I think I’ve given someone the wrong impression about how I feel about Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Someone the other day said to me, “I think you’re right. We just need to accept that old people get dementia and lose their memories.” Hmmmm….. I took a deep breath. It’s not just about old people and it’s not just about memory loss.
Also, I think a point of misunderstanding here is how I’ve used the term acceptance in my blog and public speaking. When someone has dementia, we need to accept the changes the occur. Fighting those changes is a bit like try to herd cats (inefficient and frustrating for all involved).
But should we accept Alzheimer’s and related dementias? Absolutely not. We should fight by increasing education and research. We cannot afford (financially or otherwise) to throw in the towel on this battle.
I could make a case that we need to find a cure or prevention method for diseases that cause dementia because these diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s, Lewy Body Dementia, Frontotemporal Dementia) cause suffering and end lives. But I am going to take a different approach–one that may be more appealing to legislators, policymakers, and economists.
If Alzheimer’s and related dementias progress to end stage, most individuals need 24/7 care and reside in nursing homes. Keep in mind the most common reason for nursing home admittance is dementia. If we can prevent or cure dementia, more people will be able to stay in their homes (or at least seek out a less intensive care option) as they age. Most people would choose to stay at home given the option. We don’t like to be dependent. We don’t want to be told when and what to eat. But beyond that…nursing home care is expensive at the individual and societal level.
Some people have enough personal wealth to pay for their nursing home care until the end of life. A few people have long term care insurance (and some of these individuals quickly find out that their policies do not cover what they expect they will). But the rest of us….
The rest of us pay until we can’t pay anymore, and our family is decimated financially. At this point, the state pays for our nursing home care. (Contrary to popular belief, Medicare only pays for nursing home care in very limited short-term cases.) As people live longer and more individuals have Alzheimer’s and related dementias, as a society we will struggle to pay for care. And I think the word “struggle” is an understatement.
The cost of nursing home care is dependent on where one lives and a few others factors (e.g., semi vs. private room, level of care). However, a widely-reported mean is $220 to $250 a day. This adds up to $80,300 to $91,250 a year. And you thought college was expensive. Very few of us can pay for an extended stay in a nursing home without long term care insurance or state assistance. And it’s rare that people have long term care insurance because it’s expensive and you have to be pretty healthy to qualify. Sometimes in the end it turns out to be a rip off anyway.
I’m not sure legislators understand the financial crisis this will create. In fact, I have participated in three informational panels for state legislators to learn more about the need for funding for research and support for Alzheimer’s and related dementia. Each time I came in my business suit (a rarity for me) prepared with financial numbers and statistics. The total number of legislators that attended the three sessions combined: Three. Actually, make that two. One legislator attended two sessions, and it’s misleading to count him twice. The general public doesn’t get that this is an impending financial and public health crisis, and apparently legislators don’t get it either.
In my opinion, the biggest challenge we face when we try to rally support for Alzheimer’s and dementia funding is combating the myth the dementia is only about memory loss. The general public still thinks that dementia is the natural process of increasing forgetfulness that occurs as we get older.
First of all, dementia is not normal aging. (And I will add the dementia doesn’t only impact old people. I know people in their late 30’s with Alzheimer’s and related dementias.) There are some normal age-related memory changes, but these normal changes do not severely impact daily life.
I speak to many older women who worry they have dementia because they used to be able to bake their signature cake from memory and now they need to look at the recipe. Sometimes people think they have Alzheimer’s because they used to be able to remember several items at the grocery store without writing them down. Now they need to write a list. Those are normal age-related memory changes. When we have these changes, we can use strategies (e.g., recipes and lists) so that they don’t negatively impact our lives. These strategies may work at the start of dementia, but over time a person becomes incapable of following a recipe or creating a list.
The other piece of the myth of dementia that has held us back in terms of research and funding is the incorrect assumption that this is just about memory. Memory loss is one part of dementia. I hate to be this harsh, but dementia is about eventual complete and total brain failure. Take a second and think about what your brain controls…. Actually, it may be easier to think of what your brain doesn’t control. Your brain is the control center for EVERYTHING about you.
What does your brain control? Your mood. Your movement. Your memory. Your swallowing. Your immune system. Your impulses. Your breathing. Your speech. Your language. Your non-verbal communication. Your facial expressions. And this is by no means a complete list.
So here are some things that may happen with Alzheimer’s and related dementias that are not memory related:
1. People with dementia might eat things that aren’t edible, like marbles or rubber bands. They might not realize the food they are eating is spoiled or that it’s not prepared (e.g., eating cake mix or raw eggs).
2. Dementia can cause a person to have issues with balance and movement. It is common for dementia to cause someone to be unsteady on their feet and fall down stairs. Eventually, it can progress to the point that the person can no longer walk. At the end stage, people are bed bound and pressure sores are problematic.
3. An early sign of dementia is being unable to detect sarcasm. A person with dementia may also be unable to figure out that someone is lying even when it is apparent to others.
5. Compulsive behavior (such as repeatedly locking doors or buying a large number of food items even though the pantry is already stocked) can be a sign of dementia. Someone who starts pacing around the house compulsively might have dementia.
6. A lack of eye contact during conversation or inappropriate staring in public places might be a sign of dementia. A person’s non-verbal communication skills can become compromised.
7. Often dementia is mistaken for depression. Many people go to the doctor early in their disease process and are misdiagnosed as having clinical depression. This can be tricky because, not surprisingly, people who have dementia are often also depressed.
8. Dementia impacts the part of the brain that regulates mood, so being moody or displaying inappropriate moods can be a sign of dementia. If someone starts laughing at things that aren’t funny, they may have dementia.
9. Dementia can impact swallowing, and individuals are at an increased risk for choking. Often families must make a decision about whether or not a feeding tube is an option. People at the end stage of their illness may also aspirate on oral secretions.
10. At the end stage, the immune system is compromised. The brain activates the immune system. As brain cells die, the immune system doesn’t respond as it should. It is common for someone with end stage Alzheimer’s to die of a urinary tract infection that has spread.
It’s not just about memory. It’s not normal.
And we can’t afford to just accept Alzheimer’s and related dementias. It’s time to fight.