Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Don't Forget Those Who Do

A neighbor of mine had a GPS tracking device installed on her aunt's white Cadillac.

The octogenarian relative's doctor suspected she suffered from dementia, but if she was, it was still in the early stages. So the GPS was ostensibly only a precaution; plus, the aunt, although she owned a late-model car, didn't drive it much anymore anyway.

A few weeks ago, my neighbor happened to be working on her computer late in the evening when the GPS software popped up on her screen. Her aunt, an 81-year-old widow who lived about ten miles south of us, was piloting her luxury car towards our neighborhood, unannounced. At a time of day when she never drove.

As my neighbor watched on her computer, the GPS module tracked the Cadillac closer and closer to our street, then past it! The aunt kept on driving into north Arlington, where she knows nobody. Obviously, something was wrong. So my neighbor called the police, who tracked her down and kept her sidelined until my neighbor could get her.

Now, after more tests and some heart-wrenching life changes, the aunt is living with my neighbor's parents, also in their 80's. All of them, in one way or another, victims of the terrible memory-wasting disease with the ominous name: Alzheimer's.

This past Sunday afternoon, another neighbor had been out enjoying a leisurely walk around our neighborhood, when an elderly man driving his car slowly down the street stopped and asked for help with directions.

My strolling neighbor could tell right away that the driver was disoriented. So he called the police on his mobile phone. They came out and were able to ascertain a relative and phone number for the elderly driver, who lived in another city about twenty miles away. Would the gentleman like to go over to our local precinct station where his relatives can come and collect him? Yes, and some other family members came and retrieved his car. They confirmed what the officers suspected: the elderly man had Alzheimer's. And would not be allowed to drive any more.

Yet another acquaintance recently told me about a guy in his church who got a call from a Walgreen's pharmacist in Austin, Texas, several hours away from us here in Dallas-Fort Worth.

The pharmacist had an elderly gentleman at his counter needing to pick up a prescription, but when he'd pulled up the unfamiliar customer's name on Walgreen's database, he learned the man lived back here in Arlington. And had picked up his prescription hours earlier at his neighborhood store.

Shaken, the son called a good friend who lives in Austin and knows his father, asked him to go to the Walgreen's and take his father home with him, and he'd fly down immediately to get him.

Yet another bizarre introduction for another family into the miserable world of Alzheimer's.

All three of these incidents happened just this past summer. To people in one little corner of north central Texas, and, thanks to Arlington being the largest city in America without any mass transit, all via driving mishaps. And combined with my own family's travails with my aunt, they portray what appears to be a rapidly-developing new crisis in the American family: memory, dementia, Alzheimer, and/or mental health care.

It's never really happened before on this scale, with people living longer physically, but science still lagging when it comes to sustaining mental health in old age.

Consider these facts from the Alzheimer's Association:

- Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging.

- There are nearly 15 million Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers in the United States providing 17 billion hours of unpaid care valued at $202 billion.

- Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the country and the only cause of death among the top 10 in the United States that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed.

- Alzheimer's can strike people in their 30s, 40s and even 50s. This is called younger-onset Alzheimer's.

- 5.1 million U.S. residents older than age 65 have Alzheimer's. About 2.7 million U.S. residents older than age 85 have the disease; however, the report estimated that the number will reach about 3.5 million in 2031, when the first wave of baby boomers reaches age 85.

Indeed, if you don't know anybody who suffers from or cares for somebody suffering from Alzheimer's, it won't be long before you will. And hopefully, it won't be you.

In the meantime, the more politicians talk about entitlements and healthcare reform, even more patients will be diagnosed with one of the most devastating medical conditions known to mankind.

A condition that, once confirmed, leaves little room for waiting, for planning, or for procrastination regarding issues like wills, powers of attorney, and even insurance. Alzheimer's can eat through a life's savings rapidly, and impose incredible complications on the lives, finances, and emotions of caregivers.

Eventually, we'll all get through it, even if we're poorer financially. Right now, none of us has any other choice. At least I hold out hope that our families will be richer from the reward of being able to stand by our loved ones when there's no possibility they can return the favor.

While memories of better days become, sadly, equally one-sided.

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