Alzheimer’s Awareness Month time for hard conversations

Imagine your loved ones unable to remember who you are or what you mean to them — years of memories suddenly lost. Perhaps you no longer recognize the person now living inside a familiar body, the result of major personality shifts that cause sudden and unpredictable mood changes.

That’s what my family and I experienced with my mother-in-law, Irene, before she passed away a year ago, ending her 10-year battle with dementia.

The heartbreaking reality of Alzheimer’s is that the insidious disease declares war on the mind, mounting an all-out assault on the intellectual capabilities of some 5 million Americans. About one in 10 of them live among us here in Florida. That’s why it’s especially important that we pay particular attention during Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, which runs throughout November.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, someone in the United States develops the disease every 67 seconds. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though, since the disease also afflicts countless family members and friends who are called upon to serve as caregivers.

My husband’s parents, Gene and Irene, were married for an awe-inspiring 66 years, and his mother was able to live that entire time in her home with the man she loved. Our whole family pitched in to support Gene, freeing him up so he could focus his attention and his energy on taking daily care of his beloved wife.

Before Gene accepted help from a professional caregiver, it fell to my sisters-in-law and I to take turns each evening putting Irene to bed. It was emotionally and physically draining at the end of a full workday, but we have no regrets.

Caring for patients with Alzheimer’s and other dementias can be all-consuming, unrelenting work, yet the Alzheimer’s Association tells us that more than 40 percent of caregivers must make due on household incomes of $50,000 or less. When the time and financial burden becomes too high to bear, many caregivers turn to long-term elder care for assistance when it’s no longer possible for the patient to continue living at home.

For families that don’t have individuals who are able to step in and help the way our family could, Florida’s long-term care centers aim to lighten the load by providing exceptional skilled nursing care and assisted living services to people living with Alzheimer’s. As an executive with the Florida Health Care Association, I have come to appreciate the proud history of long-term care centers providing professional and compassionate care to thousands of Floridians, including those with dementia.

To give your loved ones the best chance at slowing the inevitable decline, we should all be on the lookout for early warning signs — things like memory loss that disrupts daily life, challenges in planning or solving problems, difficulty completing familiar tasks or confusion. We should help our loved ones quickly seek a diagnosis, as early intervention can help combat some of the disease’s devastating effects.

Another thing that helps is develop a daily routine and identifying sources of strength, from family to friends to even a beloved pet.

Our family was fortunate to have a way to help my mother-in-law remain home throughout her Alzheimer’s ordeal. But for other volunteer caregivers, when the needs of the person suffering from Alzheimer’s are too great, it’s comforting to know that excellent professional long term care is available.

Our loved ones deserve nothing less.

Carol Berkowitz is the senior director of policy and program development for the Florida Health Care Association. She can be reached at