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'Caregiver boot camp' helps families deal with dementia

Actors help caregivers practice common scenarios

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For years, Cyndi Ramirez, was focused on raising her young family and building her career.

But when her mother was diagnosed with dementia, that changed. Ramirez watched her father struggle to manage the round-the-clock demands of being a caregiver, and knew she had to make time to help.

"We live seven minutes away, so I'm here whenever they need me," said Ramirez.  "I've given her a shower. I've helped her get ready. I've taken her to get her nails done."

Ramirez says the diagnosis was hard on her mother.

"Once she was diagnosed, she was very aware of her diagnosis, and that was very difficult for her because she could see what was happening to her, see what was going on with her brain, and it was a big emotional struggle."

The Alzheimer's Association says in the next three decades, the number of people with Alzheimer's disease in the United States is expected to nearly triple.

As the number of people struggling with dementia climbs, a growing number of family members are becoming caregivers, including many younger people.

In fact, one in four caregivers is now under the age of 34. More men are also stepping into the role, with the number of male caregivers up six percent in six years.

UCLA Dr. Zaldy Tan says it's a growing trend as more families care for dementia patients as a team.

"We are all potential caregivers because it depends on what happens to our loved ones, and therefore, we should all be prepared for that role," said Tan.

To help meet that need, Tan developed the "Caregiver Boot Camp" at UCLA Health, where those involved in taking care of someone with dementia can learn everything from how to prevent falls to the best ways to calm a person who's confused or scared.

Caregivers learn through role play with professional actors who simulate scenarios as patients with advanced dementia.

"This is unfamiliar territory that they need to be prepared for," said Tan. "We have trained actors specifically to act a certain way depending on the interventions that they are subjected to."

Ramirez' father, Bucky Schmidt, says mistakes he made during role-playing helped him learn.

"I got up and did it, and I was the first person to really mess up, so they had a lot to teach after I went," said Schmidt.

It's an exercise that made them more confident of their ability to care or their mother and wife.

"I can handle this, and I'm sure no matter what level you're at, you feel that way out of the boot camp," said Schmidt. "I'll tell you, she was a wonderful wife. She took care of me for 40 years and did almost everything in the home, so that I was free just to work. So now it's my turn to take care of her."

Tan hopes other health care systems will establish their own boot camps to help families meet the growing need.

Several of the lessons are available in videos. To watch them, click here.