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Women Hit Hardest by Alzheimer's

New report reveals how devastating the disease is on female caregivers.

This month, I’d like to spend some time talking about an issue that unfortunately many of us can relate to — caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease.

The recent release of “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s” underscores just how enormous the challenges can be, and how women in particular are affected. Consider: Ten million women either have Alzheimer’s or are caring for someone with the disease. This figure is expected to triple in the next 40 years.

For women who are caregivers, dealing with Alzheimer’s is highly stressful. Sixty-six percent of caregivers report emotional stress, and nearly half rate that stress as a 5 on a scale of 1 to 5. More than half also report physical stress.

While all caregivers experience some level of stress, different ethnic groups report different experiences: For example, African American women say they have less depression and experience less caregiver burden than other groups. Hispanic caregivers are more likely to be daughters or daughters-in-law, even if the care recipient’s spouse is living and could be the caregiver. These differences are important to acknowledge as friends and medical professionals seek to provide guidance and support.

The stresses on caregivers are understandable when you consider how maddeningly difficult it is to watch helplessly as your loved one declines. According to one caregiver: “It was terrible the day when we stood together in front of a mirror, and she turned to me and said, ‘Who are you?’” Another said: “We felt powerless, and we were powerless. No one knew how to slow or stop the course of this terrible disease.”

The report reminds us of how important other people are in the lives of caregivers. More than half turn to their family, friends and faith community for support. There are also many researchers working on a cure and treatment, but not enough. The report points out that:

  • More funding for public research is needed.
  • More support is needed by the millions of women who are juggling caregiving with jobs.
  • Planning for care is critically important.
  • Overall, as a society, we need to do more to understand what caregivers are dealing with, and how we can help them cope and deliver the best possible care for their loved ones.

The report urges us to start a national conversation about Alzheimer’s and its effects on women and society. Let this column continue the discussion begun by Maria Shriver and A Woman’s Nation.

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