The Alzheimer’s Epidemic

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Beverly’s heart sank when she saw the fire trucks outside her mother’s house. Her mother, Eleanor, had started cooking dinner on the stove and forgot about it. It wasn’t the first time Eleanor had walked away from a lit stove, but Beverly knew it would be the last. Firefighters rescued Eleanor from the house unscathed, but the kitchen was a total loss.  

That was four years ago. It was the moment Beverly had to accept her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis was real.

Beverly is not alone. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are over 5 million Americans diagnosed with the debilitating disease. If scientists can’t find a way to slow the progression of the disease, the association’s latest study projects that number will soar to 16 million cases by 2050.

Another disturbing finding in the report – Alzheimer’s disproportionately affects women, both as patients and as caregivers. Women over 65 have a one in six chance of developing Alzheimer’s and men of similar age have a one in 11 chance of developing the disease.

The women who aren’t dealing with a diagnosis for themselves are often impacted in another way, having to take over the care of a loved one who has Alzheimer’s. The report finds there are more than twice as many women as men taking care of someone with the disease.

Signs of Trouble

The first sign of trouble for Dot came when her mother, Mary, purchased her first keyless car. Mary had trouble remembering that the car started with the push of a button – not the turn of a key.

While most people think an Alzheimer’s diagnosis erases one’s mind and alters one’s mood in the blink of an eye, the disease progresses very differently in each person.

Take Dot’s mother for example. Her diagnosis came seven years ago, right after she bought that car. Yet she only stopped driving (at Dot’s insistence) a year ago. Mary still lives by herself in her own home. She can still take care of her own physical needs, but now it is up to Dot to take care of the cognitive issues. Dot pays her mother’s bills, helps take care of the cat and drives her mother to the grocery store or doctor’s appointments.

Dot is married and the mother of two boys. She admits feeling guilt for having to choose between the needs of her children and her mother.

“I resent the situation. I resent mom is not mom. I am not free to do all the things I want to do. It takes time away from my family,” Dot says.

Family Caregiver Support

According to the Office of Women’s Heath, caregiver stress appears to affect women more than men. About 75 percent of caregivers who report feeling very strained emotionally, physically or financially are women. Family caregivers also often have health problems because they are less likely to take good care of themselves.

Respite care from an outside in-home care agency is one option many family caregivers are now using. It gives family caregivers the ability to regain balance in their lives, relax and reduce stress.

Hired caregivers go into the homes of the elderly to help cook, lightly clean, run errands, engage seniors in activities, take them to the doctor and the grocery store – all so the family caregiver can get a much-needed timeout.

For Beverly, bringing in a hired caregiver relieved a lot of stress, not just on her, but on her marriage.

“Hiring a caregiver has improved my marriage. My husband was feeling ignored by all the attention I was giving to my mother. I’m also less stressed out. My blood pressure, which had been on the high side, is now back to normal.”

A caregiver now comes into Beverly’s home a few days a week so she can take time for herself, whether that means working part time or going to a movie with her husband.

“Caregiving can be an isolating and sometimes thankless role. It can take a hefty toll on a person’s emotional and physical health, and even marriages,” says Mike Luchovick, owner of SYNERGY HomeCare Pittsburgh. “We are a support system for these family caregivers. They need to know our caregivers are here to help and they don’t have to do it alone.”

A caregiver from SYNERGY HomeCare visits with Dot’s mom about one to two times a week. Dot says the experience has been fantastic, not just for her, but for her mother as well.

“Our caregiver has more patience than any family member,” says Dot. “She allows my Mom to reminisce about past events while keeping her up to date on current culture. She also comes up with creative activities for my mom to keep her present and engaged.”

Dot herself faces the possibility that she could be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease one day. She says she has a 50/50 chance and is not sure about her odds. Not only does her mother suffer from it, her grandmother was an Alzheimer’s patient, too.

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, the U.S. is expected to spend more than $200 billion on research this year in the hopes of finding one.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, early warning signs include:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  • New problems with words in speaking or writing
  • Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  • Decreased or poor judgment
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities
  • Changes in mood and personality

For more information on Alzheimer’s disease, go to www.alz.org

For more information on in-home care, visit www.synergyhomecare.com

Tammy Delgado is a former television news producer turned freelance writer and public relations specialist. A Pennsylvania native, she now resides in Florida.