Pat Kaplan.

Pat Kaplan, of Palm Desert, is determined to make a difference in the lives of Coachella Valley residents suffering from dementia—and the loved ones caring for them.

The oldest of six girls, Kaplan, 71, remembers her father, an attorney, ran the household “like a courtroom. I think he was afraid of making wrong decisions, having six girls to raise. He did teach me that anything I wanted, I could have it, but I’d have to work for it. He’d say, ‘Nobody’s going to give it to you,’

“My mom was a physical therapist who always told me that regardless of what I did growing up, she knew I was a good person—that even if she might be disappointed in what I did, it was only ‘because I know you’re better than that.’

“My folks were both devout Catholics, and I went to Catholic schools all the way through my first two years of college. I then spent my last two years at a public university, majoring in sociology.”

Born and raised in San Jose, Kaplan met her husband while she was attending school in Santa Barbara. Her husband at the time was a helicopter pilot, working for private companies.

“I started out working in the insurance industry, working a day shift and going to school at night,” she says. “My husband was working the night shift. He used to work on a ‘time on/time off’ schedule, and we were both used to having time apart and enjoying the time we spent together. It’s the same now: We do different things that we each enjoy doing, and we enjoy our time together as well.”

They married in 1970, so the arrangement has worked well.

“We settled in Seattle, my husband’s home turf, but eventually got tired of nine months of rain,” she says. “We kept our house in Seattle but spent summers here in the desert. We came back each year, and after three years, we sold our house and have been here permanently since 1989.”

The couple invested in two homes in Palm Springs that had been built for elder care.

“Once we came to Palm Springs,” says Kaplan, “I envisioned that we’d just be taking care of people who couldn’t live at home anymore—but I was told we needed to take care of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. I started doing research, and what I really learned is that the first residents you get will teach you everything you need to know.”

Kaplan went on to study gerontology at UC Riverside.

“We sold the homes in 2004, and I became a consultant at Vista Cove in Rancho Mirage. I also do a lot of volunteer work now with Alzheimer’s Coachella Valley, a nonprofit organization that began in 2017,” she said; Kaplan was a co-founder and serves on the board. “We had a group including registered nurses, social workers, therapists, activity directors and even a chef to brainstorm ideas about what was needed in the Coachella Valley.

“We felt it was important to establish a local place that could offer the kind of programs people really need. The national Alzheimer’s Association raises money and focuses on research to find a cure, but caregivers—primarily spouses and children—need help with what they’re facing on a day-to-day basis. We began offering programs in January 2018.”

ACV offers an eight-week program that meets each Friday, “Traveling the Journey Together,” where patients and caregivers spend one hour together, and then spend an hour apart. Patients get stimulating activities while caregivers learn skills that can improve their adjustment to what is possible rather than what is lost. Another program, “Club Journey,” meets each Tuesday for three hours and is focused on social interaction, as well as activities like music, games, sing-alongs, exercise, bingo, conversation, crafts and more; it includes snacks and lunch. ACV also trains caregivers and offers support groups. There is no cost to participants.

“Even if someone hasn’t been officially diagnosed,” says Kaplan, “the person living with them can see what they are going through, and needs help coping with the changes they’re encountering.”

What is the best way to find out if a dementia diagnosis is warranted?

“The first stop should be a neurologist,” says Kaplan. “A regular internist or primary caregiver can then follow up to monitor related medical care and oversee medications. There are drug-trial programs where companies are researching drugs that can delay or minimize symptoms, but those drug trials have stringent requirements about who can participate, and there’s a lot of oversight needed, (like) keeping records (and) monitoring ongoing testing. It’s not easy for the caregivers, and it may or may not help.”

Kaplan says state and federal policies need to adapt to an aging population. “We need to enact medical programs that cover stay-at-home and long-term care,” she says. “Under Medicare, you get 21 days in a skilled nursing facility after a surgery or accident, but we need coverage for at-home care, and for day-care programs where a patient can get skilled care while their caregiver gets some time off knowing the patient is in a safe place. There are only two such places in the Coachella Valley, and lots of people just can’t afford it.”

Pat Kaplan’s advice to anyone dealing with a loved one with symptoms of dementia: “You have to think creatively, and realize you don’t speak the same language the patient does. Obviously, you need a lot of patience, and there is a lot to learn about how to communicate effectively. Don’t buy into the stereotypes and negativity about people with cognitive impairment.

“When someone has cancer, we know they didn’t choose that. It’s the same with dementia. Focus on the opportunities that are still there. Is dementia a horrible disease? Yes. But there’s still a person inside, and that’s what you need to focus on.”

Pat Kaplan is focused on making a difference in the Coachella Valley—and she is succeeding.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs Tuesday-Friday from 11 a.m. to noon on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

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Anita Rufus

Anita Rufus is an award-winning columnist and talk radio host, known as “The Lovable Liberal.” She has a law degree, a master’s in education, and was a business executive before committing herself...