SPOKANE, Wash. – Twice a week, Randy Bjorkland is a guiding hand and a reassuring presence for patients at Providence Adult Day Health.
He is a volunteer, helping men and women who face challenges, and deal with dementia and Alzheimer’s. It is a place that also gives caregivers a few hour respite.
Megan McCoy has worked with this population for 20 years, holding a special place in her heart for those in need of comfort and care. She relies on volunteers, people like Bjorkland, to support the work.
"I got the call from a friend asking if I would consider him a volunteer. I was reluctant," said McCoy.
Reluctant, because he was already suffering from Alzheimer's himself. About seven years ago, he started having problems with his memory and was unable to complete tasks necessary to running his own business with his wife Claudia. Immediately, the couple sought answers.
"It was the week he turned 55 and our youngest graduated from high school,” she explained.
Claudia said Randy's diagnosis came quickly in that he had what she refers to as a "textbook" case of the disease. However, his response was fairly surprising.
"Randy said, ‘I want to do something. I want to contribute.’ He knew he still had a lot to offer this was a perfect fit for him," said Claudia.
Certainly devastation could have festered into anger and resentment. Instead, it encouraged Randy to reach out and help the people that could use his empathy and kindness. That is when he decided to volunteer here at adult day health. Randy's diagnosis may have come young, but it is a diagnosis people are facing throughout the country, as the numbers continue to climb. It is estimated that by the year 2050, 15 million people will have the disease. Not all cases are as easily diagnosed as Randy's. It takes a doctors assessing a patient and discussing symptoms using imagery for support.
"They have developed more sophisticated imaging techniques to detect changes associated with Alzheimer's," said Neurologist Dr. Steven Pugh.
Some sophisticated technology will likely be available in Spokane in the next six months. It is a special type of imaging that allows doctors to see a build-up of a certain protein associated with Alzheimer's. This 'amyloid' scan is still being developed and researched, but Pugh said that by having it here in Spokane under a research protocol, it may help people get answers earlier.
"Trying to intervene early is the key. If you wait to intervene, until there's been significant brain damage from the disease, there's not as much as you can do with those type of treatments," said Dr. Pugh. "I do feel Randy is doing as well because he did receive an early diagnosis."
While the family believes an early diagnosis has been key to Randy's wellbeing the past seven years, it certainly has not stopped the progression of the disease. His memory falters and there are moments when even the most important memories are out of grasp. However, those around him do remember.
"Our daughter is the youngest and last to be married. She was afraid he wouldn't be able to walk her down the aisle. He was and he did it very well," said Claudia.
He has been able to hold grandchildren and enjoy his wife of nearly four decades. For now, he is forced to live in the moment.
"She's having to take a load with my condition, that's for sure. She's strong," said Randy.
That strength along with the support of places like Adult Day Health, keep both Randy and Claudia going. They are both willing to talk about the disease to help educate people and encourage further development of diagnosis and ultimately a cure. For now, Randy continues his work with patients, knowing that his volunteer status might become more of a patient status as the disease progresses.
If you would like to learn more about the resources out there for Alzheimer's, including local support groups, call 1-800-272-3900.