How do you feel about living until 100?
Most people would answer, “That’d be great!” However, there is an unspoken part and an assumption in that response. “I’d like to live to be 100, as long as I also get to keep good quality of life.” With the Boomer population aging, and with genetic testing becoming more accessible, many are facing the tough reality about what their eldering might look like. For some, that includes dementia.
According to Alzheimer’s Association, a nation-wide health organization that champions care and research for those affected by the disease, estimates that 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. As many as 5.7 million individuals live and die with the disease, making Alzheimer’s the 6th leading cause of death in the US.
With those discouraging statistics, it’s no wonder that people are terrified of the possibility of dementia. As with other topics that aren’t easy to discuss, myths abound. In the spirit of the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who famously said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, here are 5 common myths about Alzheimer’s disease.
Myth # 1: Memory loss is a normal part of aging
Some memory slips may well be a normal part of eldering. Perhaps you occasionally lose track of your glasses or forget about a friend’s invitation to a party. These forgetful moments may cause us some light-grade frustration and embarrassment. They don’t affect our ability to live an independent life. However, if you or someone in your family can’t remember common-use words or lose the ability to communicate, it’s important to recognize that as a potential symptom – not a natural side-effect of celebrating a few extra birthdays.
Myth # 2: If diagnosed early, Alzheimer’s can be reversed
Unfortunately, at this time there is no treatment that can reverse the progress of Alzheimer’s disease. There are therapies and drugs that can slow the neurodegeneration associated with Alzheimer’s, but once the disease sets in, there is no known cure. However, that isn’t a good reason to procrastinate on doctor visits. Early diagnosis has many benefits, including better symptom management, a safer environment for the patient, and ability to plan for the future.
Myth # 3: Alzheimer’s disease only affects older people
We often think of Alzheimer’s as an “old person disease”, but some patients can get diagnosed in their 40’s or 50’s. While this early onset Alzheimer’s is uncommon (only 5 percent of patients are diagnosed before age 65), an accurate diagnosis is critical for helping the family cope with the realities of the disease.
Myth # 4: Alzheimer’s diagnosis means your life is over
While the progress of the disease depends on the unique circumstances of each patient, it’s important to know that many people live years or even decades before the disease claims their lives. Alzheimer’s disease is commonly divided into three stages. The first or “mild” stage is where the patient is able to live a mostly normal life. The middle or “moderate” stage requires more extensive care. During the late or “severe” stage, the patient needs around-the-clock supervision and medical help. Life many never be the same after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, but it’s far from over.
Myth # 5: There is nothing you can do to protect yourself financially in the event of a diagnosis
A serious diagnosis of any kind can wreak havoc on a family. However, it’s important to understand that there are things you can and should do to help your loved ones manage what comes next, emotionally as well as financially. Here are a few steps to consider.
- Make a comprehensive list of all financial accounts, including checking and savings accounts, brokerage accounts, 401(k) or pension plans, Health Savings Accounts, etc.
- Double-check the titles and names on each account.
- Understand your options for paying for medical care. This may include checking existing insurance policies, reviewing your Medicare coverage, or looking at other sources of funding.
- Consider appointing a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare so that a trusted individual can make decisions for the patient in the event of an accident or incapacitation. The choice of this person, as well as communicating preferences surrounding living arrangements, medical assistance, or end-of-life care, can take some time – so start the process early.
- Ensure that your Will is up to date. While it may feel morbid and unnecessary, this critical step can help you maintain control of what happens to your assets after you pass (as opposed to handing this power over to the courts).
Finally, don’t feel that you must manage the diagnosis alone. There is a lot of stigma and fear around discussing Alzheimer’s, but Elder Law attorneys and CPAs who specialize in elder care financial planning can become a tremendous resource on your journey.