As we near this fall’s election, we hear a lot of talk from people of both political parties about the danger of electing someone from one party or the other, but little about the issues. We also see and hear every day about COVID-19 because it affects our businesses, jobs, social lives, and our schools. But we hear very little about a growing problem I will call “The forgotten problem,” the rising prevalence of dementia in Wisconsin and all over the United States and the world.
Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of conditions, of which the most common is Alzheimer’s. It is a cruel condition, robbing people of their deepest joys and hopes. It may start as a mild cognitive impairment, forgetfulness, or “senior moments.” But as it progresses, attacking mental agility and eating away memory, it steals much of what counts as identity. When people become incapable of looking after themselves, they lose the ability to read, cook, and shop. They forget to drink and become dehydrated or incontinent. They suffer delusions, become frustrated or angry, or they sink into an apathetic slump. They require care for all waking hours and often supervision when asleep.
In Wisconsin, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, 110,000 Wisconsin residents 65 and older had Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia in 2018. That number is expected to be almost 240,000 Wisconsin elderly by 2040 as Baby Boomers age.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been an ordeal for everyone, including people with dementia. The loss of routine and social contacts under lockdown have hastened cognitive decline. Dementia patients are highly susceptible to the virus. Deaths where dementia has been identified as the cause have risen and in April, it came second only to COVID-19. Those with dementia often have difficulty understanding precautions like social distancing and frequent hand-washing.
Diseases on the dementia spectrum significantly affect the life of the person living with it, but for family and friends who serve as caregivers, it also has a major impact. It was estimated in 2017 in Wisconsin that 194,000 caregivers gave 220 million unpaid hours to take care of their loved ones. As family sizes shrink, children and grandchildren will struggle to take care of their parents and grandparents. This happened in my own family and is happening in far too many people that I know personally today.
This is why the state of Wisconsin and other governments should act now to lessen the social and economic harm from the growing prevalence of dementia. The first step is to recognize the urgency. Research for dementia has lagged far behind that for cancer and heart disease. As the pandemic hampers clinical research and takes resources away from other areas, funding for dementia research is left behind.
This is why I am backing the new state plan for Wisconsin. It is a strategy for all of Wisconsin that came out of the 2018 Dementia Summit. It represents a road map to help Wisconsin improve the quality of life for the thousands of families affected by Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias and to minimize the public and private costs of these devastating conditions.
We have many questions to solve. How do we provide long-term care for people with dementia? How do we pay for it? And an even more fundamental question is who will provide the care? Evidence suggests that as many as 40 percent of cases of dementia can be delayed or averted by changing behavior earlier in life.
I am looking forward to following the state plan as it tackles the challenges presented by dementia. It’s an issue that touches Democrats and Republicans and it’s much more important than the partisan politics we play today, and it can’t wait.
State Rep. Don Vruwink represents parts of Rock, Walworth, Jefferson, and Dane counties, which include the communities of Whitewater, Milton, Edgerton, Footville, part of the Village of Oregon, and 15 surrounding townships. He can be reached at 608-266-3790, Rep.Vruwink@legis.wisconsin.gov, and P.O. Box 8953, Madison WI 53708.