After being diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease (EOAD) at age 57, Rick Phelps was given an Exelon patch and a directive to make a follow-up appointment with his neurologist in six months.
That’s it—that’s all modern medicine could offer a man whose world had been unceremoniously upended by a terminal diagnosis.
Alzheimer’s disease has no cure, no effective treatment, and there are few resources to help families deal with the crushing effects of increasing cognitive impairment.
Fortunately for Rick, unconventional intervention would come a few months after his devastating diagnosis; in the form of a furry, four-legged savior named Sam. The spry German Shepard is a member of an elite squad of service dogs specially-trained to assist people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Unlike therapy dogs that assist blind or physically disabled individuals, these so-called “psychiatric service dogs” are patterned after police K9s—conditioned to analyze a situation and make decisions on how best to protect their human handlers.
Trained by only a handful of organizations, dementia service dogs are capable of providing both functional and emotional support for their cognitively impaired handlers. The ability of these canines to help those who are struggling with Alzheimer’s and other dementias can rival (and sometimes exceed) the capabilities of other human beings.
“I can’t go inside you and feel your feelings, smell your smells, feel your brainwaves—but a dog can,” says Bob Taylor, a world-renowned trainer of working dogs and founder of Dog Wish, a non-profit organization that specializes in training service dogs for individuals with neurological conditions.
Bob was part of the team that trained Sam. He says a canine’s keen senses are capable of picking up on important (often invisible) cues that human beings can’t detect.
Exploring the other side of Alzheimer‘s
The incredible bond that Rick and Sam share is highlighted as part of a larger story called Fade to Blank: Life Inside Alzheimer’s (www.fadetoblank.org) that explores the “human” element of Alzheimer’s, through the eyes and in the words of three families affected by the disease.
The stigma of Alzheimer’s tends to silence those touched by the disease. But with no medical antidote to the epidemic appearing on the horizon, some are fashioning a different kind of remedy, spun from their very own, real-life stories of tragedy and triumph.
By sharing their experiences, these inspiring individuals support and educate one another in a collective display of human empathy unmatched by any benefit concert, fundraiser or government initiative. They exist as living proof that people whose realities have been forever altered by Alzheimer’s still have stories to tell.