You may have encountered Brian Hess before—back when he was a child actor who told Mr. Whipple: “Don’t squeeze the Charmin!”
Hess, now 46, began acting in commercials when he was 5 or 6; his cousin was doing the same, and Hess thought it looked easy. He became an extra in several shows and worked with NBC; the acting helped pay for his education. Born in Washington, D.C., and raised in the Florida Keys, Hess and his family moved to California when he was 16.
“I was an athlete in high school who realized I wouldn’t make pro,” says Hess, “so I opted to join the Air Force. My father had been in the military, with stints in the FBI and CIA. He instilled in us that caring for people has meaning and is important. He said to work hard and not look for glory or seek recognition.
“My mom retired as a pediatric nurse practitioner, and both of my younger sisters became nurses. Mom said that caring for people has meaning and is its own reward, and that we should never stop learning, giving and caring.”
Hess never told the Air Force that he suffered from shin splints, and reached the point where he could hardly stand up. He went to the base hospital and was exposed to physical therapy for the first time. Once out of the service, he began work as an athletic trainer—and realized he wanted to do more with seriously ill patients, like those with brain injuries, amputees and stroke victims.
“I found I loved it,” he says.
When an opportunity arose to enter an internship working with brain-injury patients, Hess went to Charleston, S.C., as a physical-therapy assistant.
“It was a chance to get out of Los Angeles for a couple of years,” he says, “and it was my introduction to working with patients with cognitive impairment.”
Hess returned to Los Angeles, but four years ago decided to escape “the hustle and bustle,” and moved to the Coachella Valley. His family had spent time in the desert over many years, and he decided to make the move.
“I was raised near the beach in Florida, and I love the heat,” he says.
Hess joined the staff of the Eisenhower Memory Care Center’s Adult Day Center program and is currently its program coordinator. The program’s mission is to provide day care to functionally or cognitively impaired individuals in a safe, supportive environment.
“I’m particularly impressed with the staff,” Hess says. “The program has been operating for 36 years, and there are long-time staff who are totally dedicated. You don’t do this kind of work for over 30 years just because it’s cool.”
The program is in transition, with plans to expand to a new location where it can expand its availability beyond the current 49 patients.
“It’s great for me to feel like a catalyst for the progress being made regarding dementia and related diseases,” Hess says. “The level and scope of care are different than when I worked with brain-injury patients. I’ve learned much greater patience. Doing this kind of care is a different kind of job; you can’t just clock in and then go home. For me, it’s a 12-hour-a-day commitment.
“I want to find a way to get everybody on Earth who is affected by this disease into this kind of program. It used to be that Mom and Dad had direct family support when they aged, but now we have children and grandchildren bringing them in—even in-laws and distant family members.
“It’s hard for family to let go when someone’s capabilities have changed. You have to step into the patient’s world. If you didn’t know what day it is, wouldn’t you want people around to compensate for that deficiency? I tell families, ‘So your loved one has these memory deficits. So? The sky is still blue; the earth is still round, so what difference does it really make that they don’t know what day it is?’ It isn’t about what they can or can’t do any more. Here at the center, that doesn’t matter. We expose them to fun and games, laugh at jokes, listen to music and relate to them where they are. The abilities they have lost don’t factor into the time they spend here—and it gives caregivers a break they so badly need.”
Statistics show that caregivers often die before the patients for which they are caring, in part because of the stress associated with caregiving. The Eisenhower program also offers caregiver support and education, including the importance of learning effective communication skills.
“For me, it’s about reaching that one family out there that thinks they don’t need this,” Hess says. “Come for just one time is all I ask. It will make a difference. Once families realize this is available, and it’s here to help them, the light bulb goes on. I do as many public presentations and community activities as I can. I will market our services anywhere they won’t shut the door on me. I even leave fliers, ‘accidentally,’ by dropping them in supermarket aisles.”
One of the biggest issues around dementia and other types of cognitive impairment is the stigma still associated with the illness.
“People don’t want to admit this is happening in their family,” says Hess. “They try to shelter someone rather than bringing them to a program like ours. It becomes something people hide. For every one of the people in our program, there is another family out there that doesn’t look for resources. They think they have a grasp on it, because they haven’t burned out yet.”
Hess is continuing his education; he’s currently in a licensed vocational nurse program.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and being here has been a catalyst,” he says. “I’ve seen how much nursing is involved in the care we give.
“I came on board here at a time of transition (with) this program. I actually thought, ‘If not me, then who?’ I actually jumped at the chance to do it. It’s an incredible opportunity, and I have to believe I ended up here in the right place at the right time.
“I’m a believer in doing things first and asking questions later. If you know you’re doing the right thing, just do it.”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.