By R.S. Elvey

Caring for an ostomy can often be a frustrating and challenging experience at any age. But combine advanced age and dementia and it becomes even more of a challenge for caregivers and loved ones. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the number of Americans 65 and older will gradually increase from 15% of our population to 24% by 2050. With this growth has come a rise in existing and new ostomies combined with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. The Alzheimer’s Association of America reports in their 2017 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report, “Of the estimated 5.5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s dementia in 2017, 5.3 million are age 65 and older.” The association predicts a half a million new cases of Alzheimer’s dementia will develop annually.

This explosive growth in new cases of dementia is putting an enormous strain on family caregivers. The Family Caregiver Alliance estimates, “44 million Americans age 18 and older provide unpaid assistance and support to older people and adults with disabilities who live in the community.” These caregivers often have little or no preparation or support in providing care for people with disabilities such as stoma care. They become frustrated and worn out. In an online forum, an anonymous writer expressed her frustration about caring for her mother’s stoma as follows, “I am TIRED of it. I need someone to take over dealing with an ostomy and ordering the correct supplies for her, etc… And I am just going to make whatever decisions seem right regarding her bladder care, as I find out more info. I really wanted to yell at her tonight and that makes me feel like a terrible, awful person. I didn’t, but I did get a little firm.”

Studies have shown that family caregivers who provide care to family members with chronic and disabling conditions are also putting themselves at risk of developing emotional and physical health problems. When seeking stoma care information, caregivers often participate in online chat rooms and forums for anecdotal advice. Additionally, visiting nurses with wound and ostomy training often make home visits and teach ostomy care. But when they leave the caregiver is often faced with ever-changing challenges as their loved one’s dementia worsens. Most often they face the challenge of not knowing when a pouch needs to be emptied, appliances being ripped off by their loved one or attempts to empty and change the appliance that miss the mark and require massive cleanups.

Realizing the complexity of stoma care and dementia and the pressure it causes to caregivers, the Colostomy Association of the United Kingdom and the Dementia Association of the United Kingdom combined to issue a twelve-page downloadable leaflet at www.dementiauk.org entitled, “Caring for a person with a stoma and dementia”. They readily recognize that not all persons with dementia will profit from learning to care for their stoma. But where it is possible a person should be encouraged to participate in their own stoma maintenance.

The leaflet’s content is based on input from health professionals who care for ostomates with dementia and a stoma. A few of the hints and tips included in the publication are:

  • “People with dementia who are actively involved in changing their bags should be encouraged to wear gloves. This reduces the risk of infection, feces under the nails and fecal spreading.”
  • “Some people with dementia who require their bag to be changed for them might resist. In these cases distraction could help. For instance, encouraging the person to clean their teeth or brush their hair during the process might be helpful. Standing the person in front of a mirror so they can focus on the task they are performing and not the bag change can help.”
  • “Bag choice is important. One-piece bags with pre-cut aperture have the advantage of being uncomplicated for both person and caregiver. Two-piece bags, where the flange can remain in situ for up to three days, helps protect the skin where frequent changes are necessary.”

Individual and professional caregivers also provide additional advice based on their experiences. Many staff who work in nursing homes put a plastic bag over the pouch so that in case of any leakage, there won’t be a much larger incident. Many persons with Alzheimer’s or other dementias either pick or rip off their pouches. To prevent this from happening, many caregivers dress their loved ones in special clothing that has no openings in the front but still gives the appearance of normal clothing. One source for this type of clothing is Buck and Buck. Their online catalogue features adaptive clothing by gender and condition. Lastly, in this smartphone age there is even an app that might help. 11 Health has created the Alfred Alert Sensor. The sensor is applied to the pouch at a point where it should be emptied. When that point is reached it connects by Bluetooth wireless technology to the Alfred Alert app on your smartphone to tell you it is time to empty. The app can also capture patient output volume over a period of time. The data is stored in a HIPAA compliant cloud server where it can be shared by medical professionals and family members.

In the final analysis, caring for a loved one with dementia is a joint effort between the person with dementia, their loved ones, their medical consultants and other professional caregivers.

Editor’s note: UOAA Affiliated Support Groups all around the United States are open to ostomy and continent diversion patients, caregivers, family, and friends.

By Megan Herrett

Adequately summarizing what our family has gone through over the past almost ten years requires going back to the very beginning.  Our daughter, Maggie was three months old when we realized that she looked a little jaundiced.  Our pediatrician agreed and ran what would be the first of hundreds of tests to determine what was wrong with our baby and why her liver function tests were so elevated.  After being seen by multiple specialists here in Boise for a few months, we were referred to a doctor at Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City in November of 2008.

Photo by: Natalie Koziuk Photography (www.nkoziukphotography.com)

When Maggie was about six or seven months old, we noticed that she was starting to scratch quite a bit.  Her arms, feet, and ears were covered in scabs and scratch marks.  This itching was a side-effect of her liver not processing bile correctly – when not processed by the liver, the bile backs up into the bloodstream and circulates back through the body, resulting in an increase number of bile salts in the body.  It is these bile salts in the bloodstream that make an individual with a liver disease very itchy.

At first, we were able to control her itching through several medications but by the time she was 12 months-old, her itching had become unbearable.  At that time, her liver was deteriorating quickly and she was exhibiting some developmental delays as a result of the incessant itching.  In a matter of weeks, she had pulled out all of her hair and she was maxed out on her medication dosages.

We were presented with the option of an ostomy-placing surgery when Maggie was just over one-year-old as an alternative to a liver transplant.  The purpose of her ostomy would be to (1) drain bile from her body to combat the itching, and (2) slow the progression of her disease by giving her liver a much-needed reprieve.

To be honest, I was devastated when I first heard the words, “ostomy bag.”  I imagined a life where Maggie would never wear a bikini or be a cheerleader or be captain of her swim team – all very big concepts when you are talking about a one-year old child.  I imagined her being bullied because she was different.  But, we needed a solution…and we needed to act quickly.

Photo by: Natalie Koziuk Photography (www.nkoziukphotography.com)

Maggie underwent ostomy surgery on October 30, 2009, and we haven’t looked back.  She is now eight-years-old and is thriving health-wise as well as academically.  Additionally, she is also excelling on a competitive gymnastics team.  And although Maggie absolutely beams on the outside, she struggles with confidence because of her ostomy pouch.  She is fiercely private and does not want any of her peers to know.  My husband and I have worked tirelessly to emphasize to her that her pouch is nothing to be ashamed of – after all, it saved her life and she would not be the person she is today without it.

In 2010, we were blessed by the birth of our son, Winston.  We soon discovered that he was plagued with the same disease and would then undergo the same surgery when he was just over one-year-old.  Although this news was devastating at the time, we have come to realize that it was a blessing in disguise.  Both of them have the same liver disease and both wear ostomy pouches – commonalities that they can rely on when the going gets tough.

I can still recall my “aha moment” though – that moment when I realized that we would not be a family that sat idly by and let her pouch be a source of shame or embarrassment for her.  Maggie was probably two years old at the time and we were in the throes of potty-training, where our previous line of attack of onesies and bib overalls to prevent her from yanking her pouch off, were no longer an option.  She was finally in a shirt and a pair of pants…and her ostomy bag was peeking out from the hemline of her shirt as we left a restaurant.  A man entering the restaurant noticed her ostomy pouch and said, “Ewwwww!  What IS that?”  Although my initial reaction was one of anger and dismay, it was then that I realized that working with her would be only one piece of the puzzle – we also needed to work with the community to help educate, support and raise awareness for those like Maggie so that the shame, fear and embarrassment would fade away to empowerment and pride.

It was this “aha moment” that led me to contact the United Ostomy Associations of America in January of 2016 about bringing their Run for Resilience Ostomy 5k to Boise.  My inquiry was met with a resounding “YES!”  We held our inaugural race on Saturday, October 8th and had over 160 people registered for the 5K and Kids’ Mile events.  We even had participants, including ostomates and ostomy nurses, drive in for the race from Spokane, Washington and Lewiston! And Hollister even donated ostomy pouches to include in our race registration bags.  If nothing else, I am hopeful that this year we laid the foundation for many successful years to come and got some ostomy-related dialogue started.  Instead of “ewww,” maybe people will say, “Oh, I know what that is and that saved their life!”

The Boise Ostomy 5k is now in its 3rd year! For more information on our Run for Resilience events around the country visit www.ostomy5k.org