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Family Caregiving

Ginzler: Alzheimer's Caregiving

Understand the signs and get tips on coping.

Alzheimer's is really tough on families with loved ones who have the incurable disease. Unlike other progressive, debilitating conditions, Alzheimer's attacks the mind, while the body also diminishes. Dementia causes your loved one to gradually lose both short- and long-term memory, although short-term is generally the first to go. This means at some point, they won't be able to remember how to tie their shoes, brush their teeth, wash the dishes, or recall the names of their grandchildren.

There are currently 5.3 million Americans living with the disease, and the numbers are growing rapidly. Currently, every 70 seconds, someone in America develops Alzheimer's; by 2050, the rate will increase to every 33 seconds. These trends indicate that by next year, nearly a half a million new cases will be diagnosed, and that number will double to nearly a million new cases annually by 2050.

A comprehensive source of information on Alzheimer's and related dementias is the Alzheimer's Association Web site. Their 2009 Alzheimer's  Disease Facts and Figures documents the growth of the disease and the significant financial and personal costs borne by government and families. To me, two of the report's most telling statistics are:

  • Family members provide care at home for about 70 percent of people with the disease. Nearly 10 million caregivers provided 8.5 billion hours of unpaid care in 2008, which translates into about $94 billion of work.
  • Health care costs for individuals with Alzheimer's and other dementias are three times higher than for others who are age 65+ and don't have dementia problems.

Maria Shriver, wife of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has a father with Alzheimer's. She recently summed up our situation very well: "The emotional, spiritual, and financial cost of this disease is mind-boggling to the nation."

Understanding the Warning Signs

Many Baby Boomers are currently worried that their aging parents may succumb to Alzheimer's. And as they age, they worry about themselves as well. It is important to note that for the vast majority of people, genetics is NOT a risk factor for developing Alzheimer's.

So what are the signs you should be aware of? Directly from the Alzheimer's Association, here they are:

10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer's

1. Memory loss

2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks

3. Problems with language

4. Disorientation to time and place

5. Poor or decreased judgment

6. Problems with abstract thinking

7. Misplacing things

8. Changes in mood or behavior

9. Changes in personality

         10.  Loss of initiative

Now let me say, as we age, everyone experiences these problems occasionally. I must admit that I misplaced a few of my notes when composing this column! So the key to understanding the warning signs is to distinguish between "normal" age-related memory change and more extensive problems. Again, the Alzheimer's Web site is a wonderful resource for guidance on making this distinction. For instance, it notes that someone with Alzheimer's "forgets entire experiences" while someone with normal memory changes that are age-related "only forgets part of an experience." My example is: it's normal to forget where you put your keys, but not knowing what the keys are for is a different situation all together.

Once you are concerned that a loved one might have Alzheimer's, you should go directly to a physician who specializes in diagnosing and treating the disease.

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