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WITH AN OLDER POPULATION THAN MOST, OSOYOOS IS HIT ESPECIALLY HARD BY ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE
Fighting stigma and changing public attitudes about dementia are the goals of Alzheimer Awareness Month, which runs nationally throughout January.
The disease is a challenge especially in communities such as Osoyoos, which have aging populations, because the likelihood of Alzheimer’s increases considerably with age.
“With us being a retirement destination, demographically the South Okanagan is very hard hit,” said Laurie Myres, the Osoyoos and South Okanagan-Similkameen support and education co-ordinator for the non-profit Alzheimer Society of B.C.
“We can pretty much count on when we go into a room of 65 year olds, the statistics tell us that approximately one in 14 people are affected,” said Myres. “If we go into a room of 85 year olds, it’s approximately one in three. We have a lot of people in the 85 range now.”
Myres is the only staff person for the society in this area and she relies on volunteers to help her cover a large area stretching from Summerland to Osoyoos to Princeton to Rock Creek.
Local volunteers are always needed, she says.
In Osoyoos, she co-ordinates a caregiver support group that meets the second Tuesday of each month at the Health Centre. About a dozen people are in the group, who usually have family members with Alzheimer’s, at various stages.
“It’s all over the map,” said Myres, whose own mother died after living with Alzheimer’s. “Some are just starting out. Some have just heard the diagnosis. Some have been care giving for quite a long time and their loved one is now in care up at Mariposa. It runs the gamut.”
Group members share experiences, both victories and challenges, and they share information and mutual support, she said.
They don’t only discuss disease-related issues, but also talk about some of the practical and legal concerns such as giving a family member power of attorney.
From her own experience with her mother, Myres is acutely aware of how public perceptions can isolate people with dementia and even delay their diagnosis and treatment.
One of the attitudes she’s most anxious to change is the tendency for some people to “talk by” a person with dementia or speak to someone with them as though the person isn’t present.
“I accompanied my mom through her journey with Alzheimer’s and we could be out shopping and my mom was still socially very capable of having a conversation and being witty,” she said. “We would bump into someone and they would look at me and say: ‘How’s your mom doing?’”
Even doctors sometimes speak to a spouse or partner in the patient’s presence as if the person wasn’t there, she said.
It’s important to preserve the person’s dignity and they still need to be included, she added.
This year’s Alzheimer Awareness Month is also addressing the problem of family and friends dropping off a person’s radar when they should stay in the person’s life.
“A lot of people are uncomfortable and they don’t know what to say,” said Myres. “So they just stop contacting people. It’s an isolating thing, not just for the person with the diagnosis, but with their primary caregiver too. People just disappear from their lives. A lot of this I think is just due to discomfort.”
Although Alzheimer’s disease is the leading form of dementia, especially in older people, it’s not the only form of progressive dementia.
The Alzheimer Society of B.C., despite its name, also provides support for people affected by other forms such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, vascular dementia or frontotemporal dementia.
Alzheimer’s is characterized by the formation of deposits in the brain called “plaques,” and by “tangles,” which choke off living cells and cause the brain to shrink in some regions.
Although symptoms can be alleviated, especially if it is caught early, it can’t be reversed and is always fatal.
Short-term memory loss is typically an early indicator of the disease, but this can be caused by a number of other conditions, including other dementias, as well as other health conditions that might be reversed.
Every person with Alzheimer’s is affected differently, said Myres, and for some people the first symptoms might be motor difficulties such as tripping. Some lose the ability to monitor their appetite or temperature.
Today, 747,000 Canadians have dementia, including 70,000 in B.C. As the population ages, the number of Canadians affected is expected to double to 1.4 million in the next 20 years, including more than 177,000 in B.C.
For those wanting more information about Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, Myres said she has left literature at the Osoyoos Health Centre. People can also phone toll free at 1-888-318-1122.