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New Day Is Dawning for Alzheimer's Patients

July 11, 1985|TIA GINDICK | Times Staff Writer

The facts have not gotten any more reassuring for patients of Alzheimer's disease and their families.

In Los Angeles County alone, according to a study conducted in February by Westside Independent Services to the Elderly, 39,000 patients in skilled nursing homes are Alzheimer's patients. Nationally, Alzheimer's is the fourth leading cause of death behind heart disease, cancer and stroke. It affects close to 3 million Americans yearly, 20% of those older than 65. And, according to projections of the Health Care Financing Administration, $78 billion will be spent by 1990 to institutionalize these patients--costs that are expected to increase substantially by 2000 when nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population will be older than 50 and at risk of being stricken with Alzheimer's disease.

There is no known cause or cure for the disease, which simply is described as a process of mental deterioration. Patients lose their ability to communicate, to remember, to reason, to care for themselves but remain physically strong and healthy.

New Hope

However, if the situation seems desperate--it no longer, agree people on the scene, seems quite so hopeless.

Consider:

--The 10-patient unit and garden especially designed for Alzheimer's patients that is being dedicated today at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills. The little things are most impressive here: homey, flower-print wallpaper in every room and along the hallways, patients encouraged to bring furniture from home, the removal of handsome beveled-edged mirrors above the sinks because psychologists said the double image could be confusing. Given the Alzheimer's patients well-known predilection for wandering, the enclosed garden has about one-quarter-mile of footpath, much of it along an attractively fenced, man-made stream, past an aviary and a wishing well.

--The availability of respite care in addition to its already existing day-care program at Casa Colina Hospital for Rehabilitative Medicine in Pomona. Patients can stay from several hours to a month, giving their caretakers or relatives a break to re-energize or to handle other family crises.

--The John Douglas French Foundation has finalized an agreement with National Medical Enterprises and Los Alamitos Medical Center for an Alzheimer's facility there. Ground-breaking plans are expected to be announced this summer. Earlier negotiations with Memorial Hospital of Long Beach are on hold.

--The new umbrella program initiated by the Los Angeles County branch of Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Assn. to increase the number of adult day-care centers willing to accept Alzheimer's patients. The program provides funding for such needs as security guards or new fences to make a center Alzheimer-practical.

More Media Attention

What's happened, said Stephanie M. Goor, executive director of the association, is "the silent epidemic is no longer silent. Just look at the TV and radio media alone. We've been on Michael Jackson, Art Ulene has talked about us, Phil Donahue spent an hour on the subject. Alzheimer's disease has made the cover of Newsweek. It's been in Vogue, McCall's, Time. And 'Do You Remember Love?' (the film starring Richard Kiley and Joanne Woodward about a woman with Alzheimer's disease) certainly didn't hurt."

Indeed, said Tom Porter, consultant to the Assembly Special Committee on Medi-Cal Oversight, "There's a definite trend for attention for the elderly."

The reality is that the American population is aging faster than it's increasing, he said, and "given the high risk of disease associated with aging, people are coming to recognize the need for long-term care over an extended period.

"The traditional societal response, at least in America, has being reimbursement for institutional years. But over the last 10 years, there have been studies, a real effort to find alternatives."

And Alzheimer's disease, because of all the attention it has received, said Porter, has been the "flagship" for a new set of programs and attitudes.

New Programs Under Way

Dr. Steven Zarit, associate professor of gerontology and psychology at USC's Andrus Gerontology Center and co-director of clinical core at the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center of USC, ticked off the specifics.

"Suddenly attention is being given to the development of special units in institutions for Alzheimer patients. There's belated recognition that their needs aren't being met at home."

Any common characteristics to these units?

"No, but there should be. One thing a facility ought to characterize is a physical design so its patients can wander, where they can get rid of all that energy they have. And there should be a tolerance for the patients who are awake at night in terms of staff programs and foods. There needs to be a recognition that Alzheimer's patients get off our clock.

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