DAVID FARMER

Too late for Mother’s Day, but it’s not too late to fight Alzheimer’s disease

Posted May 16, 2012, at 9:34 p.m.

On Saturday, I called my mom and wished her a happy Mother’s Day — a little early — and to see if she had received the flowers I had sent her.

On Sunday, I called and we had the same conversation, this time with a little bit about the weather mixed in.

On Monday, it was Mom who called. Same conversations. Almost exactly.

It has been several years since my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. At the beginning, the decline was steady and noticeable. But a major heart attack provided fertile ground for the terrible disease to get much worse rapidly.

Now Mom’s mind is stuck in what seems like a continual playback loop of small talk and mixed-up memories. She can’t get by on her own and her mind betrays her at every corner.

The person she was — a talker and storyteller, a caretaker, a pillar of the family and the community — is disconnected from the person she has become.

The news this week, so close to Mother’s Day, felt personal.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced the creation of the first National Alzheimer’s Plan, which will be backed $130 million directed toward research, caregiver support and education, and public awareness.

And as the New York Times reported, a new drug may offer help preventing Alzheimer’s in people genetically predisposed to the disease. The proposed funding for research, which is included in the president’s 2013 budget, would fund a five-year clinical trial that could produce results in as quickly as two years.

The ambitious plan sets a target of finding better treatments for Alzheimer’s by 2025 and to provide more help to the more than 5 million people who have the disease.

As a first step, the federal government has a new website with helpful information about the disease and programs that are available to help both the sufferers and their families.

“These actions are the cornerstones of an historic effort to fight Alzheimer’s disease,” said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “This is a national plan — not a federal one, because reducing the burden of Alzheimer’s will require the active engagement of both the public and private sectors.”

While Alzheimer’s, and dementia more generally, can be devastating to families, the real impact of the disease is much broader and getting more dangerous every year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease increase with age. Up to 5.2 million Americans suffer with Alzheimer’s. Worldwide, the number is about 18 million people and expected to nearly double to 34 million people by 2025.

By 2050, unless something changes, 16 million Americans could have the disease.

Already, it is the sixth leading cause of death among adults older than 18 and is the fifth leading cause of death for people older than 65.

My mom requires near constant supervision for fear that she could accidentally hurt herself. She is prone to terrible bouts of confusion that mean she no longer can perform many of basic tasks necessary to take care of herself.

She loved to cook. That’s out. She always had dogs. No more. She misses church most Sundays. And instead of delivering food to members of the congregation who are sick, now she’s on the prayer list.

And while my family has loving and dedicated people helping us to take care of her, the cost is high.

On a national level, it’s astronomic and getting worse.

In 2011, treatment for Alzheimer’s, including health care, long-term care and hospice care, cost more than $180 billion. By 2050, that number is projected to explode to $1.1 trillion.

The new focus by the Obama administration on Alzheimer’s disease goes beyond compassion for the sick, disease prevention or providing support for their families. It is an economic imperative.

Alzheimer’s threatens to cripple Medicare and Medicaid and place new burdens on community-based and home-based care that our country is ill equipped to handle.

Action is required. And the federal government, with its strong support of medical research, can make a real difference in the fight against this murdering disease.

The National Alzheimer’s Plan is a good example of harnessing the collective power of government to do critical, important and potentially lifesaving work.

While Maine is cutting our Department of Health and Human Services — ending access to health insurance for thousands, putting prescription medicine out of reach of seniors and people with disabilities, and knocking hundreds of kids out of Head Start — I’m glad to see that the president is taking a different path by investing in better health care for everyone.

This weekend, I’ll call my mom. Maybe we’ll talk about the flowers or the weather.

David Farmer is a political and media consultant. He was formerly deputy chief of staff and communications director for Gov. John E. Baldacci and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.

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