There's hope for families affected by Alzheimer's

Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Just in the past couple of years, tremendous discoveries have been made regarding Alzheimer's Disease. P.E.T. scans offer the possibility of early detection of Alzheimer's and it is hoped that, in the next 5-10 years, a blood test will be developed to diagnose the disease. New drugs such as Aricept, Exelon and Synapton may slow the progression of the disease if it is diagnosed early. Until there is a cure, early diagnosis and treatment are key for the patient and family.

New information also indicates that persons in the early stages of Alzheimer's often have clinical depression as well. Once the depression is treated, there is likely to be a marked increase in the patient's quality of life.

"Depression and fear of the disease tend to worsen and hasten the progression of the disease due to the added stress and anxiety," explains Samantha Abernathy, outreach coordinator for the Alzheimer's Resource Agency of Alaska. "Denying that you have the disease and trying to cover up your symptoms is a natural first reaction but one that can have negative consequences."

Instead, she advises, "If you think you might have Alzheimer's, go to the doctor as soon as possible and get a good diagnostic work-up."

Confusion and other symptoms associated with Alzheimer's are often caused by other medical problems, such as infection, thyroid disease, dehydration, malnutrition and drug interactions. Once these problems are identified and treated, the patient's functioning returns to normal.

Even for persons diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, being diagnosed early has numerous advantages:

1. Newly developed drugs may slow the progression of the disease and allow someone to maintain their independence longer;

2. The patient will be able to ask questions about the disease and prepare her/his state of mind to maximize quality of life at every stage of the disease;

3. The patient will have an opportunity to discuss her/his wishes with loved ones regarding the type of care and plans for their estate;

4. The patient and family will have the chance to make amends and say their good-byes. As the disease progresses into later stages, it will be too late.

Knowledge and support for patients and family members can greatly improve their quality of life as they deal with Alzheimer's Disease. The Alzheimer's Resource Agency of Alaska (previously the Alzheimer's Association of Alaska) offers many helpful resources free of charge. Samantha facilitates an educational/support group for family members, caregivers, service providers and patients from 6-7 p.m. the last Tuesday of each month at the Juneau Empire third floor conference room. Each month she covers a different topic of interest, followed by group discussion. Samantha also provides private consultation to persons with the disease and their loved ones.

Her office is located on the third floor of the Juneau Empire building, Suite 19, where folks may check out books and videos available in the agency's extensive resource library to learn about the disease, how to communicate effectively with the patient, ways to address the patient's anxiety and agitation, tips for making the home safe and many other topics. Samantha invites people to call her at 586-6044 or send her any questions via e-mail and she will gladly answer them. Her e-mail address is Through the agency's monthly newsletter and her e-mail network, she spreads the news about the latest research, grant monies available and upcoming trainings of interest.

Marianne Mills oversees senior citizen nutrition and transportation programs in Juneau, Skagway, Sitka and Yakutat as a staff member of Southeast Senior Services, a program of Catholic Community Service (CCS). CCS assists all persons regardless of their faith.

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