The day my grandfather Joe disappeared began like any typical weekend. He straightened his tweed newsboy cap, zipped up his Northfield Park jacket, grabbed his keys, and got behind the wheel of his cobalt Toyota Corolla en route to “the track” from his Cleveland duplex. Hours after dark, a confused phone call came from a gas station payphone: Grandpa never arrived at the racetrack that day; rather, he was counties away from his destination, disoriented and unsure how to return home.
The following week, a doctor would explain to my grandmother Dorothy and Grandpa Joe that dementia was the culprit for his unplanned detour. As his affliction progressed, he’d eventually stop recognizing those closest to him, as well as himself in his bathroom mirror.
In spite of a lifetime of labor as a union Ironworker, his modest means meant no home healthcare would provide respite for the spouse five years his senior. With no medical experience, Dorothy took on her role of caregiver with a sense of humor that buoyed her spirits through a decade of managing his illness alongside a bladder cancer diagnosis.
Like my grandmother, Tonia Porras, founder of Gloria’s Way, had no background in the medical field. Instead, she was renowned for her performance on the lacrosse field as an All-American athlete from Shaker Heights who attended the University of Maryland, winning four consecutive Division I national championships and a defensive player of the year award.
Settling in New York City, Porras lived in Brooklyn and Manhattan while working as a line producer in film and television over a 10-year period before realizing that “something wasn’t quite right” with her mom, Gloria. After visiting to assess the situation, she realized that Gloria’s memory loss created a need for full-time care that her aging father, a retired attorney, would be unable to provide alone.
Five years ago, she put her career on hold to move back home. “I wanted to give back a fraction of what my parents gave me while growing up,” Porras explains. It wasn’t long, though, before she realized that she’d need additional reinforcements to be successful in her new role. “My job as a line producer was more about connecting a lot of dots than creating, so I began looking for ways to fill in the gaps in my mother’s care.”
Although caring for a loved one can feel isolating for families facing the disease, Porras realized she was far from alone. In fact, there are 260,000 people affected by dementia in the state of Ohio. Turning to dementia-specific organizations, she found a wealth of local resources, timely research studies, and treatment options. Unfortunately, while comprehensive, much of it was cost-prohibitive.
As Porras met other caregivers, she found commonalities in their shared struggles to attend to their loved ones’ needs effectively. She envisioned an affordable, community-based “one-stop shop” with services that could support, educate and provide relief to those affected by memory loss and dementia so they could continue living active, connected, healthy lives both in their homes and their communities.
Porras designed her nonprofit Gloria’s Way for the benefit of individuals living with early-stage dementia, their families, and caregivers. In particular, the organization caters to those ineligible for low-income subsidies who lack the means to afford the current high costs of care. All of the programs, referrals, and field staff have been carefully vetted, and many resources are available for free or at a discounted cost.
Shame, anger, embarrassment, and denial are among the emotions that inhibit PWDs from promptly seeking support when symptoms of cognitive challenges become apparent. Porras stresses the value of planning and a proactive approach to mitigate the progressive stages of this malady.
Moreover, she notes the importance of a positive attitude: “Dementia is an ugly disease with a long list of negatives, but there are so many silver linings if you shift your focus,” she says. The role of caregiver, she explains, “has changed me for the better and given me an opportunity to spend invaluable time with my parents.”
Like many businesses, Gloria’s Way has pivoted in response to the realities of COVID-19. Although socialization programs like the free monthly Memory Café are on hold, families in need of resources may reach out for a virtual visit and a free care consultation. Donations may be made here.