The Coast News Group
When friends of Sunny Harper-Owen started to notice changes in her behavior, they formed a support group around her following a diagnoses of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Photo courtesy Marian Karpisek

Support group for Alzheimer’s looks at life’s sunny side

COAST CITIES — What do you do when a friend starts to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease? 

Nere Lartitegui and a group of five others got informed and took action to support their friend. Lartitegui, Marian Karpisek, Mnimaka Brockett, Mahtowin Howe, Maruca Leach and Jean Stein call themselves the Sunny Support Group.

Lartitegui met Sunny Harper-Owen through the Women of Ancient Wisdom club. They had been friends for 14 years when she noticed changes in Harper-Owen.

Harper-Owen could not keep up with discussions and had a series of car accidents. Her behavior changes seemed like early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

Lartitegui and her friends discussed their concerns with Harper-Owen’s husband and adult son. At first the family was in denial, but then they went ahead and had her evaluated by a doctor.

Harper-Owen’s medical results showed she had early onset of Alzheimer’s disease at age 66. The diagnosis led to some positive interventions.

“The tests confirmed an early onset of Alzheimer’s,” Lartitegui said. “They revised her medications and she came back to life.”

Lartitegui and her friends attended a San Diego Alzheimer’s Association meeting and read up on the disease. They shared information with Harper-Owen’s family and helped her husband take proactive steps such as securing a living will and power of attorney before the disease progressed.

The women also set up a schedule to take turns visiting Harper-Owen once a week.

Each woman plans a half-day visit with Harper-Owen doing things they routinely enjoy together. One friend takes her for a walk by the ocean; another goes with her for a manicure.

Lartitegui takes Harper-Owen out for lunch and then they watch a musical together on Lartitegui’s big screen television.

“Sometimes she has lapses, but most of the time she is quite present,” Lartitegui said.

Lartitegui said Harper-Owen looks forward to the weekly visits.

Harper-Owen’s husband posts a note by her bed to remind her of the meet up date and time and the friend who is meeting up with her calls the day before. Things are kept routine.

Lartitegui added that participating in familiar activities seems to trigger Harper-Owen’s memory.

“She does very well in a setting that is safe,” Lartitegui said.

Lartitegui said she has learned noisy, unfamiliar situations make Harper-Owen uncomfortable and sometimes plans need to be adjusted.

“She keeps changing and we keep accommodating,” Lartitegui said.

“All women have a special connection with her,” Lartitegui added. “She is a lovely, delightful human being.”

Lartitegui said she hopes her story inspires others to reach out to a family member or friend with Alzheimer’s disease.

“They don’t have to withdraw from their life in a most needed time, but can come up with alternative ways to keep connected to the person and keep the person connected with life,” Lartitegui said.

Lartitegui said that one group member’s mother had Alzheimer’s disease and died without the support of her friends.

“A lot of her friends disappeared,” Lartitegui said. “They didn’t know how to be with her. The person they knew was gone. They didn’t know how to relate.”

Lartitegui said that experience has inspired the group not to let the same thing happen to Harper-Owen.