The bad news is Alzheimer’s disease will affect half the American population by 2060. The good news is one of Dodge City’s native daughters is meeting the immediate need for caregiver relief with her program Purple Pals.

Paige Harding won the Miss Dodge City crown last October with a platform dedicated to community education of Alzheimer’s disease.

The University of Kansas student quickly made good on her stated objective in January when she launched a successful pilot program in Lawrence.

Now Harding wants a few qualified young men and women, preferably from the Dodge City Community College nursing program, to take up the cause in her hometown.

"Purple Pals provides fun, social interaction for people in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, while giving caregivers a chance to take care of themselves," Harding said.

The program is like a parents-day-out program for caregivers, who are often spouses or other immediate family members. It offers a safe place for caregivers to entrust their wards with trained volunteers for a couple hours every other week.

Caregivers can then go do whatever they want or need to do without having to worry about anyone else for a while, Harding said.

Harding described caregiver stress as the physical, emotional, psychological and financial problems experienced by people who care for a sick or disabled adult.

Getting started

In June, Harding played host to a roundtable discussion at the Carnegie Center for the Arts to assess the needs of this community. She came away with a call to action for young, driven people with a passion for Alzheimer’s disease and a heart for service to connect with Alzheimer’s sufferers because, the 20-year-old said, "it’s going to directly affect us someday."

Besides, Harding said, "I think it’s better for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease to get that ‘young people medicine’."

She said she needs to organize a six-person executive board in Dodge City before she returns to KU for the fall semester.

That includes a president, vice president, treasurer, fund-raising chair, marketing chair and events coordinator.

She wants to spread Purple Pals across the whole state, and next has her eyes on Kansas State University and Fort Hays State University. In the meantime, Harding said she is going to talk to local doctors so they can share information about the program with patients.

Harding’s personal conviction in the healing powers of Purple Pals is rooted in early memories of her grandmother’s diagnosis at the age of 57, and the subsequent emotional torture family members endured as they tried to handle the unexpected tragedy as best they could.

"I was old enough to know what she was going through, but I also had to watch my parents going though it and my aunts and uncles and how they had to handle it," she said.

The secondary victim

The caregiver is the secondary victim, said Judy Fraley, an occupational therapist and facilitator for the Dodge City Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia support group, an accredited program she started in 1988.

"We have these support groups to let people know what is available in the community and how to handle this situation," Fraley said. "The increasing physical needs of the patient are not the only causes of caregiver stress. As the disease progresses, many caregivers are forced to slowly take over unfamiliar and difficult roles.

"After the patient has passed the early stages of the disease, it’s fair to say that the family member or caregiver suffers more than the patient.

"They develop health concerns over and above that of the Alzheimer’s victim. The gravest impact is the stress. More than half of caregivers will die before the Alzheimer’s victim."

Fraley said many caregivers report significant symptoms of depression as well as frequent anxiety, frustration and anger, and tend to have recurrent negative thoughts about themselves.

"They don’t feel they’re doing a good enough job," she said. "Those emotional problems as well as the intense physical demands of caregiving can have serious health consequences.

"Caregivers are more likely to neglect their own medical care and show high levels of stress hormones and diminished immune response — all of which lead to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer."

Fraley said she endorses Purple Pals and would even consider joining the executive board to help get it off the ground.

Dodge City resident Dorothy Lowry is an attendee of Fraley’s support group’s monthly meetings at the Dodge City Senior Center. She was the primary caregiver to her husband for many years, but who now is in an assisted living residence.

Lowry said as she described the circumstances in which she found herself and her husband after his diagnosis worsened.

"You feel like you’re walking on eggshells," she said. "From the time my feet hit the floor in the morning I tried to be in the best of humor.

"But sometimes I wanted to get angry. Having an hour or two for myself would save the day. In fact, it would save the week. Purple Pals would be a great resource."

Gary Musick is another Dodge City resident who was his wife’s sole caregiver for years before he decided to utilize his military veterans’ privilege to move her into the Kansas Soldier's Home. He said his tenure as caregiver was full of uncertainties and fear.

"You never know what it’s like until you experience it," Musick said. "You feel like a prisoner after a while. I always thought I was a tough guy but I wasn’t that tough. I wanted to do it myself but couldn’t.

"It’s difficult as difficult can be. I’d fly to the store or fly to the post office because I was afraid to leave her by herself very long. I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep."

Caregivers who identify with Musick and Lowry are ideal candidates for the support services that Purple Pals will provide, Harding said.

"Don’t be afraid to get help," Musick said.

Get connected

For more information about volunteering for the Dodge City chapter of Purple Pals, contact Harding at 620-408-4637.

To donate directly to Harding’s non-profit organization, visit GoFundMe.com and search "Purple Pals."

The central and western Kansas chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association offers a noon-hour support group on the third Thursday of the month in the library of the First United Methodist Church, 1210 Soule Street.

Visit alz.org/cwkansas to learn more about caregiver programs and resources.

Contact Fraley at 620-225-4309 for more information.

Editor's Note: This story is part of the Good News Initiative where the Dodge City Daily Globe will be highlighting a positive news story daily, sponsored by First Dental of Dodge City.

To send inquiries of possible positive news stories, email managing editor Vincent Marshall at vmarshall@dodgeglobe.com