It's lunchtime at the Brookside Nursing Home in White River Junction, but some of the patients here are unable to feed themselves. About one-third of the residents suffer from dementia, a disease that attacks the brain. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer's disease.
"We try to keep it as close to how their normal routine was at home," said Chris Malone, the director of nursing at Brookside.
The classic symptom of early stage Alzheimer's is short-term memory loss. But the neurodegenerative disease-- for which there is no cure-- progressively affects all brain function.
"They lose track of day and night sometimes. Sometimes they sleep just fine. But it is a 24-hour job," Malone said.
"I consider it one of the public health concerns of our time," said Kesstan Blandin, a program coordinator for the Alzheimer's Association at Dartmouth Hitchcock's Aging Resource Center. "The way I explain it to families is the person with Alzheimer's disease progressively loses their ability to make sense of the world."
And millions are affected. About 13 percent of seniors in the United States over the age of 65 have been diagnosed. That's about one in eight people. There are currently about 11,600 Vermonters suffering from Alzheimer's. That number is expected to rise to about 17,000 as more and more baby boomers enter the age group.
"So if you have a generation of 78 million people moving into the population that is 65 and older, that is a huge number of people," Blandin said.
Blandin offers counseling and education programs to individuals and families. She says there are tools people can use to help cope. And Blandin says a cure could be on the horizon.
"The big push in research right now is to find what's called this pre-clinical population that has some of the pathology starting but none of the symptoms and to figure out how to stop it at that stage," Blandin said.
Blandin predicts that will happen in the next decade or two. But in the meantime, patients who are diagnosed will continue to need 24-hour care as the disease progresses.
"We do find reward in caring for these folks because by minimizing the effects of the disease, although they may have had their golden years taken away, we can at least make their quality of life tolerable," Malone said.
Lending a hand while researchers move forward on finding a cure.
PO Box 4508