SATTLER: Hope fuels war on Alzheimer's

5/9/2014

My great-grandmother was strong in many ways.

My great-grandmother was strong in many ways.

After her own three children were grown, she took in and raised two young granddaughters, her second go-around at parenthood as a widow.

With no child support or other financial assistance, she made do by working a number of jobs. She remained upbeat, determined and an inspiration.

Years later, as her mind gradually weakened and she started slipping away, we experienced the same shock, sadness and despair known by millions of families.

The signs of her disease — confusion, memory loss and frustration — came slowly at first. Too many of us have seen the disease progress, and know the dreaded, blank stare.

When a loved one looks at you as if you're a stranger, it's devastating. The lost connection with family in the final phase of the disease is known as the long goodbye.

The crushing reality of losing a loved one to Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia will touch many more people in years to come. As a nation, we should be ashamed of the scant progress made in fighting a horrible ailment that robs so many people of their memories and precious relationships.

More than five million Americans have the progressive, incurable condition. About one in nine people 65 and older, and about one-third of those older than 85 now have Alzheimer's, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Studies show cases of the fatal disease skyrocketing as the nation grays. Until researchers find a way to delay or block the ruthless attack on the brain, the fear is some 16 million people could have the disease by 2050.

The tragic toll is all too familiar to southwest Kansan Skip Mancini, who had both parents taken away by mind-robbing illnesses.

Like many other area caregivers, Mancini found that resources for Alzheimer's sufferers and their families were limited. She set out to make a difference.

Established in memory of Mancini's parents, the Lee Memorial Fund now helps with the expense of various support programs and other resources — the kind of assistance hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities may not be able to fit into their budgets.

Through the Lee Memorial Fund, working with the Central and Western Kansas Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, programs are designed for patients, family members and caregivers, health care professionals and others in a 19-county region.

Now in its second year, the endeavor has addressed issues ranging from warning signs of Alzheimer's to such real-life challenges as dealing with the disease and driving, among other relevant topics.

If only the nation's commitment to research was so focused and heartfelt.

Sadly, Congress has failed in addressing the insidious disease. We're set up to travel a devastatingly costly economic path without a more aggressive plan of attack on Alzheimer's and dementia.

Consider this: Experts predict that over the next 40 years, care for Americans with Alzheimer's will cost society an estimated $20 trillion, including $15 trillion to Medicare and Medicaid.

Even as cases and costs associated with the disease rise exponentially, Alzheimer's research only draws about $500 million in annual federal funding. For every $28,000 the federal government spent on Alzheimer's patient care in recent years, it devoted just $100 to research.

Members of Congress — particularly those on the radical right who reject most any spending measure — should take time to tour an advanced-stage Alzheimer's ward, to better understand the crisis and need to invest in ways to reverse the trend.

But as frustrating as shortsighted political interests may be, the generosity and compassion from Skip Mancini and others like her who know the agony of Alzheimer's — and remain determined to do more to help — still give us hope.

Email Editor-publisher Dena Sattler at denas@gctelegram.com.

Support Group

Anyone interested in an Alzheimer's support program in their area

may call the Central and Western Kansas Chapter of the Alzheimer's

Association at (800) 272-3900.

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