Several recent studies about dementia among America’s aged are profoundly disturbing — especially for those of us who aspire to live to a ripe old age.
One study, by the Alzheimer’s Association, concludes that one in three elderly dies with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. The dementia does not necessarily directly cause death, but does contribute to an earlier demise because the senior forgets to take her medication, or is unable to recognize symptoms that should lead to prompt treatment. Another study, led by an economist from the RAND Corporation, concludes that 15 percent of Americans over age 71 — about 3.8 million people — have dementia, and that number will increased to 9.1 million by 2040. The study also found that the direct health care costs for dementia patients, at nursing homes and other care facilities, is $109 billion, and the costs of care also are expected to increase dramatically.
As a society, we must worry about how we are going to pay for such care, but as individuals we worry about becoming one of those statistics. If you’ve been around someone with dementia, you realize it is an awful way to go. So many of the afflicted appear to be perpetually frightened, or angry, or both. They don’t recognize family members, or understand when people are trying to help them. The disease works terrible, fundamental changes to their personalities and characters, turning the quick-minded former executive into a simpleton or the happy, encouraging aunt into a bitter font of hateful, deeply wounding comments.
So much of life’s joy and richness comes from our interaction with spouses, children, and loved ones; what must it be like to be stripped of those pleasures, left to cope with strangers with only a dim understanding of who you are and why you are there? It’s a depressing, terrifying prospect.