In 2012, the news of her father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis at age 62 came as a shock to Whitney Oeltmann. But it was just the first.
“While it was quite devastating considering how young he was, the hardest part was being told there was no cure, and he had to stop driving and quit his job,” said the Brookhaven resident. “Basically, the message was your life is over.”
Oeltmann, a social worker, and her educator mom, Linda DeMarlo, couldn’t believe it.
“We thought we knew how to find resources to help us, but we couldn’t,” said Oeltmann. “There’s a foundation focused on a cure, but we knew there wasn’t going to be one in his lifetime. So what do you do when you’re given this death sentence? Other terminal illnesses often have a path forward, but we found nothing.”
As the two searched for help, they heard the same concerns from others whose family members, often in mid-life, had the same diagnosis.
“We found very quickly that our story was not unusual,” said Oeltmann. “And I learned that once someone is diagnosed, they’re not allowed to be at a senior center. So where can they go?”
The answers came when Oeltmann and DeMarlo launched their own nonprofit, the Dementia Spotlight Foundation, in 2016. The organization focuses on the wellbeing of both patient and caregiver through support groups, education and socialization. One of the most successful projects has been the creation of “connection cafes.”
“Another sad part we found is that friends often just go away,” said Oeltmann. “But it helps for people to stay involved and connected. Our cafes are designed for the caregiver and their person to have fun. We play games, have entertainers come in, take virtual trips, do crafts, sing, eat and just talk.”
Oeltmann has partnered with senior centers in DeKalb and North Fulton to host the events, which are funded through donations. In February, the organization hosted its largest fundraiser to date, raising $100,000 that will underwrite respite and at-home care.
She also recently worked with a national organization to have DeKalb designated as a “dementia-friendly community.”
“There’s so much stigma attached to Alzheimer’s and dementia,” said Oeltmann, whose father died a year after his diagnosis. “And there are so many myths. We can help people carve a path that focuses on care.”
Information about the organization is online at dementiaspotlightfoundation.org.
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