With today (Sept. 21) being World Alzheimer’s Day and September is World Alzheimer’s Month, the Neighbor interviewed two individuals who work with Alzheimer’s disease patients on a regular basis.
Linda Davidson, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Georgia chapter, which is in Dunwoody, said that organization continues to strive for a cure for the disease, which progressively destroys memory and other critical mental functions.
“I think the focus has always been that Alzheimer's is the sixth-leading cause of death in America and the fifth-leading cause in Georgia,” she said. “It has no cure. There’s no way to slow down the progression but we do have hope. We’re the largest nonprofit funder of (Alzheimer’s) research in the world and are making some advances. (National Institutes of Health) funding has increased from $4 million to $2 billion in five years.”
Aziza Cooper co-owns Right at Home’s Atlanta location with her mother, Sandi. Right at Home is an Omaha, Nebraska-based company that provides private-duty home healthcare for seniors, including individuals with Alzheimer’s. Cooper’s office territory is Fulton County plus parts of Cobb and DeKalb counties.
“We help seniors and disabled adults with bathing, dressing, meal preparation, light huo0sekeeping, grooming, assistance with doctor’s appointments, medication reminders, running errands such as grocery shopping and overall companionship,” she said.
World Alzheimer’s Day and World Alzheimer’s Month were designated to help educate the public on the disease. According to worldalzmonth.org, “2 out of every 3 people globally believe there is little or no understanding of dementia in their countries.”
“I think part of it is there’s a stigma attached that this is an old person’s disease. You just forget things,” Davidson said. “People don’t understand that dementia is much bigger than that. It’s a cognitive slowdown progression. People experience so much more than memory loss. They have challenges in figuring out and solving daily problems we all take for granted.
“There are people who have confusion with time and place. For some people it’s a spatial relationship. It’s people who misplace things and they can’t find them. It’s just a constant push by us that this is not an old person’s disease. We have about 200,000 people nationwide that are diagnosed (with Alzheimer’s) before the age of 65. That certainly increases as you get over 65 and 70.”
Cooper added, “I think that you’ve grown up thinking as family members age, you just are to forget things. I think a lot of times think, ‘Mom and Dad are just getting older and that’s what happens,’ instead of paying attention and seeing this is not normal. Things like getting agitated doing everyday tasks, if that’s happening, that may necessitate a trip to the doctor. Or if they don’t want to go to church or their bridge group, that’s another early warning sign.”
Five million individuals in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s. According to the association’s website, that number is expected to jump to 14 million by 2050. From 2000 to 2018, the number of deaths from the disease as recorded on death certificates has more than doubled, increasing 146%, and the number of deaths from the number one cause of death, heart disease, dropped 7.8%.
Davidson said the association’s fundraising efforts have been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced it to shift all of its in-person events and classes to online ones.
“When we went to COVID (lockdown), there was really a drop in calls to our 1-800 number (support line), but that picked up a month or two later,” she said. “That is our entrée to giving people help. We do it virtually now. We’re still not serving as many people because getting the word out (is more difficult) and is lower, but we’re making an impact there.”
Davidson said the association’s five Dancing Stars fundraisers across the state, which raised a combined $2 million annually, including one in Atlanta, have been postponed to next year. The organization’s annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s, which was to take place Sept. 26 at The Battery Atlanta in Cobb County, has shifted to a virtual format and will still be held on that day.
“We have a computer platform where you can see an opening ceremony and listen to volunteers and see promoting sponsors,” Davison said. “Then everyone can walk where they live. Our events will conclude at the end of December. We’ve raised around $850,000 so far this year. Last year we raised over $1 million (through the same events). We’re about 30% down.”
Both Cooper and Davidson said the pandemic has brought other challenges in helping Alzheimer’s patients, especially when it comes to those locked down at retirement communities and nursing homes.
“We have seen it has a devastating impact,” Davidson said. “Isolation is hard on anyone, but someone with Alzheimer’s gets confused, they have a lack of routine and they can’t see a loved one. We are hopeful the governor has done an executive order for long-term facilities. It’s often (had) an impact on the caregivers. They feel guilty, lost, and some of them are doing FaceTime (meetings) or if there’s a window or a porch, they can see them. We’re hearing a lot of decline in the health of those with Alzheimer’s during COVID-19.”
Cooper added, “COVID has changed everything in all of our lives. You can’t even get into buildings. You can only pass out flyers. A lot of our communication now has been through brochures and pamphlets and sending emails. But it’s been very limited and very difficult.”
She said Right at Home has worked with Alzheimer’s patients’ families to use “personal touches” to help them maintain contact with their loved ones.
“We’ve had all the clients with children who wanted to participate make drawings to give to our clients,” Cooper said. “ … When … family members can’t visit (them), we thought it would be a nice way to highlight them and celebrate them. For our referral partners (social workers, assisted living executive directors and hospital case managers), we sent them information on Alzheimer’s and early warning signs on our (email and social media) blasts.”
She also provided some tips for family members and friends who want to connect with individuals with Alzheimer’s amid the pandemic, especially those who can’t leave their retirement community or nursing home.
“One thing I have tried to do is work in a Zoom call with my grandmother (and include) my children. She feels isolated and tells me this is the worst time in her life,” Cooper said, adding another idea is “a window walk (where) folks can stop by senior homes and wave and do a parade. …
“This is still a good time to do a window walk and make a difference in a senior’s life that has really been impacted by not being with family members. What our staff has done includes handwritten notes of encouragement, and even care packages, if you have any neighbors who are elderly.”