It started with the small things at first — forgetting to do something, saying things that had already been said.

However, as those occasions became more common and 80-year-old Fred Owens’ behavior began to spiral out of control, his family took him to a doctor to get him checked out. The diagnosis was Alzheimer’s disease, and for his family, one of the primary questions on their minds was: What do we do now?

It was at that point around 1995 that Owens’ daughter, Alethia Ragle, first discovered the Alzheimer’s Association, which has a base in Bakersfield serving people in Kern, Kings, Tulare and Inyo counties.

“I did a six-week education course and it told me what Alzheimer’s was, how it progresses, how to manage it with your family,” she said. “This was all new to me, so it was very helpful. It gave us something to work from.”

Meeting demand

The Bakersfield office of the association is hoping to provide support to more people like Ragle and her family. Last fall, the organization moved into a new facility at 1401 Commercial Way that will allow them to serve more caregivers and Alzheimer’s patients.

“We really needed to expand,” said Ashley Sodergren, regional director for the association's California Southland chapter, which covers most of Southern California. “We need to have more of a local presence and more ability to be accessible to the community.”

Sodergren said the association had a Bakersfield office before in the Stockdale Affairs Event Center on New Stine Road. However, she said all they had there was three small offices in a space they shared with several other organizations.

Due to the limited space, Sodergren said the office was only able to take in people by appointment. To hold classes and group meetings, the association had to carefully schedule conference room time, as the room was shared among all the operations in the building.

Now, they have a space all their own that’s about double the space of what they had before. The new office also allows the association to accept walk-ins.

“We want people to be able to feel comfortable walking in and getting the support and resources they need,” Sodergren said. “We needed to be more of a resource here. We had to do something.”

What’s the urgency? An expected increase in the need for services. According to the association, the number of people 65 and older in Kern County estimated to have Alzheimer’s disease in 2030 is 19,726, an 85 percent increase over 10,645 people in 2015.

By 2050, the association believes 16 million Americans will have the disease, a significant jump over the estimated 5 million people who currently live with it. This is largely due to an increase in the elderly population and longer life spans due to medical advances.

To help meet an expected future demand for support and services, the Alzheimer’s Association has bulked up its presence in Kern County. With the new space, Sodergren said they’ve been able to bring on more volunteers to answer phones, assist families, set up appointments and more.

The association also hopes to add more services and programs in the near future as well, such as adding bilingual support.

A positive start

So far, the association’s efforts have begun to pay off. Sodergren said the Bakersfield office served 293 people in their 2017-18 fiscal year. Only about halfway through the current fiscal year, the association is already close to exceeding that amount, with a goal to serve a total of 600 people before the year is up.

“We have seen an uptick in walkthroughs, people coming in for support,” she said. “We’ve also seen more of an increase with attendance of our classes.”

However, Sodergren said there’s still more work to do to reach people who are affected by this disease and encourage them to seek out services.

“I think Alzheimer's has such a stigma around it still,” she said. “People don’t want to hear about it and they don’t want to talk about it. We’re trying to raise that curtain to the best of our ability.”

Ragle said she has learned a lot, both from getting involved in the association as well as the experiences she’s had with her father and now her husband, who has had the disease for the past five years. 

“It’s hard to watch them struggle to make sense of things in their mind when they just can’t,” she said. “I miss the companionship, the conversations, but you can’t dwell on that. Every day is a gift. Every day is a blessing.”

As Alzheimer’s is a rapidly progressing disease currently without a cure, Ragle said it’s important that caregivers treasure the time they have with their loved ones while they still can.

“If you have challenges, you work through them. You do whatever you can,” she said. “Everyone needs to realize that the person you love is still there, but in their mind they’re not that same person. You still love them and you still care for them.”

Joseph Luiz can be reached at 395-7368 or by email at jluiz@bakersfield.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @JLuiz_TBC. 

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