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Front Page » July 13, 2006 » Senior Focus » The national tragedy of dementia
Published 3,084 days ago

The national tragedy of dementia


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By RICHARD SHAW
Sun Advocate publisher

Being forgetful is one thing, but dementia can take it to a whole new level.

Sammi Green is a 53 year old single woman who takes care of her 89 year old mother Rose on weekends. During the week Sammi lives in a distant town and works as a school teacher.

Just close enough to help, but not near enough to be a week day care giver.

Each Sunday night when she leaves her mothers house the tears flow, from both Sammi and her mom as they part.

For her mother they are tears of loneliness and frustration at not having her youngest daughter near her all the time.

For Sammi the watery eyes are because next week when she comes back, her mothers mental state will be just a little worse, and she will remember less and less of what their lives together have been like.

Sammi committed to herself last year that if her mother became incontinent she would no longer be able to take care of her and would put her in a care facility.

Her mother has now been unable to control her bowels much of the time for the last four months and Sammi still persists in the belief that she and her brothers wife, who lives close to her mom, can take care of the aging parent.

Hospice helps a lot. They come in twice a day. But nonetheless, Sammi's mom has a hard time remembering names, what happened yesterday or sometimes what even happened a couple of hours ago.

A week ago her mother called Sammi's brother scared out of her mind because there was a car in the driveway she didn't recognize.

When the brother arrived at the home he saw nothing but the old Ford pickup his dad had used to commute to work seven years ago before his death from a heart attack.

Her mother hadn't recognized the truck and thought a stranger was in the yard.

When Sammi comes on weekends she goes for a treasure hunt. The treasure is dirty Depends, that are stuffed behind furniture, under the sink and behind clean towels in the bathroom.

Sammi and her brother have been told her mother has diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure and skin cancer on her neck. All are being treated at home and in out-patient visits to the hospital.

Rose has also been diagnosed with dementia, a malady maybe worse than all the others put together, because of what it does to a persons mind.

Some say nutrition and exercise are key to avoiding dementia.

Sometimes Rose is a raving lunatic, pulling on her hair, banging her head against the wall and calling herself a "stupid old woman."

Other times she just sits in her rocker in the front room with the television blaring away, her dog at her feet, staring into space.

Drugs the doctors have prescribed help, but often make Rose into a zombie.

"I don't know which is worse," says Sammi. "To have her cussing and throwing her dinner plate at me or to have her sitting there not knowing what is going on."

The dilemma is one that more and more baby boomers and x-generationers are facing. Dementia is a growing problem, and no one knows why for sure.

Studies have pointed to various life styles, the kinds of things people eat and drink, where they live, etc. etc. etc.

That doesn't help those that have to face the reality of a parent or relative affected by it. In the case of this disease everyone associated with it is a victim; the person who has it, the care givers who are there, the extended family who no longer have their aunt or uncle, grandmother or grandfather, or mom or dad. The disease takes people away from the ones they love, despite the fact they are still living and breathing.

For most people dementia is mentioned in the same breath as Alzheimer's disease, a term many comics have fun with. Some call it "oldtimers disease." One comic spouted on national television that he used to have a friend name Al Heimer, and he was always mixed up about everything.

But this disease is nothing to laugh at.

Some common signs related to dementia:
•Recent memory loss that doesn't return.
•Asking the same question over and over, not even remembering they have asked it before.
•Forgetting constantly about something they have just done or completed.
•People who have dementia often use inappropriate words to describe something.
•Dementia may cause people to get lost on their own street, even in their own yards.
•They may have poor judgement. For instance they may put a cardboard food tray in the stove to warm it up. Then they may just as well forget they put it there.
•Abstract thinking may disappear. For instance they may not even understand what numbers are.
•People with dementia misplace things or put them in inappropriate places, then forget where they put them.
•Mood swings that are large and frequent can be a symptom of dementia. Erratic behavior also illustrates this disease.
•Often people with dementia do not want to go places or see other people.

Actually, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, Dementia is the general term for a set of disorders and not a specific disease. Alzheimer's is just one of those diseases, albeit the one most popularly quoted by the media, that fits into the general term dementia.

People with dementia have significantly impaired mental capacity, symptoms of which can come and go. Within this they also lose their ability to solve both lifes simple and complex problems. They often also lose control of their emotions.

"My dad wasn't the same person he was when I was a boy," said Gary Dean. "No one recognized him once he got Alzheimer's."

Dean's father was a sports reporter for a major Wasatch Front newspaper for years and later in his career the sports editor for another big publication. An outgoing, athletic guy who interviewed everyone from major sports stars to little leaguers, a man who everyone liked, he turned into something very different when the disease caught up with him in his late 70's.

"It was unbelievable," said Dean. "One day he knew us the next he didn't. Regardless he called us names and continually berated us. Then a day later you could come into the center he was staying in and he wanted to sit down and remember old times with you."

But there are other diseases that tie to dementia besides the most well known malady. Symptoms of dementia are also demonstrated by Huntingtons Disease, vascular diseases, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

How is the malady diagnosed? Most doctors call something dementia if the degeneration affects two or more brain functions. For example someone who loses their short term memory and may have a hard time with language could be diagnosed with dementia.

There is a lot of hope in the research community for the possibility of curing the disease. New drugs in the last few years have been able to create lasting affects, particularly when the diseases that affect the brain are diagnosed early. And of course there is also the future where some scientists point to stem cell research as being the possible complete answer, maybe even being able to reverse the process of dementia.

But for those living with it, both within their bodies and with those that have it, the road is long and hard.

"I had to have surgery at one point and it involved a hospital stay. I told my mom repeatedly that I would not be here for a few weeks to take care of her way in advance of the date so she would be prepared," said Sammi. "She cried and cried. Then I would come back the next week and mention it to her again and she would tell me that I had never told her about it."

When Sammi's mother is in her "stupid old woman" frame of mind, she always tells Sammi and her brother that they should lock her up in a nursing home. But when they mention taking her to an assisted care center on her better days she tells them she would rather be dead.

"It's hard to know what to do," said Sammi. "Some days I see no other way out but to place her in a center, yet I think the change would kill her. She loves her home, her dog and this place."

When it comes to dementia, nothing is ever easy.


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July 13, 2006
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