It’s Not Just Ol’ Timers: Dementia is No Laughing Matter

10/8/2014

By Colleen Erb, Psy.D., Licensed Psychologist, Program Director for Amery Hospital & Clinic Behavioral Health Center


You can’t remember someone’s name and joke, “I must have ol’ timers.”

Lose your car keys and laugh it off with “I must be getting Alzheimer’s.” But to the estimated 5.2 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease in 2014 and their families, dementia is no laughing matter.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias will grow rapidly as the baby boomers age so that by 2050 an estimated 16 million people over the age of 65 will live with this devastating diagnosis. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common cause of dementia, but there are a variety of other types of dementia including Vascular Dementia, Lewy-Body Dementia, and Frontal Dementias to name just a few. While the exact course of the different types of dementia may vary, the basic results are the same. The person gradually loses cognitive functioning (like memory, language, and planning skills) and motor functioning (ability to perceive temperature, coordinate movements, bowel and bladder control). Unless the person dies due to complications or other illness, eventually all dementias are fatal.

Currently Alzheimer’s is officially the 6th leading cause of death and kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. Unfortunately, currently it cannot be prevented or cured. While some medications have been developed to treat the disease, these medications only work for about half the people who try them and then only slow the progression for about 6 -12 months for the people who take them. This all paints a pretty gloomy picture of dementia, so it is no wonder that many people avoid talking about or learning about these devastating diseases.

For those living with dementia, or caring for persons with dementia however, the issues cannot be avoided. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, in 2013 15.5 million people provided 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care to their loved ones with dementia. Unfortunately, the stress of caregiving takes its toll and as a result caregivers have much higher health care costs themselves. One third of caregivers report symptoms of depression, but unfortunately very few seek treatment. This is unfortunate, because while Alzheimer’s may not be treatable, depression definitely is, and those caregivers who get the help and support they need are better able to care for their loved one.

One of the most difficult challenges for caregivers may be dealing with behaviors that are embarrassing or dangerous. In the early stages of the disease the individual may experience behavior and personality changes such as irritability, anxiety, or depression. In later stages, the person is likely to experience sleep disturbance, restlessness and/or agitation, anger, aggression, delusions or hallucinations. (Just a note that in Lewy Body Dementia hallucinations and sleep disturbance may be present in earlier stages). Physical aggression is common in individuals with no history of this kind of behavior.

While psychiatric medications are not useful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease itself, or the other diseases underlying other types of dementia, they can be extremely useful in treating these associated symptoms, helping the individual experience greater periods of calm and reducing behaviors like aggression that put the individual and others at risk. Like all medications, these medications do have the potential for serious side effects, but in many cases the benefits far outweigh the risks. In other words, just as chemotherapy can have very serious side effects but it is given because the risk of the cancer progressing does greater damage, sometimes psychiatric drugs are used because the risk of leaving the behaviors untreated is greater.

Amery Hospital & Clinic’s Behavioral Health Center is one of the few psychiatric programs in the state that specializes in the psychiatric treatment of dementia.

In addition to evaluating for the need for psychiatric medications, the team of psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, and occupational therapists evaluate the individual and identify other effective strategies such as specific communication tools, sensory stimulation, activities, pain and medical management. The goal is always to keep the person as independent and comfortable as possible. To make a referral to the short term inpatient program call 715-268-0070.

Dementia is devastating but there are things you can do to help.

To learn more go to www.alz.org. If you are able, contribute to research or help a caregiver. Make sure you have completed advanced planning such as a health care power of attorney to make it easier for your loved ones should you ever get the disease. If you are a caregiver, learn as much as you can but also be sure to get support for yourself. Sometimes professional support is needed. The Behavioral Health Center in Amery provides both individual and group programs that can help address the stress, depression, and anxiety that can go along with caregiving. If you are unsure where to turn contact the Alzheimer’s Association 24 hour help line at 800-272-3900 or the Behavioral Health Center at 715-268-0060.

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