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Chris Stearns acted as a caregiver for his grandmother, Wilma, and his father, Donald, so he “got to know the physical and mental challenges caregivers undergo,” he said. Alzheimer’s-dementia “takes such a toll on (victims), families and caregivers.”

Alzheimer’s impacts “us all, because it doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, what race you are, or your religion,” said Chris Stearns, who acted as a caregiver for two family members with Alzheimer’s.

It’s “a community disease,” said Stearns, who advocates for Alzheimer’s awareness and legislative action that helps those with the disease and their caregivers. “Everyone will be involved with it” at some point.

The number of Georgia residents ages 65 and older living with Alzheimer’s is expected to spike by more than 25% during the next few years, from 150,000 to 190,000 in 2025, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2021 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report, released earlier this month. Currently, more than 330,000 Georgians are acting as unpaid family caregivers for those with Alzheimer’s, providing more than 640 million hours of unpaid care at a total value of more than $9 billion.

“Georgia is considered one of the top 10 states in the country that is projected to see the highest increase of cases over the next five years,” according to Linda Davidson, executive director of the Georgia Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

The first week of March was Alzheimer’s Awareness Week, and it’s critical to discuss a disease that for decades was “unspoken,” not only for those with Alzheimer’s, but for their caregivers, said Stearns, who has been a veterinarian in Dalton for 36 years. “It’s a silent journey at times.”

“There’s still a stigma attached” to Alzheimer’s, according to LaRay Ramey, program manager for the Alzheimer’s Association in Northwest Georgia. “We need to communicate and have these conversations.”

“Without going through it with someone, you likely don’t know the emotional and financial impact,” Stearns said. “Behind the scenes is truly hard, because the disease is not going to get better — the best you can do is slow the slide — and the fatigue is unrelenting.”

“You have to rebuild your own life,” he said. “You give, give and give, with no time for other priorities.”

Caregivers have a tendency to focus so much on those they are caring for they neglect their own care, according to Ramey, noting, “It’s overwhelming to care for somebody.”

Nearly half of all caregivers (48%) who provide help to older adults do so for someone with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2021 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report.

Stearns acted as a caregiver for his grandmother, Wilma, and his father, Donald, so he “got to know the physical and mental challenges caregivers undergo,” he said. “This disease takes such a toll on (victims), families and caregivers.”

Fortunately, there are resources, led by the Alzheimer’s Association in Northwest Georgia, “there for you to lean into to find the support you need,” Stearns said. The Alzheimer’s Association in Northwest Georgia is “a hidden asset, and they’re very responsive.”

“They (offer a) knowledge base our community can draw on,” he said. “They gave me a lot of knowledge about what I’d be facing so I could have open and honest discussions with family, doctors and other caregivers.”

Stearns is actively involved with the Alzheimer’s Association in Northwest Georgia, as well as the Georgia Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, and he’s a Georgia Ambassador, promoting legislation at the local and national level to benefit those with Alzheimer’s and others impacted by the disease.

“We’re all in this battle together,” he said. “Having dealt with it, you learn a lot of information you hope you can (share) with others.”

“In Georgia, we’re working on expanding the healthcare workforce, because Georgia is 47th of 50 (states) in direct-care workers, which is pretty low,” he said. “We’re also trying to increase Medicaid spending to care for these people, because (this disease) is extraordinarily expensive.”

More than 6 million Americans ages 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s-dementia this year, roughly 11% of that demographic, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2021 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report. Deaths due to Alzheimer’s increased 145% from 2000 to 2019, and “one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia.”

While 80% of Americans want to reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia, only about 35% say they know the symptoms, according to a MDVIP/Ipsos survey released in September 2020. Early warning signs for dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease can include repetitive questions and stories, difficulties with orientation and struggles with complicated, daily tasks.

Dementia is the general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with everyday life, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that can lead to dementia, and more information can be found at alz.org.

While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, a progressive neurological disorder characterized by symptoms including memory loss, judgment impairment, disorientation, personality change and loss of language skills, “early intervention is key” to delivering longer and better “quality of life” through treatment, Stearns said. “We have to be more proactive than reactive.”

Ryan Anderson/Daily Citizen-News

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