Pamela A. MacLean
As a caregiver for her aging parents and a stepfather, LaVerne Anderson
learned all too well it is easier to treat the body than the mind.
Maladies like Alzheimer's, other forms of dementia and bipolar disease - and
sometimes a combination - often contribute to physical ailments, lowering the
quality of life as the final years slip away. They are difficult to diagnose,
with under-trained physicians often reluctant or unable to state the specific
nature of the illness or prescribe an effective treatment.
Today, for example, roughly 5.2 million Americans over 65 have Alzheimer's, a
fatal disease that is the most common form of dementia. That is expected to
increase steadily to 16 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer's
Association. Yet association officials say many cases are never
diagnosed, with death certificates attributing the cause of death to heart
problems or other physical diseases.
Anderson with mother & stepfather
With 40 million Americans already in their senior years, and another 77
million baby boomers just behind them, there are only 2,000 board-certified
geriatric psychiatrists in the US, a shortage that leaves caregivers like
Anderson adrift as they struggle to care for aging loved ones. In 2010,
caregivers for Alzheimer's patients alone gave up an estimated 17 billion hours
of unpaid care at a personal costs of $202 billion, according to the Alzheimer's
Anderson has spent hundreds of hours on the phone from her home in England or
conducting research, and in taking frequent costly trips back to her childhood
home in California to spend time with her family members and consult with health
care workers. No matter how hard she tried, there's been little she could do to
improve the outcomes. That's a common result among family caregivers who often
suffer from stress and physical symptoms of their own as a result of caring for
George Anderson, Father
Anderson's father, George, worked as a California aerospace engineer who
entertained neighborhood kids in his spare time with electrical gizmos of his own
creation. He was an avid windsurfer and hand-built several homes. After
retirement, Parkinson's disease struck and he developed a form of dementia that
often accompanies it, leaving him unable to figure out a simple task like how to
put his favorite Celine Dion tape into a video player.
His dementia brought on hallucinations, visions of people rising out of the
floor each night after he went to bed in a residential care home in a
Sacramento, Calif. suburb, she said. "But he was always treated as
though he only had Parkinson's and not for the mental issues," she says.
"He was distressed by the hallucinations but no one would explain what was
happening to him. I don't think he was getting the support and reassurance
he needed," she said.
G. Anderson 1950
George Anderson died at age 73 in 2006.
Lou J. Urbanski, Stepfather
Anderson's stepfather, Lou J. Urbanski, operated radios in China during
World War II and spent 22 years in the military. He married Anderson's
mother in the 1970s and settled in the rolling hills of California's gold
country where he ran a small electronics business until his health began to
fail. The family saw the lively, jovial character lose control of his body
through strokes and broken hips that began to tear at the emotional fabric of
"The last year of his life they wanted to put him in a care home,"
says Anderson. "But my mother refused. She was afraid of losing
her house because there wasn't money to pay for his care and the lack of quality care facilities." Anderson had to
hunt for resources like Meals on Wheels and an an occasional in-home aide.
Urbanski's inability to control his body changed him. "He was so
weak and depressed from the loss of dignity he would scream and bark orders 24
hours a day," she said. He became abusive to his wife. The constant
demands of care wore on her, but there was no respite and few resources in her
rural California town.
After more than 30 years of a joyful marriage, "my mother was
traumatized by the last year of his life," said Anderson. The
psychological toll on Urbanski was never really addressed, nor its impact on
Anderson's mother, who was his primary caregiver and developed her own health problems,
Urbanski died in 2007 at the age of 87.
A Mother's Last Years
Anderson is reluctant to discuss details of her mother, who's still alive and
living alone. A religious woman, her mother struggles with diabetes and other
ailments but clings to her faith in her final years. Anderson visits, sometimes
bringing her adult children to see their grandmother, but she comes away frustrated she cannot do more to help personally and angry that there isn't a
sufficient safety net to help vulnerable elders in the US.
More than half the 41 states responding to a study by the US Centers for
Disease Control reported increased demands for referrals and help with
home-delivered meals, respite care, family caregiver support and transportation.
At the same time, 31 states cut non-Medicaid aging and disability services
programs in fiscal 2010, and further cuts are coming in many states,
As the gap grows, the pain on families grows with it. Says Anderson, "No
one really understands until they go through it."
3: A shortage of trained geriatric psychiatrists has
contributed to the abuse of antipsychotic drugs to restrain dementia and
PART 1 - New
PART 4 - New
SIDEBAR - Unique
- - - - - - - - - - -
Pamela A. MacLean wrote this article for RedwoodAge.com
as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship, a
project of New
America Media and the Gerontological
Society of America.