Alzheimer’s deserves to be a priority in every campaign

As our state again takes the lead in the presidential campaign process, it is often said that Iowa’s population is reflective of the nation as a whole. So what should presidential candidates know about us? In our state, about 1 in 2 of us are married, 1 in 7 have reached retirement age, and of those older than 65, 1 in 8 have Alzheimer’s.

That ratio is one that candidates must not overlook as they appeal for our support in the lead-up to our state’s caucus in February.

As a geriatric mental health nurse and researcher, I have studied Alzheimer’s disease, and met and cared for many of our state’s 70,000 people with Alzheimer’s and their families. I have also seen first hand how the disease is reaching epidemic proportions as our state’s population rapidly ages.

My father died after suffering for more than 11 years with Lewy Body Dementia. My family was fortunate to live in a resource-rich area of Iowa with access to diagnostic and health care services and a continuum of dementia-capable social and support services and care facilities. I was available to help my elderly mother negotiate the maze of care options and reimbursement and eligibility requirements.

Nonetheless, caring for my father was a challenging, complex, costly, exhausting and sorrowful experience. I couldn’t help but wonder how someone residing in a remote area of Iowa, with limited knowledge about dementia, constrained resources, and few supportive services, could possibly provide quality care over time. It’s no wonder that many Iowans, especially in rural areas, are prematurely admitted to nursing facilities, often because of the lack of community-based dementia services and the complexities of the fragmented system.

There are nearly 132,000 Iowans caring for someone with Alzheimer’s — a disease that steals memories and bodily functions. Nationwide, nearly 15 million unpaid family caregivers provide 12.5 billion hours of care each year. Yet the Alzheimer’s crisis is rarely on the radar of presidential candidates.

This attitude has led to complacency in funding research toward care and cure. The voices of Iowans who care about this issue and movements such as IowaAgainstAlzheimer’s (www.usagainstalzheimers.org/iowa/) are needed to advance the issue.

Despite scientific advancements, a cure is still elusive. The federal government allocates relatively little to Alzheimer’s research. Consequently, of the 10 deadliest diseases in America, Alzheimer’s is the only one with no prevention or cure.

Our nation’s leaders must invest more in research to delay onset and progression of this disease and care for those already affected. If we do not, Alzheimer’s will continue to devastate our families and our economy.

I am concerned that there will come a day when providing quality, evidence-based care for millions will no longer be an option because of the constant rise in demand and costs. Before we can’t afford quality care, we must find a cure.

I want to hear every presidential candidate make — and follow through on — a commitment to a cure and care. The personal and economic toll of this disease is so great that Alzheimer’s deserves to be at the forefront of each campaign.

Kathleen Buckwalter, Professor Emerita, University of Iowa College of Nursing, former director of the UNI Hartford Center of Geriatric Nursing Excellence and former deputy director of UI Center on Aging, is recognized internationally for her research in psychiatric nursing, aging and long-term care. Comments: kathleen-buckwalter@uiowa.ed

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