Alzheimer's disease is not and should never be a personal problem. Not for those who have Alzheimer's or the people caring for them. Nor is it just a national problem for individual governments to manage.
As a global society, it is our collective responsibility to tackle one of the most pervasive issues of the 21st Century -- caring for people with Alzheimer's. Last month, I participated in the Living with Alzheimer's: A Journey of Caring panel discussion hosted by Alzheimer's Disease International and Home Instead Senior Care at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The goal of the meeting was to create awareness about the impact caring for loved one with Alzheimer's or dementia has on families -- significant emotional, not to mention financial strain. Until there's a cure, these types of dialogues are critical steps in bringing this issue to the forefront and in ensuring families coping with these diseases have the support they need. But it can't end there.
As passionately stated by my fellow panelist, USAgainstAlzheimer's co-founder George Vradenberg, the collective impetus and assertiveness that drove research in the 1980s to transform HIV from a death sentence to a manageable disease needs to be employed again for Alzheimer's, an illness that can be equally destructive and emotionally painful to those with the disease and the families caring for them. We must make an issue that has been so private for those affected for so long public, and drive awareness to foster action.
Although the U.S. invests $400 million a year in Alzheimer's research, a cure is nowhere in sight. And, until there is one, we must consider how we will continue caring for the rapidly increasing population of Alzheimer's and dementia patients. Thirty-five million people currently suffer from Alzheimer's or another dementia. As the overall population ages and life expectancy increases, that number is expected to double by 2030 and triple by 2050, according to the World Alzheimer Report 2013. Of the 101 million people dependent on outside care, almost half live with Alzheimer's or live with other dementia-related illnesses. That number, too, is expected to surge to 277 million in the next 40 years, increasing the overall financial cost from $604 billion globally to more than $1 trillion.
The issue is compounded when considered within the context of an evolving modern society featuring smaller family size and increased urbanization. Studies have shown and through my work I've also seen first-hand that it is principally the eldest daughter of a family who shoulders the bulk of the responsibility caring for one or both of her parents. Yet as women become the breadwinner or co-breadwinner in more and more families, there simply isn't enough time or energy to earn a substantial living and support a parent with dementia. Everyone and everything suffers as a result -- the caregiver, the dependent, the economy.
This problem isn't going to take care of itself. Finding a cure is imperative and more research is needed, but families providing care, private companies and governments must also strike a better balance in providing and financing different types of long-term care for people with Alzheimer's and other dementias -- whether it be home care, assisted living, adult day care or nursing homes. This global dialogue on the impact Alzheimer's has on families and society must continue so we can develop a set of best practices and strategies to contain what is already an emergent issue before it can cause more damage in the future.