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Boot Camp for Dementia Caregivers

Actors help prepare family members for challenges

Dementia Caregiver Boot Camp

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Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia takes sensitivity, knowledge and plenty of patience — things that few caregivers are ever taught. Working to change that is UCLA Health, through its Alzheimer’s Boot Camp. It’s a one-day intensive workshop where actors behave as though they have dementia, and family members learn through role-playing both how to react to common scenarios and the best techniques for keeping their loved ones safe.

What do you do when your mom with Alzheimer’s won’t give up her car keys when driving becomes unsafe, for example? What if she’s determined to see a sister who passed away? Or suddenly grows agitated because she doesn’t recognize a friend?

The boot camp, offered four times a year, addresses questions like these and more, says its creator, Zaldy Tan, the medical director of the UCLA Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Program. Tan says the goal is to provide busy, often overwhelmed family caregivers with crucial information in the form of “an immersive experience in as short a time as possible.” (Respite care is available for participants’ loved ones.)

An older actor — trained by Tan and his team — presents himself to the boot campers as an advanced Alzheimer’s patient. Participants are told that he is the father of a friend who needs help with his care, and they take turns performing certain tasks in front of the group, such as convincing “Dad” to take his medications or not to wander out of the room, or steering him toward an appropriate snack (some people with dementia have difficulty swallowing, so choking is a worry with foods like pretzels).

They make plenty of mistakes in the beginning, says Tan: “It’s hard for them because there’s so many things going on, and they’re dealing with a stranger, not their mom or dad. But the learning happens when they observe all the interactions and give each other suggestions and support. It’s really a good experience.”

More than 220 caregivers have gone through the boot camp since it began in 2015, and Tan is hoping to expand it to other communities and make it available in different languages. (The program website also offers useful webinars and how-to videos.)

Hugo Schmidt, 74, whose wife, Alice, has vascular dementia, says he tried the boot camp after a social worker recommended it, and learned that some of his interactions with Alice, 71, were counterproductive. “I used to tease her a little bit — let her get mad at me to get out her tension,” he says. “They said, ‘No! Do not do that.’ ”

Schmidt later encouraged his 40-year-old daughter, Cindy, to try the program. “She really enjoyed it, too,” he says. “It gives you a framework, instead of just experimenting to see what works.”