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The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, designed by Frank Gehry.
Ruth Almén, clinical manager of social work and social services at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, identifies ways to support the caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients during the holiday season.
Ruth Almén, clinical manager of social work and social services at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, identifies ways to support the caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients during the holiday season.
The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, designed by Frank Gehry.
Almén
The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, designed by Frank Gehry.
Almén
Almén
Chef Scott Conant and Larry Ruvo at a fundraiser.
Chef Scott Conant and Larry Ruvo at a fundraiser.
Photos: Steve Travarca

You can imagine Ruth Almén taking a deep breath and closing her eyes as she speaks. Alzheimer’s is a painful subject to tackle, and there is no happy ending. But she approaches it from a place of acceptance, understanding, and hope. She has worked with seniors in the field of age-related brain disorders for more than 12 years. Most people who really enjoy their jobs say things like “I love the people I work with.” In Almén’s case, most of her patients will never even remember her name. Still, she feels “lucky” to be able to help them and their families.

Almén explains that a lot of what she does is with the caregivers, getting them on the phone to work through details and provide community resources, as well as facilitating support groups and presenting to the community. She also creates special programs for patients. Most recently, she instituted a yoga class at the center for those with multiple sclerosis.

Because Alzheimer’s progresses gradually, Almén explains that many caregivers are already in the thick of it before the actual diagnosis. “You might be caring for a spouse or loved one as someone is aging well before you realize something is really wrong,” she points out. Even then, acknowledging the issue and asking for help can be the hardest step.

Alzheimer’s is not easy to talk about. Mostly because we are afraid of its powerful grip. “Depending on that caretaker’s experience with a doctor or a family history of the disease, some people are absolutely terrified of losing their own memory, and so they wait until it reaches a crisis before someone is able to break through and say, ‘You can’t do this alone.’ It might seem easy to make a phone call to a center like ours to get help, but from the caregiver’s viewpoint, it’s just one more task on a long list.”

Almén is a huge advocate of advance care planning. “Don’t wait until you are sick to name someone as your power of attorney,” she emphasizes. “Taking care of the nuts-and-bolts issues can cut out some of the stress.” And when you’re dealing with a family member who has Alzheimer’s, that stress can feel insurmountable.

“What Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, Nevada, has done for caretakers, as well as patients, is incredibly thoughtful and kind. I have had the honor of touring the center several times, and it never ceases to amaze me how tirelessly the staff work to help the families of these innocent victims. Larry Ruvo has created an amazing legacy within this building that allows for so much goodwill to happen.”
—Chef Scott Conant

We often focus on the patient and fail to recognize how difficult it is for those no longer remembered by their loved ones. “Caregivers need support circles. The hardest challenge they face is letting someone else take care of the patient. Guilt is a huge part of that, and not wanting to miss a special moment. When you live with someone with Alzheimer’s, it’s a constant grief process for both parties. Grace is truly achieved when caregivers are able to step back and accept that everything is going to be OK if they take a little time for themselves.”

Clinical Manager Ruth Almén leading an improv class
Clinical Manager Ruth Almén leads an improv class

Holidays are a conundrum. Special occasions can create unnecessary expectations but also great opportunities. Almén recognizes that family members can feel awkward and uncomfortable, so she suggests caregivers arm themselves with knowledge. “Answer questions you know your family wants to ask but don’t. Give examples of how they can help, even if they live far away. It might be simply making a phone call for you or to you. Take advantage of those times when people come together, because family members are often waiting to be asked but just don’t know what to do.”

Almén notes ways to make holiday celebrations less stressful. “Ask someone else to host,” she suggests, giving the example of one mother who bought all the ingredients for a Thanksgiving dinner but asked her adult children to cook it. “Let someone with Alzheimer’s go first through a dinner line so they don’t feel rushed. If they feel overwhelmed with the number of people and the noise, let them stay in a separate room, and have family members take turns to visit with them. And when it’s time for them to retire, let them. Make sure someone steps up and helps with the dishes. Learning to give yourself a break as a caretaker is the best gift you can afford yourself.”

This holiday season, take a moment to address the needs of those who selflessly give so much of themselves for others. “The best caretakers are family members, hands down, but they need help, because this disease is bigger than them,” says Almén. If you have a family member in this situation, ask them how you can be of help. And support amazing programs like Keep Memory Alive, the fundraising arm of Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, where hope comes in the shape of a shared humanity.

For more information, visit keepmemoryalive.org.