Over 5 million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s disease. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the country, taking more lives than prostate cancer and breast cancer combined. One organization is trying to learn how this disease affects East Texans.
The Dallas and Northeast Texas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association held a public community forum at the CHRISTUS Good Shepherd Institute for Healthy Living in Longview on Thursday to ask Gregg County residents how the disease impacts their lives.
Speakers shared facts about Alzheimer’s disease, personal accounts of their encounters with the condition and asked audience members to share their thoughts on how medical facilities dealt with Alzheimer’s in the region and in the state.
Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt, who deals with legal issues related to Alzheimer’s patients, delivered opening remarks.
“It’s very encouraging when you start seeing people show up to these types of symposiums,” Stoudt said. “It’s a subject we need to continue to talk about and continue to find ways to better service the patients.”
Stoudt explained people who begin to experience the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia may become angry or confused by their situation and strike someone close to them, such as their spouse, and legal intervention may be necessary.
“It’s a subject that a lot of people don’t want to talk about,” Stoudt said. “This is a disease that is extremely serious.”
He added events like the community forum were key to dealing with issues related to Alzheimer’s and dementia because participants could share ideas and increase awareness of these conditions. He also said anyone in Gregg County dealing with family members who experienced dementia or Alzheimer’s could call his office for guidance or suggestions.
Daniel Pierce, KETK news anchor, described his own experience with a family member’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
“Earlier this year, on January 7, my grandmother lost her battle with Alzheimer’s,” Pierce said. “She had been battling it for 12 years. It was something that, at the time, I didn’t really understand. I don’t think a lot of our family understood what it meant to be battling Alzheimer’s.”
Pierce described how his grandmother, a skilled pianist, gradually lost her ability to play music. He said his grandfather took care of her but wondered if he should have sought help for her sooner. Pierce related his experience to the goal of the forum: asking questions and seeking information.
“This is not a journey that you have to take alone,” Pierce said. “Where do you see gaps in the public’s knowledge when it comes to understanding Alzheimer’s, dementia as well as memory loss?” he asked the audience.
Lauren Weber, administrator of Oceans Behavioral Hospital in Longview, said education was lacking in East Texas.
“Education for families, education for referral sources, education for the community, you name it, education. One of the things that we’ve started doing is the virtual dementia tour,” Weber said, describing an educational service offered by her organization in which people can experience what it is like to suffer from dementia symptoms. She also pointed out a lack of psychiatrists, especially geriatric psychiatrists, in the area.
Other audience members described a lack of resources for caregivers in the area, who can experience severe stress and burnout while caring for Alzheimer’s sufferers, and a lack of training and funding for nurses. One pointed out Texas has the 48th lowest Medicaid reimbursement rate for nursing homes in the country.
One audience member said she feared her husband might be experiencing the early stages of dementia and said she did not know what to do.
Dr. James Sawyer, an internist in Longview, explained anyone concerned about a family member needs to see a neurologist to get a proper diagnosis.
Other audience members asked questions about early dementia symptoms, which can include forgetting newly learned information, sudden inability to keep up with routines such as paying bills and frequently losing items.
Some in the audience asked what to do about family members who refuse to give up their driving privileges even when their memory and vision begin to decline. Dr. Sawyer said concerned family members can anonymously report an unsafe driver to the Department of Public Safety, who can issue an order for a driving test. If the driver fails, their driver’s license can be revoked.
The meeting closed with each table of guests filling out a questionnaire about ways to increase Alzheimer’s awareness in the community.
The Alzheimer’s Association collected this information to use in future outreach efforts. They also asked guests to fill out a card to mail to their senator to urge them to support a National Alzheimer’s Plan. In August, the U.S. Senate approved a $425 million increase in Alzheimer’s and dementia research funding at the National Institutes of Health for the upcoming fiscal year.
The Alzheimer’s Assocation mission statement is to eliminate Alzheimer’s disease, to provide care for all affected and to reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health. The organization hosts fundraisers and educational events to fund research and advocate for more resources for Alzheimer’s sufferers. To learn more or ask for help, visit www.ALZ.org or call the 24/7 helpline at 800-292-3900.