Today is World’s Alzheimer’s Day

Elaine Drew - September 21, 2009 02:07 PM

Today has particularly significance for me because my grandfather has dementia.  World’s Alzheimer’s Day was established 15 years ago by Alzheimer’s Disease International to raise awareness of dementia as a serious illness that will have significant impact on healthcare systems around the world. 

According to the 2009 World Alzheimer’s report, the number of people with dementia around the world is 35.6 million and expected to more than triple by 2050.  To be clear, dementia is an umbrella term for a group of symptoms that may affect memory loss, physical coordination, and/or moods and personality.  Dementia can affect people of all ages but is most common among the elderly.  Alzheimer’s is a neurological disease and is one of the most common forms of dementia.   

I can tell you from experience that dementia is not easy to detect.  In my grandfather’s case, I assumed some of the strange behavior at the beginning was a result of plain old age.  There was the time he got into a minor fender bender with his car.  Then there was the time he wore a stained shirt because he forgot to put it in the laundry basket. 

But then the incidents got worse.  On the day of my wedding, he refused to answer his door to be taken to the church.  I was the granddaughter who was born in his home, and grew up alongside him.  We played together, went on vacations together.  We were extremely close for most of my life.  He never made it to the wedding.

My grandfather was the patriarch of the family with a larger than life personality.  He was happy, loved to laugh, tell stories, and above all, loved his family deeply.  He used to cook massive Sunday meals for us (one of his first jobs when he came to the U.S. was as a line cook at a diner).  Nothing made him happier than to watch his family appreciate his dishes, like spare ribs, potato salad, and pies, which were out of this world!

Then one day, we realized that something was severely wrong.  My father tried to explain to my grandfather that he could no longer drive the car.  My grandfather was getting into one too many fender benders and the latest one left major damage to both his car and the car he hit.  When my father took his keys and refused to hand them over, my grandfather became enraged.  He always had a sharp temper, but it never got to this point.

My grandfather walked into the kitchen, pulled open the drawer and pulled out a butcher knife.  He went after my father with it.  He had obviously lost all common logic.  At the moment, my father was stunned and frightened.  Fortunately, my father studied Tae Kwon Do and some of those defense moves came in handy.  He was able to block him and wrench the knife out of his hand.

It is so hard to write this without tearing up.  The sadness is the realization that that was the last day of my grandfather as we knew him.  That was the day his dementia took control.  That day hit us harder than a ton of bricks.  That was four years ago.  My grandfather had just turned 86.

The theme of World’s Alzheimer’s Day is to detect dementia early.  Detecting my grandfather’s symptoms earlier could have enabled us to help him sooner and save us a lot of grief and confusion.  According to the report, 70% of caregivers are unaware of the symptoms and 58% of caregivers believe the symptoms are a normal part of aging. 

Knowing what dementia was could have helped us understand that for some, like my grandfather, certain symptoms include inappropriate behavior, horrible mood swings, personality changes, and inability to reason.  We could have gotten him diagnosed and treated sooner.  Today, he is 90 years old and physically more frail but at least his moods and personality are more stable because he is under medication.

We’ve since learned a lot about dementia and that it affects over 50 percent of people over 80 years old.  If you suspect your parent or loved one has dementia, you can learn more about it in our Conditions page.

We learned that there are different types of doctors that have formal training to evaluate and treat dementia.  They include neurologists, geriatric psychiatrists, and geriatricians.  You should be aware however, according to the World’s Alzheimer’s Report, “only 31% of primary care physicians believe they received sufficient training to diagnose and manage dementia.” 

When you consider the vast number of baby boomers that are most vulnerable to dementia, the need for increased awareness and training amongst primary care doctors is critical.  Below are some helpful links about doctors who treat dementia.

For recommended books on dementia and caregiving, please visit the eCare Diary Store under “Books.” 

I invite you to share your family experiences with dementia by commenting below or writing your own blog on our Members’ Blog (you must be a registered user to post a blog; if you’re not, it’s free to sign up).  Your experience could be of great help to others.  Thank you!

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