Alzheimer’s exacts a toll in Pennsylvania

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Alzheimer’s disease is going to be an increasingly acute problem both around the world and in this country as life spans stretch even further and the large cohort of baby boomers march into senescence.


But all the practical and emotional problems that accompany Alzheimer’s, both for victims of the disease and their families and friends, will perhaps be felt even more pointedly in Pennsylvania. The commonwealth has the fourth-highest concentration of residents older than age 65, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, and metropolitan areas like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Allentown aside, it is one of the most rural states in the nation.


Right now, it’s estimated 280,000 residents of Pennsylvania are struggling through some stage of the disease, 70 percent of them still living at home, and that number is virtually certain to inch higher barring a left-field medical breakthrough. The difficulties of those living outside population centers will be magnified, with a projected shortage of nursing homes, community-based services and primary care providers in those areas. Individuals who migrate to Pennsylvania from other parts of the world could also endure difficulties in getting treatment.


These are some of the findings of a statewide report on Alzheimer’s disease released in February and approved by Gov. Tom Corbett earlier this summer. It was the fruit of six regional public meetings and over 300 comments made at the meetings and online. The study makes for sobering reading on the toll of Alzheimer’s in the Keystone State.


In today’s edition of the Observer-Reporter, as part of our yearlong exploration of Alzheimer’s disease, we are looking at nursing homes and care facilities that patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia can turn to when living at home is no longer practical and loved ones can’t provide the specialized, taxing care the condition demands. Facilities like these can help ease the suffering of those in the throes of Alzheimer’s, and ease the burden on friends or families who are entrusted with their care.


And Pennsylvania has so many unpaid caregivers, they could fill Heinz Field 10 times over with enough left over to fill Consol Energy Center. All told, according to the report, about 667,000 residents provide care that, if paid, would cost over $9 billion. “The toll on family caregivers is enormous – emotionally, financially and on their overall health,” the report states.


Among the report’s recommendations are continued support for research, such as that being carried out at the University of Pittsburgh’s Alzheimer Disease Research Center, promoting “brain health” and increased support for caregivers – all worthy and fairly obvious goals.


Another is centered around increasing awareness, knowledge and a “sense of urgency” around Alzheimer’s disease and all of its ramifications, from the social to the financial. We hope, through our series on Alzheimer’s, we have been able to make a contribution toward this goal.


Many reports are pumped out at state capitals and in Washington, D.C., only to be given a cursory look-through, tossed aside and completely forgotten. But even with so many competing demands and resources so limited, this is a document whose recommendations need to be understood and implemented.


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