Women Warriors Face Their Next Fight: Alzheimer’s Disease

On the release of the new Shriver Report, caregiving expert Sherri Snelling shares her takeaway – and tips.

That seismic quake felt nationwide today came out of California and while it was not the earth-moving kind, it was groundbreaking nonetheless. Maria Shriver, the First Lady of California who has turned the annual California Women’s Conference into a national stage of transformational moments for women within our society and culture, today released the second in a series of landmark reports. This year the report focused on the growing prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and its disproportionate impact on women.

The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s, conducted in collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Association, shows that ten million American women are touched by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Of the more than five million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, two-thirds are women. In addition, 6.7 million women represent 60 percent of the family caregivers of those living with the disease. Since women also make up half of all U.S. employees, the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on our workplace, our health-care system and our family lives is significant and growing.

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that every 70 seconds someone is diagnosed with this disease. What is perhaps a larger concern is that studies also show that 50 percent of those living with Alzheimer’s are undiagnosed.

The toll this disease takes on women cannot go unnoticed. One-third of these female caregivers are caring for an Alzheimer’s loved one 24/7 and almost half provide more than 40 hours of care a week. That means women who are working caregivers, in addition to bringing home the bacon, now come home to another full-time job: caregiver.

When it comes to work/life balance, these women caregivers are walking a precarious tightrope. Studies show that seven out of ten working caregivers have had to make adjustments at work – coming in late, leaving early and taking time off – all to care for their loved one with Alzheimer’s. Additionally, 46 percent of The Shriver Report’s female respondents asked for time off from work but could not get it.

So while women are facing burnout and bosses who may not be supportive, they are also in jeopardy of possible future bankruptcy. The Shriver Report estimates that the annual per-patient costs for Alzheimer’s is $56,800 – and 65 percent of those costs are borne by families.

Now, if you are reading this and still don’t believe that Alzheimer’s may touch your life or family, consider this:

  • Almost 30 percent of Americans have a family member with Alzheimer’s disease and half of all Americans know someone with the disease.
  • Some research has linked diabetes and cardiovascular disease with a risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
  • By 2050, with the aging Baby Boomer population, there will be 16 million people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s – half of which will be women 65 years or older.
  • Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-ranking “killer” – behind heart disease and cancer – but quickly gaining ground as our 78 million Baby Boomers enter their 60s and beyond.

All of this has me thinking about Secretariat (yes – the horse). Bear with me – I just saw the movie (and it was great – love Diane Lane!). Anyway, in the movie as in real life for those of us who remember the Triple Crown race in 1973, Secretariat was famous for starting the race at the back or middle of the pack. But, as he stalked the other thoroughbreds, he would powerfully gain ground and ultimately win the race.

Which brings me to my point. Alzheimer’s disease is like Secretariat. We know that most people are diagnosed with this disease after the age of 65, although warning signs can occur many years earlier. Right now, Alzheimer’s may not be as high on the mortality list as other chronic illnesses, but again, with an aging Baby Boomer population, Alzheimer’s disease is stalking our society and will gain ground in this pack.

Taking a cue from the state from which The Shriver Report emanates, let’s go from gloomy, cloudy news to some “sunny” solutions:

  1. Know the Signs. The Alzheimer’s Association has developed a list of the 10 Early Warning Signs of the disease. While today there is no cure for the disease, it does help families to plan for the future care of their loved one while their loved one can still participate in that discussion if an early diagnosis is made.
  2. Measure Your Stress. On the Alzheimer’s Association website there is a Caregiver Stress Test. It will help you, as a caregiver, to understand how much stress you may be feeling. This information is valuable to share with your own physician. As we know, stress can lead to health risks such as higher blood pressure, hypertension, heart disease and possible links to other chronic illnesses.
  3. Get Support. There are also links on the Alzheimer’s site for support groups and other important services and information. In addition, caregiving sites such as Caring.com also have helpful information. In fact, Caring.com just launched its “Steps and Stages” customizable resource tool and other valuable information to guide you on the caregiving journey of Alzheimer’s disease stages known as the “long good-bye.”

In addition, the Alzheimer’s Association is asking for 5.3 million Americans – one to match each person diagnosed – to join the movement as a champion to rid the world of Alzheimer’s. You can check out the Celebrity Champions, including heartthrobs Bradley Cooper and Kyle Chandler (be still my heart) and longtime advocates David Hyde Pierce, Olympia Dukakis, Peter Gallagher, Victor Garber and Leeza Gibbons, among the many whose lives have been touched by this disease.

So as we Californians continue to brace for the “big one,” and have our emergency kits ready to go when it hits, it is wise for all of us to put a caregiving plan together. Whether it’s Alzheimer’s disease or some other chronic illness or the simple fact of an aging American population, being prepared and knowing that caregiving will inevitably touch your life is something you can count on. But, being prepared will make all the difference in shifting caregiving from overwhelming to rewarding.

Editor’s Note: Sherri Snelling, founder and CEO of the Caregiving Club, is a nationally recognized expert on America’s 65 million family caregivers. She is Chairman of the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC), the leading caregiving advocacy nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Sherri has appeared on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, ABC World Evening News, MSNBC, Fox Business Network, CNN, USA Radio and has been interviewed by the New York Times, USA Today, PARADE, Prevention, Family Circle and WebMD. She is a frequent guest speaker, content contributor and blogger on the Baby Boomers and their caregiving role as the “The Sandwich Generation.”

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