Opinion: Alzheimer’s

POSTED: 06/22/11 11:58 AM

The Rotary Club of St. Maarten has put Alzheimer’s disease on the national agenda with its awareness campaign. It is, as gerontologist Frantz Remy says in this issue of today, a forgotten disease and politicians and governments pay hardly attention to it.

But the global epidemic that is Alzheimer’s disease should not be ignored. Politicians may refer to the situation in percentages, and that way it doesn’t look bad at all. The Alzheimer association of the United States for instance, says that 5.4 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s. That’s 1.76 percent of the population. Projected on Dutch St. Maarten, and assuming 50,000 inhabitants, we have 880 Alzheimer patients within our borders.

Is that good or bad? Fact is, we have not a single facility for these patients, so it is left up to their families to give them proper care.

In the United States, Alzheimer’s is now the number 6 cause of death. Heart disease and cancer top the list; Aids is not even in the top ten. Since 2000, Alzheimer as cause of death has increased by 66 percent, while causes for other diseases went down. Every 69 seconds, somebody in the United States develops Alzheimer’s.

An astonishing 15 million caregivers spend 17 billion hours on unpaid care every year – and these numbers are growing, mainly because there is no way to prevent the disease from developing, and also because there is no cure.

And then there is the annual cost to society: in the United States alone that number stands at a mind blowing $183 billion – almost 800 times St. Maarten’s 2011 budget. If the costs in St. Maarten are proportionate to those in the US (in terms of number of patients versus annual expenditures), the costs to our community are something like $29.8 million.

But the Alzheimer’s awareness campaign is not just about money. It is about the human tragedy that rips families apart, or burdens them with a task they are unprepared for. In the beginning it may seem funny or just weird when someone you love puts her shoes on the wrong foot, but as the disease progresses situations become tougher and often impossible to handle.

Patients end up not recognizing partners they have shared the better part of their life with; they also may become aggressive – and there is nothing anybody is able to do about it.

The easiest reaction to this situation is to point to the government with the question: why don’t you do something about this? And for sure, the government can help to create the conditions that make life more bearable for patients and their families alike.

But we also have to pull together as a community to create support systems that give patients, family members and caregivers the occasional breather. Once Alzheimer’s knocks on someone’s door, it will never go away again. Life will never be the same again but still – we all want to give our loved ones the care they deserve without going under in the process ourselves.

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