Living alone with Alzheimer's tough

2012-05-07 16:00

kalahari.com

Washington - Elaine Vlieger is making some concessions to Alzheimer's. She's cut back on her driving, frozen dinners replace once elaborate cooking, and a son monitors her finances. But the US woman lives alone and isn't ready to give up her house or her independence.

Some 800 000 people with Alzheimer's, roughly 1 in 7 Americans with the disease, live alone in their communities, according to surprising new data from the Alzheimer's Association. It's a different picture of the mind-destroying disease than the constant care giving that eventually these people will need.

Many cope on their own during dementia's earlier stages with support from family and friends.

"I'm still pretty healthy," says Vlieger, 79, who sought a neurology exam after realising she was struggling to find words. "I'm just real careful."

But support or not, living alone with a disease that gradually strips people of the ability to know when they need help brings special safety concerns, and loved ones on the sideline agonize over when to step in.

"We don't want to have to force it before it's time. But how do we know?" asks Marla Vlieger, Elaine Vlieger's daughter-in-law.

There's no easy answer, and the challenge will grow as Alzheimer's surges in the coming years. Already, an estimated 5.4 million people in the United States have Alzheimer's or similar dementias. That number is expected to reach up to 16 million by 2050 because the population is aging so rapidly.

Census figures show that nearly one-third of all people 65 and older live alone, and by their 80s more than half of women do. Most older people say they want to stay in their homes as long as possible, and developing cognitive impairment doesn't automatically mean they can't, says Beth Kallmyer, a social worker who heads constituent services for the Alzheimer's Association.

The association's new analysis illustrates the balancing act between a patient's autonomy and safety. People with dementia who live alone tend to be less impaired than those who live with caregivers. But they are impaired, and studies show they have a greater risk of injuries, even accidental death, than patients who don't live alone.

No care giver

Moreover, surveys suggest that as many as half of those with dementia who live alone can't identify anyone as their care giver, someone who at least checks in periodically to see how they're faring, the association reported. Too often, those are the people whose dementia is discovered in an emergency, such as when neighbors call police to check on a senior whom no one has seen in days, Kallmyer says.

The first National Alzheimer's Plan, due to be finalized this month, could help. It aims to increase screening of older adults to catch dementia earlier. It also urges doctors to help patients plan ahead for their future care needs while they still can. Kallmyer say that's absolutely critical for those who live alone.

Elaine Vlieger had been her late husband's caregiver during a long illness and knew the importance of that planning. After her Alzheimer's diagnosis 18 months ago, she designated power of attorney and who will help make her health care decisions, and added a son to her bank accounts.

For day-to-day living, Vlieger makes reminder lists. A friend accompanies the once avid hiker on a daily neighborhood walk, and neighbors check on her. She's considering wearing a monitor to call for help if she falls.

The younger Vlieger says her mother-in-law generally copes well but is finding it harder to handle the unexpected. Family members get tearful phone calls over small crises such as a toilet overflowing. E-mail has become frustratingly hard because the provider updated the programme so it no longer looks familiar.

Then there's the planning about housing.

"The family was split," Elaine Vlieger says.

One son is researching assisted living options, but Vlieger protests, "I'm more active than those people are. It makes me feel old when I go in there."

She likes her daughter's suggestion of in-home services that could be added over time. Daughter-in-law Marla wonders if a geriatric care manager could offer professional advice "to help us decide what we need, and when we need it".

The trickiest part, Kallmyer says, is when to overrule someone with Alzheimer's and start making decisions for them.

Elaine Vlieger has started cleaning out her home of 35 years. But she says firmly, "I am not in a hurry".

- AP

Read more on:    us  |  health
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