Rick Phelps was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease over two years ago, at the age of 57. About eight months ago, an unexpected caregiver came into his life that changed his world completely.
"Sam's done more for me than any medication could ever do," says Rick Phelps, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease over two years ago, at the age of 57. "He's taken me from a twelve [out of ten] on the anxiety and stress scale, down to a two or three."
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No, Phelps isn't referring to some world-renowned dementia specialist—in fact, the creature he's describing doesn't even walk on two legs.
He's talking about Sam, a spry one-year-old German Shepard who is part of a new breed of service dog trained to help people suffering from mild to mid-stage Alzheimer's disease.
Prior to his introduction to his canine caregiver, Phelps couldn't even go shopping at the local Walmart for fear he would get lost and not know which door to use to get out of the store. Now, with Sam at his side, Phelps feels more comfortable embarking on outings.
A vigilant protector
It took a while for Phelps to acclimate to his companion's constant attention to what he's doing and where he's going.
After only having Sam for a few days, Phelps forgot something out in his car and moved towards the door to go outside and get it. The dog calmly positioned himself in between Phelps and the door, blocking his exit. "It's like he was a layer between me and the outside—he wouldn't let me out the door without him," Phelps says.
To Phelps, it's as if the dog is paying 100 percent attention to him, and he's not far off. The training facility he got Sam from—DogWish, Inc.—coaches their service dogs to give 95 percent of their attention to their handler. The other five percent is devoted to making sure their surroundings are safe.
Alzheimer's service dogs can be trained to assist their cognitively-impaired handlers with a variety of daily tasks, from alerting them when a stove is left on or an appliance plugged in, to helping them identify their car in a crowded parking lot, or their house if they get lost on a walk. These protective pooches are also conditioned to home in on their owner's scent (Phelps had to send a trainer some of his old clothes so Sam could get used to his scent), enabling them to track an Alzheimer's wanderer for miles.
One good deed leads to another
The chain of events that led Phelps to Bob Taylor, the founder of DogWish.org, a charity that trains and sponsors service dogs for people with disabilities, was nothing short of serendipitous.
As a former law enforcement officer and emergency medical technician, Phelps was used to being active and helping people. But an early-onset Alzheimer's diagnosis meant that he had to quit his job much sooner than he planned on.
No longer being able to assist people in his neighborhood frustrated Phelps, until he realized that his diagnosis had inducted him into a whole new community of people in need: Alzheimer's sufferers and their caregivers.
Phelps created MemoryPeople, a Facebook-based support and awareness group for people dealing with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
A few months after he launched the group, a caregiver posted a question about how to find dementia service dogs. Having never heard of such a thing, Phelps did some research to help the woman with her query. He contacted Taylor to find out more information.
After passing along what he learned, Phelps didn't think much more about the issue—until Taylor called him back a few hours later.
"He asked me if my wife was on board with me getting a dementia service dog—I was shocked," he says. The idea of a canine companion had appealed to Phelps, but the $7,000 price tag for the specially-trained pooches did not.
It turned out that a sponsor had donated the money necessary to unite Phelps with his furry friend. "It's hard to thank someone who changes your life like that," he says of the unnamed donor.
A powerful (and playful) puppy
Sam seems to truly enjoy his role as canine caregiver.
Phelps is constantly awed by the various ways Sam helps him with everyday tasks. "He's so good, it almost makes me sick," he says. For instance, if Phelps goes to bed without putting on his Exelon patch, the dog will come over and lick the spot where the patch is supposed to go.
Sam is still a puppy at heart though. When Phelps takes off the dog's working vest, all he wants to do is play. The playful pooch is also a critical source of companionship during the day while Phelps' wife, Phyllis is out working.
Sam has given Phelps the opportunity to lead an engaged and fulfilling life in spite of his disease, and he didn't even know that service dogs for people with Alzheimer's disease existed until he was contacted by that caregiver.
That's why, when Phelps travels around the country conducting seminars and advocating for Alzheimer's awareness, he brings Sam with him whenever he can. He wants to spread the word about the powerful impact these dogs can have.
Phelps believes everything happens for a reason and he is well aware of the vital role that Sam has played in helping him cope with an ailment that devastates so many families. "He's not going to cure my disease, but he has certainly changed how I live my day-to-day life," he says.