Saturday, Sept. 7, was an incredibly beautiful day in the southern Indiana and Kentucky area. While residents found planned activities and impromptu get-togethers as a welcome bridge between the beginning of fall and the end of summer, almost 1,500 of us spent part of the day participating in the 2019 Walk to End Alzheimer’s on the Great Lawn on Louisville’s riverfront. Hundreds more were present supporting participants, helping with fund-raising, and volunteering time and services in an attempt to lead the way to Alzheimer’s first survivor.
The Walk to End Alzheimer’s is the nation’s largest fundraising effort to raise monies and awareness of the debilitating and terminal disease. Events like this are being held all over the country leading up to the national awareness month for Alzheimer’s in November. The Louisville Walk raised about $475,000 in 2018 and set a goal of $500,000 for this year’s event. Last year Cincinnati raised just over a million dollars with Indianapolis bringing in over $900,000. Walks are held in more than 600 communities across the nation.
The Catbird Seat is dedicating several columns to the cause of raising awareness for the Alzheimer’s Association and the understanding of the ravaging disease. The disease is personal. My mother passed away a couple of years ago from the disease, the conclusion to the final years of her life in a specialized treatment center. The disease not only impacts the patient, but places caregiving responsibilities and decisions on the shoulders of family members.
The Alzheimer’s Disease affects each person differently. The exact number of stages of the disease is rather vague and fluid. Some experts point to a three-phase model, while others find a better understanding in a seven-stage explanation. The latter framework has been accepted by many physicians and the Alzheimer’s Association.
One of the challenges of the disease is the nature of its slow but steady progression. People in the early stages of the disease may show no real problems or symptoms of the dementia. As the disease progresses, the senior may notice minor memory problems or misplacing things around the house. The memory loss is often laughed-away and chalked up to the difficulties of getting older.
People working toward the latter moments in the third stage of the disease will begin to have difficulties in many areas. They will struggle finding the right word in conversations. Organizing and planning common things, like a family get-together or a loved-one’s birthday party, becomes an overwhelming event that sparks anxiety. Remembering the names of new acquaintances seems equivalent to memorizing for a three-hour test in college.
But it is in stage four of the disease where people begin to demonstrate concrete symptoms. Patients within this stage have difficulty performing very simple tasks in arithmetic. Another sign of this stage is poor short-term memory. A person may not only forget what items they ate for breakfast, he may forget that he had breakfast completely. The person may forget details about their family’s history, especially the more recent details. The ability to manage finances and even paying monthly bills becomes an impossible chore.
The fifth stage of Alzheimer’s takes its toll on many of the patient’s day-to-day activities. People in this stage of the disease need help and assistance with many activities, but still maintain a level of independence. For example, a man may be able to shave in the morning, but the routine of shaving may take the better part of an hour. They tend to recognize faces and circumstances, but they may lose fluidity with people’s names outside of the family. Certain situations provide significant confusion, such as remembering their own phone number or dressing appropriately.
The sixth stage of the disease usually finds that the patient needs constant care and supervision. It is in this stage that many patients begin to experience major personality changes and shifts in attitude. There is constant confusion of the surroundings and in many cases a complete unawareness of what is going on around them. Assistance is needed in daily activities like bathing and using the bathroom. The patient begins to wander almost aimlessly.
Stage seven is the final stage of the Alzheimer’s disease. As a terminal illness, people in stage seven are nearing death. At this stage of the disease, most patients have lost the ability to communicate or respond to the circumstances around them. They still may be able to utter words and phrases, but the words carry no significance or meaning. They seem to have no insight into their condition. They need assistance with all activities of daily living. At some point in this phase, they will probably lose their ability to swallow.
For many folks, the Alzheimer’s disease can last more than a decade. The rate of progression varies widely. The degree and rate seem to hinge on the actual level of progression at the time of the diagnosis. Pneumonia is a common cause of death through the disease because problems in swallowing allows food and drink to enter into the lungs, where an infection can start. Other common cause of death include dehydration, malnutrition and falling.
Over the next two columns, we will explore some of the ways that people are being treated and helped through the disease. We will conclude the series with a look at some resources for the family members who are serving as caregivers.
From the Catbird Seat, it is past time that we made a dent in the disease that plagues so many of us as we age. Heartfelt thanks to the participants and donors in our area who helped with this year’s Walk.