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The Alzheimer's Disease Epidemic - Aging Wisely

CNN recently aired a special hosted by Larry King about Alzheimer’s Disease. On the special, “Unthinkable: The Alzheimer’s Epidemic”, King hosted celebrities such as Seth Rogan, Leeza Gibbons, Maria Shriver, Ron Reagan and Angie Dickinson, all of whom have been affected personally by the disease in their families. King also interviewed experts and visited the Mayo Clinic and Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at Cleveland Clinic and discussed new diagnostic advances and research. CNN will be rebroadcasting the show on Saturday, May 7th if you did not get the opportunity to view it. We thought we would share some thoughts from the show, especially the nuggets of wisdom shared through the celebrities’ personal experiences.

Maria Shriver reiterated the importance of families communicating and mentioned that while caregiving often falls to women, it should not be thought of as solely a women’s domain. She stated, “Daughters, talk to your brothers. Men can do this too.” Her message that families need to come together around caregiving duties and discuss how they will handle things is so important.

However, it is not always easy and many families struggle with relationships that were already strained before dealing with Alzheimer’s, which is certainly stressful on any relationship. At the same time, many families come together and grow through their caregiving experiences. For those that have concerns, consider seeking a counselor, geriatric care manager or family mediator to assist.

In the course of our work, we often meet with families who are setting off on the caregiving journey to help them think through different considerations and weigh decisions. Later, we’re often involved with families who feel the need for a professional geriatric assessment to have a comfort level that they are making the best decisions. This can be particularly helpful if families are in disagreement (or there is concern over future disagreement, questioning of decisions). Family mediation is a more formal process for settling disagreements.

Leeza Gibbons talked about her reaction to her mother’s diagnosis…as she said she “went in to it kicking and screaming” and was in denial. She mentioned that everyone in the family went in to their corner. Everyone reacts in their own way to such a tough diagnosis and it is important to remember that and consider allowing family members to have the space and time to come to terms with it. Again, a professional counselor or care manager can help facilitate discussions as needed as well. Leeza also talked about the difficult reality of the time when her Mom no longer recognized her, which she described as a “stab to the heart”.

Ron Reagan emphasized that the chances of having the disease or being a caregiver are very high. He said it was important for his father to bring awareness to the disease and he would have hoped that his sharing his diagnosis did that. He also made a very important point that Alzheimer’s patients can feel the love and the emotional temperature in the room. Even when faced with the difficult situation of a loved one not recognizing you, your visit and the warmth the person feels can make a difference in his or her day.

It was great to see Seth Rogan and his wife discussing her mother’s struggle with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Seth is concerned that the disease gets very little attention, especially from people in the younger age groups. It is often associated with old age, but more and more young people are dealing with it, whether in grandparents, as caregivers for someone with early-onset or as the children of parents who are caregivers for their spouse or parent with the disease. It is nice to see him speaking out and important to have a younger presence in the world of awareness.

Angie Dickinson made a wonderful statement (paraphrasing), “You should love them—with your touch, your company, whatever pleasure may still be there for them”. Angie also mentioned that she was comforted by being able to provide the care and ensure someone was with her sister all the time. The emotional impact of the disease is just as challenging for someone who can afford services, but certainly being able to pay for care and ensure her sister had help eased the situation for the family and helped keep her sister cared for and safe. In situations where other family members are also seniors, it may be difficult for them to provide the care, especially hands-on personal care. Having quality home healthcare providers to turn to can make a big difference for those families.

Those featured on the show were hopeful about research advances and finding better treatments, if not a cure, in the future. But, as many pointed out, this disease is already an epidemic which many families struggle with and is only expected to impact more as our population ages. The crisis for families is right now, caregivers are struggling. It was good to see attention not only for the disease and research, but also spotlighting the personal struggles and the need for services and support for caregivers. We at Aging Wisely have been dedicated to helping caregivers for over 10 years and continue to develop expertise and services to support families.

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