Our community has the power to improve the lives of those affected by Alzheimer’s disease through understanding and compassion.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 110,000 people in Washington who have Alzheimer’s disease, and the number keeps rising. Add to that number the nearly 350,000 family members and friends caring for those with the disease.
Few of us are unaffected, especially when we consider the cost of care and the strain on our health care system. The health care cost for an older adult with dementia is nearly four times the cost for the care of someone without dementia. This cost would be even higher without the dedication and value of unpaid caregivers. In Washington state alone, the hours of unpaid care provided by family caregivers is valued at more than $5 billion each year.
You may have heard the term dementia used interchangeably with Alzheimer’s. Dementia is an umbrella term that includes more than 100 diseases that may cause dementia, including Alzheimer’s, vascular disease, Lewy Body and Parkinson’s. Just as there are diseases of organs like the heart and liver, there are diseases of the brain. Alzheimer’s is the most common.
Short-term memory loss can be an early sign, but dementia is more than forgetfulness. Anyone can forget a name or miss an appointment, but dementia shifts the way a person experiences the world around them. This shift can cause confusion, changes in judgment, even personality or behavior changes. Support, patience and creativity can help a person with dementia to retain some sovereignty over their days and lessen the more distressing effects.
Dementia caregivers are often unprepared for this kind of care. They can experience high levels of stress, depression, financial worries, poor physical health and strained relationships. Caregivers frequently don’t see themselves as a caregiver, especially if they are caring for a spouse. That’s their husband or wife so of course they care! This loving attitude can get in the way of needed support.
It is important for the caregiver to not “go it alone.” Support and respite options are available in our area. The Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 Helpline, 800-272-3900, reaches a master’s level social worker who can help a caregiver through a challenging situation, refer them to local resources or even just listen at 2 a.m.
Social programs such as Old Friend’s Club (a nonprofit resource) can offer friendship and belonging for the person experiencing cognitive changes, and give the family caregiver a healthy break and access to ongoing support.
A dementia-friendly movement called Momentia is growing in King County and the surrounding areas. This is a network of organizations that offers events with music, dancing, art, cafés, happy hours, nature walks and other fun happenings that are intentionally inclusive of people living with dementia. All are welcome.
Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are frustrating, costly, and often lonely, but it is possible to live well with dementia. People living with Alzheimer’s and related diseases, and their family members, need us to offer our friendship and support.
Coming of Age…Again is edited by the Kirkland Senior Council, a group the city of Kirkland created in 2001 to advocate for older adults in our community. The council is made up of people living or working in Kirkland who want to improve and maintain the quality of life for people in Kirkland as they grow older. Membership is open throughout the year.
Karen Koenig is the founder and executive director of the Old Friends Club.