was arranged. A few months later Herbert died in Anna’s arms.

Anna and her husband are slowly putting their lives back together. She hopes to share the lessons she’s learned by some day volunteering for the Chapter. Urging greater understanding of the pressures of caregiving on Baby Boomers, Anna explains “people need to know the toll this takes on our marriages.” She regrets finding help only toward the end. Anna’s advice for anyone with a family member diagnosed with dementia is not to wait. “Call the Chapter right away!”

— Amanda Leis
Manager, Care Consultation

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