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‘Chore assistants’ boost MS sufferers' independence

For Nancy Howie, 84, the future looks brighter.

She was diagnosed in 1980 with multiple sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease that attacks the nervous system, causing muscle weakness, severe fatigue and loss of mobility.

Multiple sclerosis is a progressive disease, Howie said. Her mild symptoms have become quite severe with age. She began using a walking cane, then a manual chair. Now she is restricted to an electric wheelchair.

Her inability to do household chores has increased along with the disease. Simple tasks, such as vacuuming or changing the sheets, are now impossible.

Many people in the same situation opt to live in nursing homes, but she is fiercely determined to live independently.

Howie heard about the Multiple Sclerosis Association of King County (MSAKC) through word-of-mouth when she used to lead a support group for victims of MS.

Now a grateful recipient of their services, she is one of many clients who requires the assistance of another individual to maintain independence.

Gregg Robinson, the volunteer manager at MSAKC, said there are between 3,000 and 5,000 MS sufferers in the King County area — about twice the national average.

The high rate of multiple sclerosis in the area is difficult to explain, he said. Many suspect there is a local virus that people can be exposed to in childhood that triggers the genetic predisposition for MS. There is no simple answer because the symptoms of MS surface in early adulthood and are nearly impossible to detect in children without an MRI, a medical imaging method.

Regardless of the cause, the King County area has an overwhelming number of MS sufferers who struggle to maintain normal lives on a daily basis, he said.

The MSACK matches willing volunteers with MS patients according to their needs. Some of the patients want help with simple errands, such as grocery shopping, yardwork or transportation to and from appointments. Others live alone and want "companionship volunteers" to spend time with them watching television, reading out loud or just chatting.

The most common need, however, is for "chore assistants" to keep the house suitable for living, Robinson said.

Since 1998, Nancy Howie has benefited from her chore assistant, Linda Jenkins. Jenkins comes to her home once a week for a couple of hours to vacuum, help with laundry, change the sheets and water the lawn.

Although Howie can do her own cooking and look after her cat, she recognizes that she would not be able to maintain her home without the help of Jenkins.

"My volunteer enables me to stay at my home, to be independent," Howie said. "I couldn't do it without her."

Contact Lyndsey Wilson at: lwilson@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

Learn more

To learn more about volunteers with the Multiple Sclerosis Association of King County, call (206) 633-2606 or visit www.msakc.org. Click on "Get Involved" for more information and an application to volunteer.

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