Dealing With Dementia

By Carrie Moffatt

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Memory loss is generally accepted as a fact of aging but for some, it can be a symptom of a more serious problem, like dementia.

Dementia is an umbrella term for a set of symptoms related to a decline in cognitive abilities, such as loss of memory, judgment and changes in mood, says Jani Cardinal, Support and Education Co-ordinator of the Alzheimer Society of B.C. There are many causes of dementia, but Alzheimer's disease accounts for two-thirds.

Orvall Roer was one of thousands of seniors in B.C. who could no longer ignore his symptoms, and decided to seek a diagnosis.

"I was really diagnosed with vascular dementia, which is not quite the same as Alzheimer's," says Orvall. "I was a pharmacist, so I'm familiar with diagnoses and treatment and that sort of thing, and if that's the way it is, so be it. But I'm just trying to make the best of it."

Orvall's wife, Freda, a former psychiatric nurse, noticed Orvall was having trouble with his short-term memory and had changes in his personality. In 2002, Orvall was diagnosed with Alzheimer's but, after suffering a stroke in 2003, he was re-diagnosed with vascular dementia.

Diagnosis can be diffi cult because there is no single test for doctors to tell if it is Alzheimer's. Expert clinicians who specialize in memory disorders can now diagnose Alzheimer's with 80-90 per cent accuracy, but a defi nitive diagnosis must await microscopic examination of brain tissue, generally during an autopsy.

"Dementia is a very complex condition with sometimes multiple causes and unique presentations in each individual," says Cardinal.

Orvall's family was relieved to fi nd out what the problem was because now they can deal with it head on. However, it hasn't always been smooth sailing. While there is currently no cure for dementia, some medications can help slow the progression. These medications are expensive, however, and B.C. is the only province that does not fund them through health care.

"[The government] won't fund the Aricept, the medication we think they should. It's $5 a day for Orvall's medication," says Freda. "I'm sure a lot of people can't afford it and don't take it, therefore their condition deteriorates and then they have to be hospitalized sooner."

The Roers, along with the Alzheimer Society of B.C., are currently lobbying the government in an effort to get these medications covered.

"There are so many dementias that I think the government feels if they open the box to treat one condition, then everyone else will be screaming for help in treating their condition, and I can understand that," says Orvall.

However, the Roers point out that covering the cost of these medications is far less than the cost of hospitalizing patients with Alzheimer's.

"They have to be ready to have many more beds available for care because there just aren't enough," says Freda. "There are so many caregivers at home who are worn right out and they need support."

The Alzheimer Society offers support groups for caregivers, family members and those who have all types of dementia. Freda and Orvall both attend a support group, where they share information, advice and get emotional support.

Orvall and his family are this year's Walk for Memories honourees, an event put on by the Alzheimer Society to raise awareness about the disease. January is also Alzheimer Awareness Month, and the Society is launching a nationwide campaign, "Heads Up for Healthier Brains!" (see sidebar, page 31).

For those who may be experiencing symptoms, or are worried about a partner, the Roers recommend an up front approach.

"If you're exhibiting symptoms, you should seek help from the proper sources. Gerontologists are an excellent source for this," says Orvall. "The sooner you get treatment, generally speaking, the less severe the symptoms are going to be."

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