By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, a lot of people know at least one person who has been diagnosed. In recent years, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia has seen an increase and according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of people and the cost is only going to go up.
Earlier this week, approximately 200 advocates from all over the state gathered at the Wisconsin State Capitol to meet with legislators. Their presence signified the ever-growing concern and need for awareness for what the Centers for Disease Control calls a public health crisis.
Michael Bruhn, the association’s public policy director, said this year’s advocacy day was one of the largest he’s ever seen. Bruhn, whose grandparents suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, said the event demonstrated to legislators how passionate people are about the cause. He hopes their passion will inspire legislators to respond.
In Southeastern Wisconsin, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 50,000 people are affected by the disease. By 2020, research predicts that the number of cases in Wisconsin will increase to 114,126. Nationwide the disease costs $275 billion, but by 2050 it will increase to $1.1 trillion – unless something is done.
“People need to be aware its growing in prevalence and its growing in cost,” Bruhn said.
State advocates met with bipartisan leaders: Rep. Jim Steineke, Rep. Mike Rohrkaste, Rep. Dianne Hesselbien and Senator LaTonya Johnson. According to Bruhn, each legislator spoke about a personal connection with Alzheimer’s, a point that resonated with many.
In addition to a panel discussion, advocates met with state assembly members. Bruhn explained that the Alzheimer’s Association used this time to discuss their legislative policy.
For example, last year the association received the Alzheimer’s Awareness grant which equated to $500,000. It used the grant to go out in the field and engage with underserved communities such as Hispanic and African-American populations, which have displayed high levels of Alzheimer’s. The grant helped bring more awareness of the disease and resources to rural counties as well.
Bruhn said the association asked to renew the grant an additional two years. The initial grant got the ball rolling, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the stigma, he explained. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.
The Alzheimer’s Association hopes to see an increase in Respite Care. Currently, it costs $1 million, but the association wants to see it increase to $2.5 million. According to Bruhn, 200,000 caregivers are unpaid. Caregivers need a break, Bruhn said even if its just for a few hours to “recharge their battery.”
“That care takes an unbelievable toll on the caregivers,” Bruhn said. Often, caregivers report feeling high levels of emotional stress or being burned out.
An increase in Respite Care could also mean that more people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia could stay home instead of going to an institution. The Dementia Care Specialist Program helps determine if a person can stay in their home assuming they’re safe and comfortable. If more people remained in their homes, which they often prefer, it would help the state budget.
Bruhn said it’s hard to determine why there’s an increase in the number of cases. In fact, there’s a lot about dementia and Alzheimer’s that remains unknown. However, in recent years research has linked Alzheimer’s to other diseases. For example, people with cardiovascular issues are more likely to experience mild cognitive impairment.
Still, the fact of the matter remains: Alzheimer’s disease is the nation’s sixth leading cause of death and it is the only cause of death that can’t be prevented, slowed down or cured. Every 65 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s, but days such as advocacy day might just make the disease obsolete.
To learn more about Alzheimer’s or to get involved go to alz.org/wisconsin.