Supporting Sunny ... and others: La Jollan is founding member of an Alzheimer’s care group


By Ashley Mackin

La Jolla resident Maruca Leach is one of six women helping their friend, Sunny, who has been living the last few years with Alzheimer’s disease. Having formed the “Sunny Support Group,” the women agreed that they’ve seen improvements in their pal and hope others will follow their lead and reach out to those who are experiencing dementia.

“I’ve been close to Sunny for 15 years, and when she got diagnosed, I felt like I was losing my best friend,” Leach said. Two years ago, Leach and her friends started to notice that Sunny was having a hard time making decisions and wasn’t thinking straight. After her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Sunny’s friends and family decided to create a specialized care program for her.

The friends take Sunny, a Point Loma resident, out one day a week for activities that promote brain activity. They accompany her to restaurants and parks, salon pedicures, and to watch old movies and listen to music, and insist they’ve seen an improvement in her condition.

Acknowledging that this upswing could be part of a cycle, and that Sunny might lose lucidity in the future, Leach said Sunny’s current state is nonetheless “amazing.”

“We’d take her to restaurants and choose for her, but now she is more decisive about what she wants to eat,” Leach said. “I don’t know what’s happened, but it’s pretty amazing.”

These days, Sunny better remembers the news and stories people tell her, and can even acknowledge her Alzheimer’s condition. Leach said Sunny tells people, “because of my Alzheimer’s, I have a hard time remembering things.”

Alzheimer’s Association San Diego Chapter CEO Mary Ball met with Sunny’s friends to guide them in their activities with her.

“I think what they’re doing is fantastic; this incredible group of women are making such a difference in Sunny’s life as she goes through the journey with Alzheimer’s disease. Their friendship shows that caregivers do not necessarily have to be family members, they can be friends, people from your church or neighbors,” she said.

“It’s important for the person (with Alzheimer’s) to continue to be engaged, to know that there are people who care about them, people who are patient with them as the disease progresses. That kind of environment is going to help them have a higher quality of life.”

Insisting a friendship with an Alzheimer patient is both beneficial and attainable, Leach said that the key comes from trial-and-error.

She said after doing some research, each friend tried something with Sunny that she thought Sunny would like. One mistake occurred when a friend took Sunny to the movies. The film’s plot and theater’s darkness confused Sunny to the point of discomfort.

“Look at those activities and think about how they can be simplified, how they can be shortened, and how that person can still do the kinds of things they would do in the past,” Ball advised.

Leach said each woman in the group is different and that provides the necessary variety to keep Sunny engaged. “Some of us are very finicky, we cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, and some of us are free flowing,” she said. “We provide her with a variety of situations and experiences.”

After they spend time with Sunny, each member of the group contacts the others by e-mail to explain how the visit went. This also contributes to their success, Leach said.

An added, but unexpected benefit, is the joy Sunny’s supporters said they get out of their time with her. Instead of feeling helpless, they feel proactive.

“It reduces our sorrow, disempowerment and anguish,” Leach said. “We don’t feel our sorrow as deeply.”

Ball added that the Alzheimer’s Association has resources and information for those who want to help a friend or family member with the disease, including a “Memory Café” at the 6632 Convoy Court facility. For literature, home activities and related services, there is a 24/7 Alzheimer’s Association hotline: 1-800-272-3900.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

■ Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, a general term for the loss of memory and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s accounts for 50 to 80 percent of dementia cases.

■ Alzheimer’s has no current cure, but treatments for symptoms are available and research continues.

■ The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering newly learned information because Alzheimer’s changes typically begin in the part of the brain that affects learning.