But suddenly, that world was upended when she discovered that their household finances, always managed meticulously by Todd, were a mess. Bills were not getting paid. Taxes were overdue. This was the wakeup call that caused Todd to have a check-up at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. But there were no immediate answers. Finally, after a year of taking many different tests, Todd’s internist delivered the diagnosis: Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD).
According to the Mayo Clinic, FTD “is an umbrella term for a diverse group of uncommon disorders that primarily affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain—the areas generally associated with personality, behavior and language. Signs and symptoms vary, depending upon the portion of the brain affected; it is often misdiagnosed as a psychiatric problem or as Alzheimer’s disease.”
Once Jo had a diagnosis, she jumped into action. Jo knew she would need help to manage Todd’s physical needs as his body and brain grew weaker. She also wanted to ensure that he could find ways to express himself intellectually, creatively and socially for as long as possible. In addition, Jo, who still works part-time, quickly realized that being a primary caregiver is extremely demanding. While she has a wonderful network of friends who can help provide emotional support, she also found two professional caregivers who help dress Todd, escort him to places and provide excursions to the grocery store and other places so that his day is full of activities. During the day while Todd is occupied, Jo can meet with clients, play canasta, take classes or just be with other people. At night, she and Todd have dinner at home and watch TV before turning in early. Their once robust social life is more limited now.
However a year ago, Jo discovered a “hidden gem” at their very own synagogue… CJE at Sinai, an Adult Day Services Program. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Todd takes the bus with his caregiver to Chicago Sinai Congregation where he participates in CJE at Sinai, a program that is geared toward older adults with early to moderate memory loss. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Todd and other participants take part in activities that are stimulating, supportive and structured… sandwiched before and after a delicious lunch.
Sheri Wishnia, a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist and the program’s coordinator, has been running CJE at Sinai since it first opened in October 2008. She works alongside a CJE volunteer and often, an intern who is earning school credits for this hands-on learning experience. Sheri works closely with each participant and her goal is to incorporate activities that can be tailored to each person’s interests. “This program is designed to help stimulate cognition and physicalwellness. We know from experience that people are more motivated to engage with our activities when theyare simply enjoying themselves.”
Programming can include discussions on current events, creative arts for self-expression, word games, dance and exercise, holiday celebrations, and music. According to Sheri, “We try to cover all the bases. Having time to socialize is especially important. We also take the time to hear each person’s story. Our participants like to know that they will see a familiar face when they walk in the door.”
Jo wishes more people knew about this amazing program. She knows that it is difficult to admit that a loved one is changing, cognitively or physically. People are often embarrassed to ask for help; denial is common. However, in the year that Todd has been attending CJE at Sinai, Jo has seen him actively participate in Current Event discussions and Trivia. “He always thought of himself as an intellectual and in this setting, he excels and is delighted he can still convey his knowledge about so many topics.” The Liefs even danced together at a recent CJE at Sinai celebration, which happened to fall on their 43rd wedding anniversary—something she thought was no longer possible. Sheri confides that Todd is also quite artistic and a wonderful singer with a charming sense of humor.
Jo could never have imagined that her brilliant, athletic and multi-talented husband would look forward to spending days at CJE at Sinai. But she wants others to know that CJE at Sinai is a twice a week activity that Todd calls “his class” which he enjoys. It gives him a safe place to go where he feels valued for who he is. “We wish it met every day,” she says. She adds: “When you first realize that your loved one has succumbed to dementia, you have to grieve for the person who is no longer there. Once you have come to terms with the loss (and having a therapist or a group really helps this process), you find a way to still love them for who they are now…and the special memories that you built together. This is what you can hold on to.”
To receive more information about CJE at Sinai, the only Adult Day Services program conveniently located in downtown Chicago, please call 847.492.1400.