By Anya Bochman
There are few diseases as cruel and baffling to the medical profession as the conditions that fall under the umbrella of age-related dementia. An impairment of memory significant enough to affect daily functioning, dementia includes Alzheimer’s Disease, which is progressive and fatal. Though there are a number of clinical trials and medications that may slow the progression of the disease, currently it has no cure. There are, however, many things that caregivers and family members can do to alleviate the suffering of people struck with dementia. In Morris County, a Mt. Olive girl scout and high school sophomore is undertaking a special project in an effort to help those suffering from the disease.
Christine Hruby of Flanders, a sophomore at Pope John XXIII Regional High School in Sparta and a girl scout with Troop 4218 of Mt. Olive, is set to receive the Gold Award for creating special blankets for sufferers of dementia. The Girl Scout Gold Award is the most prestigious and difficult to earn award in the organization, and tackling social issues is at the core of the accolade.
Per GSA’s guidelines, the scouts who win the award “are inspiring leaders who are working on a broad range of the most challenging problems facing our world today – from human trafficking to ocean pollution to education access to expanded STEM training for girls in underserved communities.” Hruby’s initiative to create 50 sensory blankets, also known as fidget blankets, for dementia-stricken residents of Merry Heart Senior Care Services in Succasunna fits in well with the required criteria.
According to Vicki Hruby, Christine’s mother, the girl was originally inspired to begin her project after visiting her great-aunt at Merry Heart for two years. Although her aunt does not suffer from dementia, during her visits Hruby was exposed to many patients who do. Additionally, Christine’s grandmother was recently diagnosed with the disease, giving her further exposure to the problems facing sufferers.
“My great-aunt is in [Merry Heart] right now, so I see a lot of people with dementia,” Hruby said. “Sensory blankets is something they need and do not currently have.”
People with dementia may have problems with short-term memory, which makes any number of tasks -from keeping track of a purse or wallet, paying bills, planning and preparing meals, remembering appointments or traveling out of the neighborhood – a struggle that typically exacerbates with time.
In the case of most progressive dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, there is presently no treatment that slows or stops the deterioration. But there are drug regimens that may temporarily improve symptoms. The same medications used to treat Alzheimer’s are among the drugs sometimes prescribed to help with symptoms of other types of dementias. Non-drug therapies can also alleviate some symptoms of these conditions.
While the core symptoms of dementia, such as memory impairment and a decline in reasoning, judgment and communication are more or less familiar to the public, some other prevalent aspects are less well known. For example, anxiety is more common in people with dementia than those without, affecting between five to 20 percent.
People suffering from both dementia and anxiety may also exhibit behavioral changes including agitation, hoarding, seeking constant reassurance, not wanting to be left alone or closely following their caregiver or family member around. The person may appear restless and engage in pacing and fidgeting.
And just as children are often calmed by their favorite toy or blanket, a person with Alzheimer’s dementia or other memory loss condition may also be soothed by a special sensory blanket, or a dementia “fidget quilt.” Often, during the latter stages of the disease, suffers may exhibit hand fidgeting, as though they are agitated or searching for something to hold. The person with dementia may pull on their clothing or bedding, or repeatedly rub their hands up and down.
A specially-made fidget blanket serves to soothe the sufferer while giving them something to occupy their hands; often, such a blanket will have zippers or buttons, and can be large enough to lay across the lap. A weighted blanket or lap pad is a simple, non-drug option that can be used to reduce anxiety, calm nerves, provide comfort and promote deep sleep.
The blankets Hruby is making are soft and large enough to cover the lap of a wheelchair-bound person, and feature accessories such as zippers and pom poms. The girl scout is also in the process of preparing a “sensory box” to go along with the blankets, a kit that will contain several small objects the patient may find soothing. To custom make these boxes, Hruby is taking a survey from Merry Heart patients’ family members.
“Since my mom was diagnosed with dementia, everything has been changing,” Vicki said. “That, along with her visits to Merry Heart, led Christine to design the blankets. She spoke with a nurse specializing in dementia care, who gave her a few pointers.”
Hruby has been a girl scout since kindergarten, and before she was eligible for the gold award in high school, she had received the bronze and silver awards. According to Vicki, she had to prepare a proposal for her sensory blanket project and go before a special committee to get it approved.
Per GSA guidelines, there are seven steps that must be completed before a scout is awarded the gold. Among these, she must identify and investigate a community issue she cares about, create a plan to tackle the root cause, as well as form a team to help her in this mission. After the scout accomplishes her plan, she must share the outcome and tell her story. As a result of their efforts, Gold Award girl scouts typically have a competitive edge in the college admissions process and eligibility for scholarships. Since 1980, the Gold Award has inspired girls to share their ideas and passions with their communities.
The sort of community engagement and leadership required of Gold Award scouts is not new to Hruby; Vicki reports that the high school student has a history of organizing and helping others. Last year, she started the Take Action Club at her school. Some past projects of the club involved making cards for residents of Merry Heart as well as collecting old mascara wands to be donated to the Appalachian Wildlife Refuge. The wands are used to remove fly eggs and larva from the fur and feathers of wild animals.
Laura Solowsky, Hruby’s Scoutmaster who has known the girl since the fifth grade, said that the scout’s work ethic stands out among the rest.
“[Hruby] is one of my more quiet girls, but she sets goals and accomplishes them,” Solowsky said. “She is determined and she works hard.”
This sentiment was echoed by Vicki, who pointed to the girl’s dedication to both school and family.
“She really wants to help others and make a difference,” Vicki said. “She already helps with my mother by taking walks with her, and she takes our dog for therapy visits with patients at Merry Heart.”
Merry Heart has been serving the geriatric health care needs of Morris County for over fifty years. Individualized health care is given in order to ensure dignity and a high quality of life to each resident. Merry Heart provides a continuum of care where many available programs exist to allow a more precisely tailored solution to specific care needs.
Merry Heart is also committed to providing a secure, reassuring and comforting environment to clients with memory disorders. Residents in this program enjoy a plan of care tailored to address their specific needs. Features of the program include personalized diets, appropriate activities and socialization in a safe and caring environment. Alzheimer’s and dementia care is offered at all Merry Heart facilities.
For her part, Hruby is interested in learning more about the disorder through research.
“It makes me happy to know that I’m helping so many people,” Hruby said. “I was thinking I might want to do something in the medical field related to dementia [later in life].”
To reach her goal of creating 50 blankets, Hruby has set up a drop off point in her school library where people can donate yarn. Once she completes the blankets and sensory boxes – an endeavor that must take at least 100 hours of independent work, per GSA requirements – she will have to present her efforts to her Girl Scout council. According to Solowsky, this aspect of the award distinguishes it from similar endeavors in the Boy Scouts, where aspiring Eagle Scouts are allowed to count hours when others assisted them on their projects.
In working her way through the project’s criteria, Vicki says her daughter has mastered important communication skills.
“She has had to show her leadership skills by talking to adults, such as the director of Merry Heart and the senior citizens there,” Vicki said. “She has definitely learned how to communicate better with adults and to direct her peers.”
And the organization that is at the core of Hruby’s project, the Girl Scouts – which she has been involved in for 11 years – is instrumental in shaping the student’s life.
“The Girl Scout group is something that she liked because it let her develop her own project,” Vicki said. “It allowed her to help others and give back to the community.”