Opinion | COVID is devastating for those with Alzheimer’s. It’s time to help

Saline resident Jim Mangi recently made his wife, Kathleen Schmidt, an “I Will Always Love You” pillowcase with a photo of himself on it so he can be with her in her memory care facility every night, though he hasn’t been able to see her in person since the beginning of March.

Jennifer Lepard is the president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter.

Okemos resident Dory Steinbart and her mother, who is lovingly referred to as Oma, tried window visits and Skype but found them confusing and frustrating.

Newberry’s Lisa Canning, whose mother, Anne Dickinson, is in the last stage of Alzheimer’s, have experienced greater difficulties seeing each other due to travel precautions and restrictions. Canning is hopeful she’ll be able to see her mother at least one more time.

And Kalamazoo resident Tom Harris, who used to visit with his wife, Sharon, multiple times a day, has had to — like many caregivers  —  learn how to connect with her through window visits and lean on his village for support.

All of these individuals have dementia in common. They are among the 190,000 Michigan residents living with dementia and their 518,000 unpaid caregivers. During COVID-19, their already difficult journeys have become far more challenging and heartbreaking.

Though Gov. Gretchen Whitmer partially lifted the order barring nursing home visits during the pandemic recently, in-person reunions with loved ones will have to wait in most cases — while dementia continues to progress for those impacted.

It is an isolating, frustrating and worrisome road for persons with dementia and their caregivers.

This past month, it was again reported that nursing home residents account for one-third of Michigan's COVID-19 deaths, and nearly 50 percent of nursing home residents have dementia. Unfortunately, the burden of Alzheimer’s in our country and state only continues to grow. For instance:

  • More family and friends are serving as Alzheimer’s caregivers, providing a total of 590 million hours of unpaid care, valued at a total of $7.7 billion.
  • Death rates from Alzheimer’s continue to climb and have increased an alarming 146 percent since 2000, while deaths for other major diseases remained flat or decreased. Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • The costs are unsustainable. For the fourth consecutive year, the cost of caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s is surpassing a quarter of a trillion dollars. Here in Michigan the Medicaid costs of caring for people with Alzheimer’s is estimated at $1.487 billion. These costs are projected to increase by 16.9 percent over the next five years.

In fact, it is estimated that the number of persons living with Alzheimer’s in Michigan will increase 15.8 percent in the next five years alone. As the baby boomer generation ages, we will need to see a 175 percent increase in geriatricians and primary care physicians here in Michigan to meet Alzheimer’s population needs by 2050.

While there are many great Alzheimer’s and dementia advocates and supporters in Michigan and across our nation, the Alzheimer’s epidemic is not talked about enough. We owe it to all those impacted by this devastating disease to do more.

At the Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter, we have developed new programs and services to help ease stress and eliminate barriers. Our 24/7 Helpline is available at 800-272-3900 and we are offering more free education programs, caregiver tips, support groups and services to help individuals, caregivers, practitioners and facilities navigate dementia during COVID and always.

We also will continue our Walk to End Alzheimer’s efforts this year — walking as individuals, families and small groups in downtowns and small towns across the state — to raise much-needed funds for Alzheimer’s research, care and support.

While COVID-19 continues to present unique challenges in the lives of those we love who are facing dementia, we can do more to support one another and this growing, vulnerable population.

Learn more about our free programs and services at www.alz.org/gmc and register today for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s at www.alz.org/walk.

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Geoffrey Owen
Sun, 07/26/2020 - 1:18am

Thanks for bringing attention to this. I miss Mom. Haven't seen her since early March. We group call her and she loves to hear from us. She describes the room she's in, but says she just came to be there. No covid cases in her assisted living home. Stay safe mom, see you soon.