Alzheimer’s care facilities support residents as well as families
The story about Alzheimer’s disease, a powerful degenerative malady that shrinks brain cells, robbing its victims of their memories as well as their physical and mental abilities, isn’t about the cure—there isn’t one. It’s about the care.
Alzheimer’s shrivels brain cells, making its victims lose their short-term memory first, before their long-term memory goes. Alzheimer’s patients lose their cognition slowly, becoming unable to carry out simple tasks like dressing themselves and using the bathroom. As the disease progresses, affecting more parts of the brain, patients are often left unable to talk, recognize friends and family or recall how to feed themselves. They also might become violent because their requests or fears are misunderstood.
When families care for a loved one with Alzheimer’s in their own home, they may encounter many unforeseen struggles. That’s where memory care facilities step in.
“At home, you’re on 24/7,” says Karolee Vandrush, executive director of Northbrook Inn Memory Care Community, which will serve dementia residents when it opens this fall. “But we have a team of people who are trained to interact with residents and provide them the best care.”
I know all about the agony that comes with Alzheimer’s. I spent more than a decade managing my mother’s affairs after she was diagnosed with the disease at 60 years old. I witnessed the beginnings of her decline, when she couldn’t remember conversations she’d had three minutes earlier, to the later stages, when she didn’t recognize me, her eldest son, and was completely dependent on nurses and care providers at her care facility.
Choosing a Care Facility
Today, there are 220,000 Alzheimer’s patients in Illinois, most of them older than 65 and most of them women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. That number is projected to jump by more than 18 percent during the next nine years.
There are nearly 100 Alzheimer’s care facilities in the greater Chicago area, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. So how do you choose one?
Families should visit the facilities in person and consider a number of factors, says Natalie McFarland, executive director of Terra Vista in Oakbrook Terrace, which specializes in caring for Alzheimer’s residents.
In memory care facilities, staff members are specially trained to help people with dementia or Alzheimer’s. McFarland suggests that families ask about the facility’s approach to working with their loved one. “Does the facility embrace person-centered care and look at the resident as a whole person, taking into consideration his or her life history, and incorporate it daily?” she says.
Many facilities offer activities, such as art and music, which are critical to keeping residents’ bodies and minds active. The Northbrook Inn Memory Care Community, for example, plans to offer a modified stretching activity similar to tai chi, and residents will be given iPods with music they enjoyed in the past, because “music evokes memory,” Vandrush says.
Belmont Village senior executive director Jeanne Hansen recommends that families look at facilities sooner rather than later so they don’t have to make a hasty decision.
“No two residents are the same,” she says. “Dementia, including Alzheimer’s, doesn’t manifest itself in the same way or at the same speed for any two people. Families need to find the place that’s right for them and their loved one.”
Paying for It
Alzheimer’s care can alter retirement plans and the financing of those golden years. As a result, an Alzheimer’s patient will need many financial resources to cover the bills.
SeniorHomes.com, a website tracking those charges, says that the average bill in Illinois for someone in a memory care facility runs from $60,000 to nearly $90,000 annually. Yet some memory care facilities in the Chicago area bill more than $100,000 a year, depending on the care an Alzheimer’s resident requires. These facilities are usually private pay.
For my mother, the costs totaled about $700,000 during the more than 10 years she was at Belmont Village in Carol Stream. Much of it was paid for from her individual retirement account and the profit she made from selling her house. Belmont Village’s monthly fees—starting around $4,000 in 2004—covered all of her meals and her single, private room, which included a bathroom. There were additional charges from time to time including an onsite hair stylist and personal hygiene supplies.
Short of having the money set aside, how else can you pay these costs?
“Long-term care insurance can be expensive, but when you think about what it can provide an Alzheimer’s patient at a skilled nursing facility for a considerable amount of time, the benefit is vast,” says Lori Martin, who sells long-term–care insurance plans at Riverside-based Envision Benefit Specialists.
Some long-term–care plans have high annual premiums, but Martin says that someone in their mid-50s can purchase a policy with good benefits for a $2,500 annual premium. The American Association for Long-Term Care Insurance’s website, aaltci.org, lists agents specializing in selling long-term–care plans.
In addition to assisting residents, memory care facilities can also provide support for families.
“All forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, are very stigmatized, similar to depression,” says Mary Ann Anichini, a nurse practitioner and executive with Evanston-based Presbyterian Homes. “Families have a hard time accepting it.”
“It is sometimes a shocking diagnosis for families,” echoes neurologist Daniel Cacioppo, MD, of Northwest Community Healthcare. “We tell them they’re not alone and provide them with information about support groups.”
My experience with memory care facilities was very positive. I was grateful and relieved for the care mom received. The staff bathed and dressed her, kept her bedroom tidy and cleaned her bedding and clothes. They also made sure she ate, took her medicines and attended activities in the memory care unit. And they gave me tremendous insight into Alzheimer’s as it pertained to my mother.
“We provide comfort to the families by listening and talking,” Hansen says. “We can’t make the disease better, but we can absolutely let our family members and residents know that they’re not walking the journey alone.”
It is extremely challenging to watch your loved one suffer from such a devastating disease because it takes its toll slowly. There were times I wished it ended my mother’s life faster because it was so difficult to watch her go from being a vibrant woman to one who couldn’t handle an easy task, let alone recognize me. Despite that, the one thing my mother’s caregivers did so well was to keep my mother engaged, always seeing a human being who was very much loved.
How Doctors Test for Memory Loss
Everyone forgets things from time to time. But how do you know the difference between losing your keys and a greater medical problem?
Doctors use the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE) to determine whether people are suffering from memory issues or the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The MMSE can assess mental status by measuring cognitive function, orientation, registration, attention, calculation, recall and language, according to the Hartford Institute for Geriatric Nursing.
The MMSE involves asking a series of questions and completing a series of tasks including:
- What is today’s date?
- Are you able to recall and name three objects (that the doctor points out) after five minutes?
- What town, state and country are you in?
- Can you count backward from 100 by seven … 93 … 86 … 79?
- Can you follow a three-stage command, such as, “Take a piece of paper in your hand, fold it in half and put it on the floor?”
Originally published in the Fall 2016 print edition
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.