Alzheimer's disease is a costly illness. Experts estimate the disease costs its 4 million American victims their memories, independence and eventually their lives; causes 2.7 million caregivers frustration, stress and worry; and costs the United States $95 billion a year in lost productivity, medical care and personal caretaking.
While the illness is frustrating and devastating for its victims, it also takes its toll on caregivers.
"People who take care of Alzheimer's patients feel really guilty about not being able to do enough," Terri Jourgensen, a registered nurse with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, said during an Alzheimer's support group meeting at the Mountain Medical Specialists office. "Taking care of someone with Alzheimer's is probably the most difficult job, even for doctors and nurses, because every day is a new day and they don't remember it from yesterday."
Alzheimer's patients in Craig and their caregivers have several resources to turn to for help. The Visiting Nurse Association can provide home health care for patients, Hospice Services of Northwest Colorado provides around-the-clock care for end-stage patients, Valley View Manor has an Alzheimer's wing, Rainbow Living Center offers adult day care and Meals on Wheels delivers meals for patients who are no longer able to cook for themselves.
"We get referrals relatively early from doctors here, so we can spend more time with the patients," Jourgensen said. "We're lucky in Craig ... We're lucky that we have the resources we do and as many people who are willing to go the extra mile."
Jourgensen said the stigma surrounding nursing homes is changing. Instead of Alzheimer's patients moving into nursing homes permanently, many patients are able to regain enough strength at nursing homes to move back home.
According to the American Health Assistance Foundation, one of the biggest problems can be patients becoming disoriented and wandering away from familiar surroundings. The foundation estimates about 32,000 Alzheimer's patients are reported missing from their homes or nursing homes each year.
Some caregivers have come up with creative ways to keep patients from becoming lost or hurt. During a support group meeting, caregivers exchanged ideas, such as using baby monitors, bells and intercom systems to hear patients in other rooms and given patients identification bracelets to wear in case they get lost.
Dr. Pamela Kinder runs the support group in Craig. She said the group helps caregivers and patients realize what they are experiencing is very common to the disease.
"A lot of times they think because it's news to them that they are the only ones experiencing that," Kinder said.
Helen Loyd recently started going to the support group meetings. Her husband, Gene, 77, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's three years ago. While she says she doesn't feel guilty or angry about her husband's illness, watching him deteriorate is difficult.
"The hardest part for me is our shared memories our trips and life we've had, and our friends to have that taken away ... When we refer back to Hawaii, he doesn't remember any of it," Helen said.
Helen said Gene's first Alzheimer's symptom was confusion with familiar business tasks.
"He was making mistakes in math that he had been doing all his life," she said.
Helen isn't sure how much her husband understands about his disease.
"There's a detachment that I can't put my finger on," she said. "I don't really know how much he knows is going on. He knows something is wrong. He knows he can't remember. He understands that he should, but he can't. But we just go on watching the birds and don't think about that."