While celebrities such as Bruce Willis have brought on a renewed awareness about Alzheimer’s and Related Dementia (ADRD) more work is needed to humanize the issue and make it more understandable to the public, including resources for assistance and new advances in care and treatment.

Why? Because a surge is on the horizon: According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the projected number of people in Virginia aged 65 and older with Alzheimer’s Dementia is expected to increase 26.7% from 2020 to 2025. That’s the fifth-highest increase in the country (tied with Georgia).

Overall, the number of U.S. residents afflicted with Alzheimer’s (6.1 million as of 2020) will almost double over the next 20 years to 11.2 million, according to the association.

Willis’ recent diagnosis of Frontotemporal Dementia, a rarely discussed category of ADRD, highlights just one of several additional causes of dementia, and while figures for ADRD and the lack of a current cure for any of the above can be intimidating, they cannot be ignored.

According to the most recent nationwide study, completed by Columbia University last fall, the incidence rate of ADRD is rising to more than one-third (35%) of those age 90 and over, even as people are living longer today than ever before.

With approximately 80% of dementia care being provided by a CDC-estimated 16 million unpaid family caregivers, totaling 18.5 billion hours of care in 2019, America is only at the front edge of what may represent the most significant and lasting image of the “Global Aging” generation.

That said, the good news is that memory care in the United States has made significant advances in recent years, driven by a growing understanding of memory-related conditions and the work of thousands of professionals with a desire to help those afflicted maximize both their independence and quality of life.

Some of the key advances we are seeing today include:

Improved diagnostic tools, such as medical imaging and biomarker research

Medications that can slow the progression of the disease

Non-pharmacological interventions such as cognitive stimulation and reminiscence therapy, improved nutrition, and mental and physical exercise that can help improve memory and cognitive function

Technology-based tools and interventions that can assist in care, including virtual reality programs, computerized cognitive training, and mobile apps designed to aid memory and cognitive function.

Perhaps most significant has been the evolution of specially designed memory care environments for those with ADRD, along with evidence-based, “Person-Centered” training of staff that emphasizes the needs and preferences of each individual.

While innovative memory care housing models are being established around the world, many don’t realize that the United States has become the worldwide leader, with more than 55,000 memory care assisted living units of housing among the senior living industry’s largest providers, a number estimated to more than double in the next decade.

In Fairfax, Shenandoah Memory Care at The Virginian was completed last year and is an example of a state-of-the-art environment shown to help maximize quality of life, enhance socialization and provide a safe therapeutic living experience for people with ADRD.

As with each stage of evolution of this model, Shenandoah took existing design practices and elevated them, including unique applications of sensory and reminiscence stimulation, wayfinding design and new technologies – each maximizing the ability of memory care residents to access their retained skills, memories and ability to self-direct and engage with others.

Unfortunately, the same family caregivers who would never consider trying to provide skilled nursing facility care at home often believe they can meet the needs of individuals requiring care.

Data from the Population Reference Bureau reports that individuals afflicted with dementia living at home require an average of 171 hours per month of family caregiver assistance, the equivalent of a full-time job. Additional studies have found increased rates of depression, medical risks and even higher rates of death among family caregivers of those with ADRD versus those caring for individuals without dementia.

Until there are cures, we need to see more awareness of senior living communities that specialize in memory care and the resources they provide.

Even for those with means such as Willis, there often comes a time, as with musician Glen Campbell, when a professionally designed and staffed memory care environment may offer the best opportunity for meeting the needs of both those afflicted and those who love them.

Andrew Carle is an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University’s Aging & Health Program and the lead designer of Shenandoah Memory Care at The Virginian in Fairfax.

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