By Lori Culpepper
Judi Pritchard, founder of Care and Thrive, a 501(c)3 registered nonprofit, does not believe that dementia is definite, and she’s made it her mission to help Alabaster residents and others believe the same.
Pritchard founded the nonprofit in 2019 to help people learn how to be proactive when it comes to dementia. While there is no cure once somebody has been diagnosed, there are measures to help slow down the progression of the disease.
Pritchard has lived in Alabaster since 1992 with her husband Phillip, who owns Video Vision Media Marketing in Alabaster. Married for 32 years, they have two adult children.
As a Speech-Language Pathologist graduate from the University of Montevallo, Pritchard went straight to work in therapy departments at nursing homes, and she eventually led a large rehab company. In these roles, she saw firsthand that by the time people arrived at nursing homes there were two main problems: the stigma surrounding aging and dementia and a lack of support for those who had been diagnosed with the disease. By that time, she said they had already lost hope.
She started learning more and getting additional certifications: Certified Dementia Practitioner, Certified Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia Care Trainer, and Certified Montessori Dementia Care Practitioner. “I decided to leave my corporate role and start my private practice focusing on dementia and helping get the word out about prevention,” she says. “My particular interest is people who are in the early stages, those who have early onset under the age of 64, and people who have mild cognitive impairment, which is the stage before they get to dementia.”
A study from Blue Cross Blue Shield found that from 2013 to 2017, Alabama was number one in the nation for people being diagnosed with dementia under the age of 64. “That is terrifying,” she says.” The only services offered to somebody with a dementia diagnosis are medications and advice to get their affairs in order, then everything turns to the care partner. The problem is that nobody’s showing the person who has the disease what they need to do today, tomorrow, or in the future. There are so many things they can do to build back strength and learn about the disease.” She adds that it implicates many different areas like vision, balance, and sleep.
“Once someone has a better knowledge base in all of those areas, they can remain active and independent longer with appropriate safety measures in place,” Pritchard says. “When you see signs that your brain is changing on some level, you can fight back in the very early stages. I want to get people out of the frame of mind that you just have to accept that as you age, your brain is expected not to function well.”
Pritchard is educating people on general brain health, such as physical exercise, a healthy Mediterranean-style diet, regular health check-ups, reducing stress, and remaining socially active. Those are the approaches most people have heard about, but she is teaching them how to enhance all of that by keeping the brain stimulated.
“People will tell me that they do crossword puzzles, but that’s like only exercising one arm. The rest of the body is going down the drain, but that one arm is great. Or they say they work well at their job. Those job-related functions will most likely stay strong to some degree because of using them all the time. But if you’re not doing more with a well-rounded approach to exercising all the different areas of your brain in different manners, it won’t help you.”
Care and Thrive offers an online assessment to test how the brain is functioning in 12 critical areas of executive function and cognitive processing. “We encourage everyone, no matter their age, to take the assessment. Research is showing that up to 20 or 30 years beforehand, your brain is starting to change. We can see that if you take these tests on a regular basis,” she says. “We want to get an understanding of how someone’s brain is functioning today, and at the very least, retake it every year to get insights into brain health just like someone would for their weight or blood pressure over time.”
Pritchard is taking this news to the Alabaster area in various ways, including working with the Leadership Shelby County Board. She has several clients from Alabaster, and she has given away many online brain health assessments to Alabaster residents at the Alabaster Health Fair. She’s even taught brain health classes to Alabaster homeschool children, and she’s in the early stages of working with Thompson High School to continue getting in front of the younger population.
Of course, she focuses on the older population as well, working with Siluria Brewing Company and the Veterans of Foreign Wars to create a support group for veterans who are having issues. She partners with churches and senior centers and works often with the Alabaster Senior Center in helping them understand and recognize signs of dementia so they can age and thrive. Pritchard also works with people on individualized plans and offers cognitive coaching sessions to help with specific areas where someone may be having problems.
Her overall advice to residents of Alabaster is to remember that dementia is not definite. “People need to understand how their brain is functioning today and reevaluate that annually. Don’t be afraid if you notice you’re starting to struggle. Don’t worry if a loved one had dementia, and you are afraid you will develop the disease too,” she says. “Instead, hand it to us at Care and Thrive. Let us test you and make sure you’re well. And if you’re not, let us help you get back in shape so you know where to go and what to do. Don’t just sit back and let it happen. There’s so much you can do.”
To continue her work, she asks that Alabaster residents help spread the word that dementia is not inevitable. Have conversations with family members, and direct them to the online assessment. She says that donations and corporate support are always needed as well.
Find more information and the online assessment for brain health on the Care and Thrive website: careandthrive.org.