Burden of Care: Options for Alzheimer's Patients and Their Families

By: Jennifer Dowling Email
By: Jennifer Dowling Email

Dorthy Stewart is a resident at Burcham Hills in Lansing. She's a bit reluctant to reveal her age. She says, "We'll say I'm past 60." She's in the first stages of Alzheimer's disease. She says, "You never know when you're going to forget something." When we visited with her, she was sorting greeting cards. Dominique Hill has been a caretaker at Burcham Hills for more than two years. She was helping Dorthy and a friend to sort the cards. She says, "The best thing to do is just to keep them going so that the brain won't just die out." About the staff and projects, Dorthy says, "Nice people you know, we have a lot of nice activities."

The residents also play dominoes, cards and a number of other "brain games" that help to keep the mind active. Burcham Hills Recreation Specialist Eldon Wood says, "It does trigger memories. The idea is to be social, be in a group and it does stimulate them intellectually, even though they're at a lower level, they're still using their minds to think and it's true, if you don't use it, you lose it."

The number of people with Alzheimer's is in fact growing with the aging of the baby boomers population. The American Alzheimer's Association says more than 5 billion people have the disease nationwide with about 44,000 in the Mid-Michigan area alone. Gary Pollitz sits on the board of the local Great Lakes Chapter of the American Alzheimer's Association. He says, "You have a one in eight chance of getting Alzheimer's disease by age 60, and then by the time you're 85, you have a 50/50 chance."

Pollitz says the cost of treating and caring for patients will climb to 148 billion dollars by 2030. Pollitz says, "All of our Medicare budget right now for 2030 would have to go towards just treating people with Alzheimer's disease."

As far as care options, you can try to keep yourself or your loved one in the home. Wood took care of his own mother as long as possible. Eldon says, "They could get lost, they could wander away. They forget where they are. So, as long as they're able to stay at home it's great, if you can have an in-home companion or another family member that's OK to stay with them, great, but as soon as any safety issue appears, it's best to place them in assisted living like this."

The cost for assisted living facilities or an adult foster home can run between $3,000 and $8,000 a month. Pollitz says Medicaid and Medicare will not help you pay unless you qualify for a Medicaid waiver which is income based. Pollitz says, "You have to qualify for Medicaid services. Otherwise, you're on your own."

Long term care insurance is available, but that has to be purchased well before diagnosis. Also take care of your body, studies show that eating saturated fats, being obese and having diabetes or heart disease increases the chance of getting Alzheimer's. Pollitz says, "Our total body health by far affects our brain."

If you are open to participating in a medical study, free testing can be available through the Michigan Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in Ann Arbor. Pollitz says, "just give them a call and they will gladly sign you up for a number of different studies they're working on."

Although there is no cure yet, practitioners have a better idea of what the disease is and the quality of care is changing. Some Lansing Community College nurses are training on how best to care for Alzheimer's patients at Burcham Hills. Michael Wolfston, Foundation Director, Burcham Hills Retirement Community, says "It's Quality of life on a day to day basis. You're helping them cope with a disease that's scary, it's very frightening and you just don't want to let them sit there and rot, you want them to continue to function as a while human being which hopefully will delay the onset of the disease."

Dominique says there is one simple thing families can do for their loved ones. Dominique says, "Come and visit them, they get lonely and...they remember a lot from their past, not so much what they do everyday, but it's their past, their past life, their childhood, their family. That's the kinds of things they remember. They like visitors...especially their family....it makes them smile." She adds, "I love them like they're my own grandparents." Dorthy says, "It's a nice place to be. I've enjoyed it all the while I've been here." It's a situation Dorthy feels that she's lucky to be in.

Pollitz says there are support groups available that can help you deal with the disease. he says you can get information on that and more by calling the local chapter of the Alzheimer's association at 517-999-3004 you can also call the national helpline 24 hours a day, 7-days a week at 1-800-272-3900 with any questions you may have.

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