Unique Program Quells Fear for Those New to Memory Loss

Bernie Lynch will be the first to acknowledge that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is a scary thing.

But rather than wallow in regret, the 78-year-old former speech therapist, who received the diagnosis in December, decided to be proactive. She signed up for a new program designed for people newly-diagnosed and in the early stages of the disease.

Lynch said the program, launched this year and offered through Tucson Medical Center’s Senior Services division in conjunction with Pacifica Senior Living, served several functions.

It provided her with information about what to expect as her illness progresses. It introduced her to others who were going through the same experience. And just as importantly, it allowed her to come to a place of acceptance.

“I allowed me to settle into it and be able to tell myself that it was OK, it was not the end of the world,” said Lynch, who also credits the support of her husband of 12 years, Jack. “It’s important to be able to be realistic about what to expect, but also to be able to talk about it.”

Lynch was among the first group to graduate from the free, six week program in March. Group members found it so valuable that they are planning to keep the group going. 

The concept of the program took root two years ago when L’Don Sawyer, the director of TMC’s Senior Services department, was leading an Alzheimer’s activity group for folks further along into the disease when a well-dressed, professional man walked in. He explained that he had recently lost a very good job because of his memory impairment and he had recently taken a new sales job.

“He was trying to find every trick and tip and tool to keep himself going so he could maintain his job and family responsibilities. It struck me at the time that we really needed to have a group for people with a true early diagnosis,” Sawyer recalled. “This man had the wherewithal to find support. But I know many people get a diagnosis and don’t know where to turn, and they could really benefit from an environment that is is pro-active, safe and supportive.”

Terri Waldman, the facilitator of the program and the director for the 70-bed assisted living community Pacifica, said the group is unique. “Their symptoms are really new and aren’t impacting their daily lives yet. They’re still driving. They’re still doing everything independently. But they’ve also noticed something’s wrong and they want to be more educated about what’s happening.”

The class talked about the difference between normal aging and the symptoms they were experiencing. They talked about ways to plan for the disease, from advance directives to powers of attorney, and talked about resources available to them.

“It was rewarding to talk to people who want to make a plan,” Waldman said. “They are making decisions now so their kids don’t have to make them later. And that’s what is unique about this group: Most people, once they’re diagnosed, aren’t in a position to make those decisions, but these people are in the very early beginnings and really want to help themselves and prepare.”

Waldman sits down with prospective group members individually to assess whether the group will be appropriate for them.

Lynch, who has had several family members with the disease, knows all about denial.  Jack was the one who noticed she would repeat questions, for example, even after getting an answer. She preferred to dismiss the signs, saying she had some initial feelings of embarrassment. “I know that’s irrational, since it’s a biological happening. But by the same token, from the moment I was diagnosed, my first thought was that this isn’t going to be a secret. Otherwise, people notice changes and it makes it really difficult for them to go around pretending nothing is happening.”

Aside from keeping an active lifestyle and taking medication to slow the progression of the disease, she’s also felt more equipped to plan for the future.

Jack, a former businessman, has been participating in a caregiver support group, which he has found helpful in learning how best to support his wife. The two have been able to talk about prospective living situations and ways to make their Northwest side home more functional.

“Looking back on it, I’m grateful for the early diagnosis because I can prepare. It is a devastating piece of news for anyone to get, but I’m still functional and we’ve become more comfortable with it, so it’s really not a trauma anymore.”

Tucson Medical Center will host a new-to-memory loss talk on May 18, from 11 a.m. until noon at the El Dorado health complex, 1400 N. Wilmot Road, to give the public more information about the group. The next group starts June 14.  For more information, please call 324-1960.


  1. Carmen Houllis says:

    Bernie and Jack are dear friends of mine. They are so happy to have found this group and the support they are getting with this diagnosis. I have seen a real improvement in their overall health since attending this support group and coming to acceptance. They are willing to talk about it to anyone. Thanks TMC.

  2. THis sounds like a very good program – especially the part where the potential attendees are screened to see if it is apporpriate for them.

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Tucson Medical Center | 5301 E. Grant Road | Tucson, Arizona 85712 | (520) 327-5461
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