RICHMOND, Va. — Earlier this week, hundreds of people gathered from across the country at the White House, calling on President Joe Biden and lawmakers to provide easier access for Alzheimer's drugs.
This comes on the heels of the recent Alzheimer's Association Facts & Figures report that shows millions of people across the country are suffering from the brutal disease.
Lissa Greenlee, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Richmond, said there’s a major shortage of healthcare professionals who specialize in diagnosing and treating Alzheimer’s disease, and there’s also a shortage of home health and personal care aides.
"There are significant barriers for people living with this disease to get an early and accurate diagnosis," said Greenlee.
One reason for that, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, is that right now Virginia only has 113 geriatricians — or primary care doctors who specialize in treating older patients.
An estimated 190,000 individuals in Virginia are projected to have Alzheimer’s by the year 2050. That means the number of geriatricians needs to increase by 259% in 2050 to meet the care demands of those age 65 and older.
While more treatments for the disease have become available, Greenlee said an early diagnosis is key to ensuring people don’t miss the window of opportunity for those treatments to work.
"We have seen a lot of progress in treatments that are really helping to slow the progression of the disease," Greenlee explained. "But if we don't fix some of these other things, in terms of educating people on the need to get a diagnosis, and getting more people in the workforce that can diagnose people, people aren't going to be able to take advantage of the treatments as more become available."
The recent report also shows Alzheimer’s disease has become a leading cause of death, with deaths due to the disease rising 145% over the past two decades.
In addition to the shortage of healthcare professionals, the Alzheimer’s association estimates in Virginia, there are 354,000 caregivers who provided a total of 529 million hours of unpaid care. That can often cause these men and women to put their own health on the back burner.
Beth Jennings knows this firsthand. She has spent the last few years caring for her 72-year-old wife, Deb, who received an Alzheimer's diagnosis last February.
“There have been days when I just didn't want to get up off the couch," Jennings shared. "But I have to get up and do things because it's just me. I've got to take care of the finances, the medication, the cooking, you know all of that."
Jennings explained she’s gone through a grief process just like you do when you lose someone because she says she's basically losing her loved one a day at a time.
"I found myself being short tempered, you know, being frustrated, lashing out, that kind of thing," she noted. "And I would have to say I'm sorry, I'm sorry. And I would beat myself up for that. But, you know, we're human."
Jennings knows she’s not alone in the challenge of being a caregiver. She and Deb now attend an Alzheimer’s support group, and she said acknowledging the disease and what they’re facing has made things easier.
"A lot of people don't want to identify, or they don't want to talk about it," Jennings explained. "And when you do that, it, you know it isolates you. Because then you're not gonna go out and relate to someone who's going through it. That's why I wanted to be open about this. I wanted people to understand, they're not in it alone. They don't have to be."
The Alzheimer's Association has a 24/7 helpline that you can call if you or a loved one is struggling with Alzheimer's or dementia or if you would like more information about the disease. That number is 800-272- 3900.
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