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Alzheimer’s Disease “Robs You of Everything”

April 24, 2013
George Hendrick and his wife, Mary Lee, experienced the typical highs and lows of parenthood as they raised nine children in New Lenox, a south suburb of Chicago. After the couple’s nest was nearly empty, in what was supposed to be their golden years, George was told he had memory and thinking problems, and later, Alzheimer’s disease.

George’s long tenure as a Will County police officer was cut short. He could no longer carry a gun, and he went on disability. Before Alzheimer’s, the Air Force veteran was a “happy guy,” says Mary Lee, and an avid collector of Chicago sports memorabilia, beer cans and Pepsi products. He used to conduct in the air when he heard classical music on the radio. And he loved to play with his children and grandchildren.

George lived with Alzheimer’s for over a decade, before passing away last year at 74 years of age, with his family at his side. Early on in those years, he knew that his ability to think and remember was slipping away, and it made him sad. Eventually, he forgot about his diagnosis altogether. He would watch television or the grandkids playing but grew quiet and increasingly withdrawn.

The last two years of his life were the most difficult, emotionally and physically, for the whole family. When George asked for his parents, who had passed away nearly 50 years ago, he cried again and again each time he learned they were gone. He got angry, though never physically violent, and yelled at Mary Lee and the kids. Mary Lee, who was also watching her grandchildren, was responsible for George’s daily care-bathing, toileting, and feeding as the disease took over his ability to walk, or to get into a wheelchair. He was a tall and large man, and she couldn't pick him up when he fell out of bed. Although he always seemed to know who she was, he was almost a shell of his former self, she says.

“For people to say it’s a memory thing-it’s not. It robs you of everything,” Mary Lee says. “My kids couldn't talk to their dad about things that were going on in their lives or what they looked forward to.” “The hard part for me is that we just never had our time,” Mary Lee adds. “The kids are gone, and we were supposed to go and travel.”

Eventually it was too difficult for George to leave home at all. His condition worsened further as he struggled to swallow his food and medications. Those days, he rarely said much, but he would smile. When his daughter came over one day, she told him that he’s been married to Mary Lee for 48 years, and he said “Wow.” Mary Lee said, “I love you George,” and he said, “I love you too,” she recalls. That was the last time he said anything-he died two days later.

Alzheimer’s: the present and future

This year, approximately 5.2 million in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease.

As the population ages, by 2025, the number of people age 65 and older with the disease is estimated to reach 7.1 million-a 40 percent increase from the 5 million age 65 and older who have the disease today.

Experts are estimating that by 2050, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease may nearly triple, from 5 million to a projected 13.8 million. That’s unless there’s a medical breakthrough to prevent, slow or stop the disease.

Government spending and out-of-pocket costs for health care, long-term care, and hospice for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias totaled $203 billion in 2013, and in 2050, this number (in 2013 dollars) is expected to grow to $1.2 trillion.

In 2012, family members and other unpaid caregivers provided an estimated 17.5 billion hours of care to people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Their contribution was valued at more than $216 billion.

Researchers project that in the U.S., 450,000 older people with Alzheimer’s will die this year alone and, although the cause of death is often unclear, that many will die from complications of the disease.

Source: 2013 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association 9(2): 208-245, 2013.