For the last three years, I have been researching, interviewing and writing articles for Senior Line, the magazine published three times a year by Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver. In that capacity, I read everything I can about dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease, medical care for seniors and residential facilities for seniors.
A year ago, I succumbed and started paying for a digital subscription to the New York Times. Using their “alerts” system, my inbox is filled with relevant, current articles on these topics. I scour the media (Vancouver Sun, Zoomer Magazine, Jewish Independent, CBC News Network, CNN, documentary channels, movies portraying Alzheimer’s disease, and online newsletters from organizations such as CARP and COSCO) searching out information about these senior issues. I also began visiting the Louis Brier Home and Hospital regularly, interacting with people with dementia (with the assistance of Davka, my Standard Poodle).
Why was I obsessed with Alzheimer’s disease? The truth is that I was swimming in a turbulent sea of fear, dread and panic – analyzing every forgetful moment and constantly measuring my intellectual capacities, to be sure that I wasn’t “losing it.” This had been going on for the past five years.
My feelings and thought processes began to evolve as I gained knowledge and understanding of the causes, the progression of this condition and, of utmost importance, the changes in attitude towards the management of seniors residences and the programs offered to seniors with dementia. Most surprisingly, among the gloom and doom scenarios of “the grey tsunami” and “the stark demographic shift,” I began to understand that there is actually good news about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Yes, you heard me: good news!
Today, reaching the age of 100 is no longer shocking. I personally know three people who have reached that age. Seniors of my generation, and the Boomers and Zoomers, are living longer. Within this large cohort, dementia is a product of the natural aging process. The longer we live, the higher the probability of dementia. Is there anyone among you who wants to die at 65 or 71 (the risk of Alzheimer’s begins to increase dramatically at the age of 65)? Wouldn’t you rather live to 86 or 94? Of course! Well then, your chances of having dementia will increase.
At 77, I am more active and more productive than I have ever been. I know that, at any time, I may begin to deteriorate. The influence of genes is crucial: one grandmother had dementia, the other did not. My aunt has Alzheimer’s and, recently, a close relative was diagnosed with the early signs of the disease. I am shocked and saddened, but now I am able to accept the possibility, putting it in the context of the result of aging well and living longer.
What have I learned? Maria Shriver, in her Feb. 25 article on WebMD “We can handle the truth: the facts on Alzheimer’s,” writes “try to put your denial impulse aside and take a hard look at the truth about Alzheimer’s. Because the fear that causes you to deny things – like our risk of getting this mind-blowing disease – can actually be the motivator you need to stop ignoring the facts….” We know the risks and the consequences, but we are in denial and unprepared to deal with it – personally, financially and as a society. It seems that by pushing through my ignorance and my fear, I have come to a place of harsh reality and hope.
The intense desire for the discovery of a cure for dementia, or a preventive strategy for Alzheimer’s disease, is universal. Exciting research is happening in labs across the globe but, until a “miracle cure” is found, let us not refuse to act because there is no cure. Denial is the enemy of hope.
How much do you want to know about your risk of getting the disease? Here is a list of ways to learn more:
- Review your family history with your doctor.
- Review lifestyle factors like diet and exercise with your doctor.
- Review your medical history with your doctor, including questions about brain trauma.
- Take a genetic test to determine whether you have genes that raise your odds of getting the disease.
- Get a brain scan to spot signs of the disease.
But, if you are like 41% of the people in the survey “Insight into Alzheimer’s Attitudes and Behaviors,” you have not – or are not willing to – take any of the proposed steps, according to a Feb. 25 article by Ashley Hayes on WebMD. Another 46% say they aren’t worried about getting Alzheimer’s in the future, mainly because they take care of their health and also because they can’t do anything about it. Thirty-four percent of respondents say they’re concerned about getting the disease in the future and, of those, 69% say they’re concerned because they don’t want to become a burden to their family, with 60% concerned because there’s no cure.
Michael Smith, MD, WebMD’s chief medical editor, states, “There is great concern about the impact of this disease, but denial, fear or other unknown factors seem to be preventing us from taking the necessary steps to prepare.”
People do not seem to realize that they can lower their risk. A few suggestions are offered: stay mentally or intellectually active, eat a healthy diet, take vitamins or supplements, exercise at least three times a week and stay socially active.
There is a positive link between physical exercise and brain health. There is a relationship between the foods, drugs, alcohol and nicotine we ingest and their impact on the brain. Hopefully, more informed, more realistic children will notice when a parent’s mental capacities are diminishing (if you haven’t), and they will get us to the physician or gerontologist early, wasting no time; perhaps to participate in a clinical trial or to get a new drug that could slow its progression. Plans must be made, contingency scenarios must be worked out. The best way to break through denial is to challenge it.
The good news
Dementia rates have been plunging. It took a few reports and more than a decade before many people believed it, but data from the United States and Europe are becoming hard to wave off. The latest report finds a 20% decline in dementia incidence per decade, starting in 1977.
A recent American study, for example, reports that the incidence among people over age 60 was 3.6 per 100 in the years 1986-1991 but, by the years 2004-2008, it had fallen to 2.0 per 100 over age 60. With more older people in the population every year, there may be more cases in total, but an individual’s chance of getting dementia has gotten lower and lower, as Gina Kolata reported in a July 8 New York Times article.
The psychological definition of “denial” is an unconscious defence mechanism characterized by refusal to acknowledge painful realities, thoughts or feelings. My anxiety, fear and dread have disappeared. I have faced the dreaded monster, I have embraced the enemy. I now visit with people suffering from Alzheimer’s. I have spoken to my children frankly about my wishes if I should become incapable of handling my affairs. I have decided where I wish to live if I must move into a seniors residence to receive care. I am aware of the newer approaches to residential care and housing arrangements. I have informed myself of the resources that my community can offer me.
Now, every day is an invitation to excel, to learn and to enjoy. I have become ambitious, physically stronger and more committed than ever to appreciate my good health and sense of well-being.
Dolores Luber, a retired psychotherapist and psychology teacher, is editor of Jewish Seniors Alliance’s Senior Line magazine and website (jsalliance.org). She blogs for yossilinks.com and write movie reviews for the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library website.