Guest Post: Martha Stettinius on Dementia

November 19th, 2012 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

Las month I ran a guest post from John Stringer on his story of living with dementia. Martha Stettinius, who has written a book on this subject, saw the post and offered me a guest post, which I’m happy to run as so many people responded so well to John’s post.

A Family Caregiver Shares an Inside Look at Care

Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of dementia are truly becoming an epidemic. One in 8 people over the age of 65 will develop Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia, and those aged 85 have a fifty percent chance of developing the disease. Even if we don’t get dementia ourselves, we are likely to become a family caregiver for someone with the disease. If we are unable to care for that family member or friend at home, it’s important to know what to look for in a dementia care facility, and how to distinguish assisted living from “memory care” and nursing homes.

At age 80, my mother, Judy, is living with advanced dementia (vascular dementia and probable Alzheimer’s disease), and I’ve served as her primary caregiver for 7 years. She’s lived in my home with my husband and two young children, then in assisted living, a rehab center, a “memory care” facility, and now the dementia ward of a nursing home.

In the spring of 2005, my mother lived with us briefly, but she was unhappy and needed more independence, so we convinced her to move to a nearby assisted living facility. Many of the assisted living residents had some degree of dementia, but activities and care seemed tailored to the so-called “Independent-Living” residents. Staff did not receive extensive dementia training, and interactions were minimal. To my dismay, Mom spent most of her days watching TV.

In 2007, after falling and fracturing her pelvis, my mother suddenly became incontinent. The fall may have accompanied a small stroke. After Mom spent some time in a rehab center, the assisted living facility staff were not allowed (by their contract, and by our state’s regulations) to physically help my mother change her adult diapers. I had to hire private aides to come in for several hours a day. The facility’s case manager told me that my mother’s needs had fallen into a “gray area.” It was time to move her. But where?

I toured a local “memory care” cottage, most impressed not with the plush, home-like environment—the light-filled windows, the green plants, the white, long-haired cat lounging on the hearth—or the seeming contentedness of the residents who listened to oldies on a CD—but the forthrightness of the administrator who gave me the tour. When I asked her, “At what point, exactly, would my mother have to move out?” she told me, “Residents must be able to feed themselves, and be able to walk for at least a few steps, for example from the bed to a wheelchair.” That’s the kind of answer I’m looking for, I thought. No “gray areas.”

Mom would live in this memory care facility for nearly 3 years—years that seemed her happiest in a long time. Mom rewarded the staff’s affection with lots of smiles and laughter. Firmly in the middle stages of dementia, she joined the activities, sparked a romance with one of the men, and generally enjoyed living in the moment, no longer tortured by awareness of her disease. Although she had her moments of agitation, the staff all received special training in dementia care, and they knew how to keep her calm and feeling safe.

By May of 2010, however, she seemed to have forgotten how to feed herself, and was losing weight. I looked for a nursing home in the area that was on The Eden Alternative registry—a nursing home that follows the philosophy of person-centered care championed by Dr. Bill Thomas and his wife, Jude—but the closest was 3 hours away.  Mom moved into a local nursing home, where for the past 2 years she has received excellent physical care, if not the emotional sustenance and vibrancy one might find in an Eden Alternative nursing home (available in New Zealand and many other countries. Visit for more information). She lives on the dementia floor, where staff members receive some specialized training, but residents in the final stage of dementia rarely enjoy individual attention or appropriate stimulation.

Though she can no longer speak, and is immobile in a wheelchair, Mom continues to enjoy people, and shares her brilliant smile. Counter to the stereotype of people with dementia as “all gone” and “shells” of their former selves, Mom is still “here”—still Judy. In addition to visiting her myself, I’ve hired what I call “paid friends” to see her regularly—a massage therapist who specializes in working with elders, and one of the resident assistants from her memory care facility, both of whom have continued to visit Mom each week.

I hope that we will see an increased public understanding of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, and the need for specialized care. Most countries must bolster, rather than cut, federal funding for dementia research and community support for family caregivers. And we need to press for minimum standards for dementia training for all health care providers and facility staff, from home care to assisted living, memory care, nursing homes, and hospice. As the 35.6 million with dementia worldwide in 2010 doubles by 2030 to 65.7 million, and then nearly doubles again by 2050 to 115.4 million, we will be glad we prepared for the “silver tsunami.”

Martha Stettinius is the author of the new book “Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir,” available at major online book retailers, including New Zealand’s Mighty Ape ( She serves as a volunteer representative for the U.S. National Family Caregivers Association. For more information about the book, please visit

Martha, with her mother, Judy, in 2012″


5 Responses to “Guest Post: Martha Stettinius on Dementia”

  1. Rex Widerstrom (5,113 comments) says:

    While the entire nation, it seems, fixates on which fighting cock is going to win the leadership of a political party, real life goes on. And this is definitely that.

    That statistic – that 1 out of every 2 people aged over 85 will suffer it – is frightening given the “bubble” of baby boomers heading towards old age. Martha seems to be in the fortunate position of being able to afford to pay for a very good standard of care for her mother. Not everyone will be that fortunate (the parents of the 7.3 percent of would-be wage and salary earners unable to find a job in that nice Mr Key’s economy, for one thing).

    Does anyone know if suitable facilities and workforce training is being addressed now, before things get any worse? Or are our politicians just waiting for the issue to result in another shambles so they can finger-point at one another?

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  2. Longknives (6,395 comments) says:

    But wait- Learning ‘Te Reo’ will cure Alzheimer’s… (according to that fucking offensive ad on TV)

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  3. PaulL (6,054 comments) says:

    Great post, and nice to see the options that are out there.

    Where I get stuck is in the question of why. Where someone has the money to do so, it makes entire sense to have “paid friends” and the like, and certainly to the extent I can afford to I would do the same for my parents.

    But once we get into the question of state funded care, we are in the territory of trade offs. Trade offs in the health spaces are often made in terms of quality adjusted life years. So how would we trade off expenditure on giving an elderly person living with dementia a moderately higher quality of life for a small number of years against significant expenditure on someone younger – say cancer treatment for someone in their mid-fifties.

    Unfortunately, I expect the state-funded healthcare system to need to make tradeoffs of this nature to an increasing level as the population ages – as many European countries are finding we simply cannot afford to offer this level of care to every member of the population.

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  4. ChardonnayGuy (1,604 comments) says:

    Thank you, David. What an intelligent, informative piece.

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  5. Martha Stettinius (1 comment) says:

    Thank you, David, for hosting my guest blog. If anyone has any questions, I’d be happy to try to answer them.

    For now, let me just say that we were able to afford paid care for my mother not so much because of luck but because as a single woman, twice divorced, she pinched every penny her whole life as a teacher and saved up a small nest egg. When those savings ran out, I sold the lake house where she had lived alone for 25 years, the house my grandfather built, to keep her in her wonderful, but expensive, “memory care” facility. She had wanted that lake house to be passed on to me, but I chose to sell it to care for her. Unfortunately, shortly after I sold the house, she needed more care than the memory care facility could provide, and she needed to move into a nursing home anyway. She’s now on Medicaid.

    In any case, readers, I’m open to any questions you might have. You can also reach me directly through my website,


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