July | August 2017

A Women's Crusade Against Alzheimer’s

California First Lady Maria Shriver: Alzheimer’s Hits Women Harder

by Jo Brosius
In the time it takes to read this paragraph, someone in America will develop Alzheimer’s disease. And there is very good chance you know them. More than 5 million people in the U.S. suffer from Alzheimer’s, and the economic impact of the disease is a staggering $300 billion per year, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It predicts by mid-century, the number of people with the disease will triple.
These numbers are known all too well by California’s first lady, Maria Shriver. Shriver’s father, Sargent, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2003. She has since been an advocate for families like hers who have been affected by the disease.
Shriver has joined forces with the Alzheimer’s Association to shine a spotlight on the disease that has been in the shadows for far too long. In October, she released “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s,” a comprehensive study of how Alzheimer’s affects women in particular—more than 10 million American women—as caregivers, advocates and patients.
“Alzheimer’s is a tsunami and women are at the epicenter, and every institution and family in America needs to start talking about long-term care options,” said Shriver.
Women are the focus of Shriver’s report because they are disproportionately affected. Not only are they the primary caregivers, but they also make up two-thirds of the patients who have Alzheimer’s. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the lifetime risk is one in five for women, compared to one in 10 for men. This is because women generally live longer than men, and the risk of developing the disease increases with age.
Alzheimer’s generally begins with increasing difficulty remembering things. That memory loss eventually begins to disrupt daily life. Patients with the disease may no longer be able to complete familiar tasks and have difficulty solving problems. They may become confused about time and place and have decreased or poor judgment. In the advanced stages, the person may no longer be able to recognize loved ones or communicate, and may have difficulty eating or dressing themselves.
Ultimately the disease is fatal.
Angela Geiger, chief strategy officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, says to know Alzheimer’s is to fear it. “Nine out of 10 Americans who know someone with this disease are concerned that they or someone close to them will get it,” said Geiger.
She added the disease has reached epidemic proportions, and the numbers will continue to rise exponentially in the years to come unless we find a way to change the trajectory. Geiger said 78 percent of people polled in the report believe it is the responsibility of the government to find a cure.
Until that day comes, Shriver said she hopes the information in the report will put the focus on what we can do instead of what we can’t.
“I think much of the discussion about Alzheimer’s in the last year or two has been about the hopelessness, and I hope that this report takes away the ‘lessness’ and talks about the hope there is for people who get that diagnosis, for families who get that diagnosis, and for women who find themselves in the caretaking role with that diagnosis,” she said.
In fact, Shriver said government can do a lot of things, including instituting flexible work options, amending Social Security and amending the child care tax credit to include elder care at the federal level.
“There are a lot of things that are bipartisan in approach, that are scientifically based and (there are) things that can be done starting right now in terms of businesses, individual families and government,” Shriver said.
State legislators can look at paid family leave, supporting Alzheimer’s centers, developing such centers and funding research into the disease, she said.
In California, where she has been first lady for eight years, the stem cell proposition of 2004 funds Alzheimer’s research.
“We put a collaboration together of different centers to share their work, and I attended a big statewide task force where they have people from the government, people who have Alzheimer’s, and people who work in centers around the state together to try to put forth a plan,” said Shriver.
She is mindful of budget challenges, not only in her state, but also around the nation, so she is adamant that the burden not be placed at any one institution’s feet. She does, however, think governors and state legislators can “step up” and make science and research a priority. And, she said, they can listen to people who have the disease.
“People with the diagnosis can very accurately tell you what they need, what would be helpful to them,” said Shriver.
She believes states can develop guidelines for training caregivers and work with business leaders and chambers of commerce to educate about smart work policies such as providing flexible work options, telecommuting and using technology to allow people to amend their work day. She also believes options for women who are not only caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, but also still raising children should be provided. Geiger calls them, “the sandwich generation.”
“They can build playgrounds like we have here in California that are intergenerational where women can bring their children and their parents to the same place,” said Shriver.
Shriver and the Alzheimer’s Association hope “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s” will start a national conversation on the impact of Alzheimer’s disease. For a copy of the report, or for more information on Alzheimer’s disease, visit www.alz.org and www.shriverreport.com.