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Alzheimer's of both personal and scholarly interest at Austin Peay

September 9, 2003

When Debbie Denton, marketing manager at Austin Peay, started seeing changes in her mothers behavior, she initially attributed them to stress. After all, her mother had served as a caregiver for her husband since his diagnosis with Alzheimer's almost a decade earlier. The memory loss and confusion? That was probably from depression.

I had already lost one parent to Alzheimers, says Denton. It didnt occur to me that my mother would have it, too.
September 9, 2003

When Debbie Denton, marketing manager at Austin Peay, started seeing changes in her mother's behavior, she initially attributed them to stress. After all, her mother had served as a caregiver for her husband since his diagnosis with Alzheimer's almost a decade earlier. The memory loss and confusion? That was probably from depression.

“I had already lost one parent to Alzheimer's,” says Denton. “It didn't occur to me that my mother would have it, too.

"I ignored the symptoms for a whileuntil I noticed she had completely stopped cooking. My parents weren't eating anything that didn't come out of a can or a bag. When I realized that, I had to admit something was wrong.”

Like Denton, millions of Americans today are faced with the care of aging parents suffering from some form of dementia.

Whether the Alzheimer's victim is like Denton's father, who was diagnosed in his early 60s and declined slowly until his death a decade later, or like Denton's mother, who reverted to an infant-like stage within three years of her diagnosis, dealing with the difficult and often heartbreaking task of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's or other form of dementia is becoming an all-too-familiar problem.

“One of every two people over 85 may suffer from Alzheimer's,” says Dr. Jean Lewis, APSU professor of psychology. “It generally starts after the age of 65 and affects 10 percent of the over-65 population.”

Yet denial is a common reaction. “Alzheimer's is a difficult thing for many of us to accept. We tend to deny what's going on or blame it on age,” says Lewis. “To look objectively at the situation, it's important to get good medical attention. The sooner the better.”

Early symptoms of Alzheimer's include confusion and memory loss. Changes in mood and personality and difficulty with routine tasks such as driving, using the telephone or cooking can be signs as well. In latter stages, the changes can be more profound.

“Victims of this disease lose more than just memory,” says Denton. “They can lose the ability to function, to communicate. They can lose their humanness."

While the threat of Alzheimer's is frightening enough to make anyone over 40 panic when they misplace the care keysagainmemory loss and confusion aren't necessarily signs of Alzheimer's. They may simply be signs of an overstuffed life, or something else entirely.

"Lot's of things can look like Alzheimer's and actually be something else," Lewis says. "It's important to get seek a diagnosis so you know what you're dealing with.”

Some forms of dementia can be managed with medication to alleviate symptoms such as depression, agitation and memory loss, she adds.

While it's important that caregivers for Alzheimer's victims get appropriate medical care for their loved one, it's equally important that they care for themselves. Seeking support in the community is an important part of that.

Denton says having a support group to talk with and get advice from would have been wonderful.

“It's not just about being able to talk about what it's like to watch your parent deteriorate into childlike behavior or the guilt you feel at having to put him or her in a long-term-care facility,” says Denton, "though that's terribly painful.

“It would have been nice to have a group where I could learn such practical tips as how to keep them from fiddling with the thermostat or opening doors, how to keep them from taking their clothes off or even ways of communicating with them when they can no longer talk.”

Other topics of discussion in a support group might include dealing with family rifts that sometimes occur when one sibling appears to be taking on more responsibility then the other in caring for the parent or when one sibling seems to just walk away from the situation altogether.

“Alzheimer's places a lot of stress on a family,” says Lewis. “It's a lot less stressful if you can seek professional help.”

Additional suggestions for dealing with stress include taking breaks from care giving. Denton's stress-reliever was browsing in stores where she could see as many beautiful things as possible.

“I needed beauty in my life so badly,” says Denton. “After being surrounded by decay, I needed to remember there was still life and beauty in the world.”

Though research for Alzheimer's is promisingtests of a vaccine are underwaylittle is being done in terms of assuring the availability of appropriate care for those who suffer from dementia. Most long-term facilities are set up to care for the infirm, not adults who have cognitive problems but may be in good physical health. And there's a serious shortage of health care providers willing to work in long-term-care facilities.

Denton says that if the problems aren't rectified soon, aging baby boomers could soon see the deficiencies first-hand.

“My generation needs to address the problems of Alzheimer's and inadequate long-term care for those who suffer from it. Otherwise, we will become victims of our own negligence.”

For further information regarding classes for family members and friends of people with Alzheimer's, telephone the Mental Health Association of Middle Tennessee at (615) 269-5335.

For more information regarding Alzheimer's, telephone the Alzheimer's Association's Mid-South Chapter at (615) 292-4938 or the Alzheimer's help line at 1-800-463-6423 for information on Alzheimer's or dementia, physicians, long-term care or community resources.