Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's or dementia can be a sad, lonely and often frustrating struggle.
It could be Mom or Dad, or a grandparent or beloved uncle, who begins to lose his or her grip on the world. They may speak and act strangely, forget familiar names and people, wander or get lost, regress to their childhood, or withdraw fully into themselves.
Your own world may be up-ended by the need to take care of the person who you've looked on all your life as taking care of you.
The recently released 2013 World Alzheimer Report estimates that 35 million people worldwide are afflicted by dementia and Alzheimer's, and that number will double by 2030 and triple to 115 million by 2050.
Someone is being diagnosed with Alzheimer's every seven seconds.
Those of us who have family members with Alzheimer's know too well the pain that it can cause as their mind degenerates, their memories start to fade, and their moods change. And so we witness a loving and faithful family member or friend being robbed of his or her identity.
Even though there is no known cure yet, we should not despair, because with the appropriate long-term care and a network of family and outside caregivers, a person's quality of life can still be relatively good. The reality is this: Until there is a cure, our focus has to be on care. Family caregivers need to be equipped to deal with what is being called "the global dementia epidemic."
"People with dementia have special needs for care," the World Alzheimer Report concluded. "Compared with other long-term care users, they need more personal care, more hours of care, and more supervision, all of which is associated with greater caregiver strain, and higher costs of care."
An estimated 50 percent of those suffering dementia require care and eventually the others will have such a need. When someone you know or love develops Alzheimer's disease or another dementia, it is easy to succumb to the belief that there is no hope, particularly when your most intimate friend or spouse no longer recognizes you. Equally troubling is witnessing the first time your educated father who was a community leader doesn't remember how to brush his teeth or when you get a call from the supermarket that your mother can't find her way home.
Caregivers often struggle to understand the full impact of dementia, and many are overwhelmed by the responsibility. An estimated 70 percent of all those suffering dementia and Alzheimer's choose to stay in their homes in an environment that is familiar to them and can be comforting at this stage in life.
Given the crisis that faces us in the 21st century, healthcare systems, our elected officials and the medical community have to place greater importance on the role of caregiver until a cure is found.
The cost to the world economy will be overwhelming, and has been estimated annually at $604 billion, or as the World Alzheimer Report concluded, "If dementia care were a country, it would rank between Turkey and Indonesia and be the world's 18th largest economy."
This, of course, means that legislators have to pursue laws that make the responsibility of care-giving easier and more accessible for families confronting what will be a long, enervating challenge that will ultimately affect us all as the Baby Boomers move into their senior years.
There is certainly an urgent need for more national debate on the issue, a need for enlightened legislation and a need for more training of family members and those who assume the responsibility of informal care-giving.
Most importantly, there is a need for us to instill in those affected by dementia and Alzheimer's the view that a diagnosis should not lead to despair. As it is said so often in 12-step programs, "You are not alone." There are resources available, and we should never lose hope.