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LIFELONG HEALTH- Ready or Not, a Flood of Dementia Is on the Way PDF Print E-mail
Written by Dr. David Lipschitz Creative Syndicate   
Thursday, 16 August 2012 05:58

Beyond the age of 80, half of us will become dependent on others because of physical disabilities or memory loss. According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than 15 million Americans are providing unpaid care for a person with Alzheimer's or other dementia-related conditions. As the baby boomers age and the number of 80-year-olds doubles, the burden on families, communities and our nation will be overwhelming.

In the past, nonworking daughters frequently became full-time caregivers for their parents and in-laws. However, current economic realities often require that both spouses work. Thus, taking care of a parent with memory loss is becoming more difficult. The need to be a caregiver has forced more than 65 percent of us to take time off work, 20 percent to take a leave of absence and 11 percent to retire.

And more than 60 percent of caregivers say that the emotional and physical stress of caregiving can be overwhelming. Elderly caregiving spouses have a 63 percent higher chance of dying than people the same age who aren't caring for a spouse, says the American Medical Association. They're at particular risk of developing depression and sleep problems.

In the early stages of Alzheimer's disease, memory loss can be nothing more than a minor disability. With some help, the patient is able to manage well in the community, function almost normally, drive, travel and not be a burden on their families. But with time, as other elements of intellectual function decline, the patient depends more and more on the caregiver, becoming agitated when left alone. The patient may become disruptive, refuse to pay attention to personal hygiene, frequently wander and be awake all night while dozing during the day.

With time, Alzheimer's patients become more childlike and may lose their inhibition and do things that in the past would be unthinkable. They are unable to be left alone for one minute. Incontinence can become a problem; hallucinations, delusions and paranoia are common, and the patient may be physically abusive.

While the answer to Alzheimer's disease still remains doing everything we can to find a cure and eradicate this illness that causes so much suffering, we — as a nation — are not doing enough to meet the needs of desperate families and their loved ones with memory loss. Fortunately, many communities have support groups that can provide invaluable help — sometimes financial — to families. But much more needs to be done. We must do everything we can to allow working families to keep their loved one at home. This can be accomplished by establishing more adult day health care facilities where a patient can spend the day in a dignified, safe environment with trained personnel who are able to promote health, help maintain cognition and avoid the unnecessary use of medications. Once a patient is no longer able to stay at home, uniquely designed facilities to meet the needs of memory disorders are critical. Often the patients are physically independent but intellectually impaired. Placing them in a regular nursing home where they mix with patients who are physically compromised but cognitively intact can prove disastrous.

Fortunately, there is a nationwide push to develop memorydisorder centers that are architecturally designed to allow a person with memory loss to wander and feel as independent as possible. Rooms are smaller to encourage socialization and bathrooms are uniquely structured to prevent falls and help uncooperative individuals with bathing.

Specialized staff is essential, as they must be able to interact with someone they know well but who sees the staff member as a stranger every time they meet.

These centers learn how to provide care in a way that avoids the need for drugs to prevent agitation, while doing everything possible to exercise the body and the mind by keeping them out of their rooms and active. Often, the patient's overall health improves because they receive nutritious and appropriate food, as well as compliance with medication use. Simultaneously removing the burden of caregiving may be invaluable to the family, who can remain just as involved in their loved one's care.

To meet the needs of a large population with memory impairments, we must make sure the loved ones with the disease and their families have access to resources and facilities to assure lifelong dignity and the best possible quality of life for everyone touched by this brutal disease.

Dr. David Lipschitz is the author of the book "Breaking the Rules of Aging." To find out more about Dr. David Lipschitz visit