564,000 Canadians are living with dementia. By 2031, Canada’s Alzheimer’s Society expects the number to double. That is less than fifteen years away. Alzheimer’s disease destroys brain cells, causing thinking ability and memory to crumble over time. Statistics Canada says Alzheimer’s is one of the top ten leading causes of death. The care for those with dementia is estimated to be 10.4 billion dollars. This raises a huge public health concern.
Dr. Steven Fishman is a Geriatric Psychiatrist at Rouge Valley Centenary Hospital in Toronto. He is a psychiatric doctor for residents living with Alzheimer’s and dementia at Seven Oaks Long Term Care home. Thangammah is an 81 year old mother of nine children. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia in 2013. She currently resides at Seven Oaks.
“Alzheimer’s is a progressive and debilitating disease of the brain. It’s a type of dementia,” Dr. Fishman explains. It generally starts off with short term memory loss and then goes on to affect more and more parts of the memory and then the personality.
“They begin to lose the person that they know, they see this other shell. It’s almost like dealing with a death or a loss but the person isn’t dead.” Dr. Fishman adds, “in the end it’s actually a lethal disease, so people don’t have to have another disease, they can die from Alzheimer’s.”
Dr. Fishman says there is no set rate of decline. The diagnosis is still less than perfect because it can be a combination of various factors. He says they don’t have a good time course between diagnosis and death. “I’ve seen people have dementia diagnosed and it has been twenty years since the diagnosis.”
Dr. Fishman knew a man in his late 30’s who had another form of dementia at age 38, which tracks back as the earliest signs. Those signs went unrecognized and by 43 he died in a nursing home.
Thangammah’s first daughter, Jeyanthy Vairamuthu, began taking full-time care of her mother in 2015 for one and a half years. She says all of her siblings are very supportive and offer financial assistance to their mother. Thangammah was living with her son, Mahendren, in her early stages of Alzheimer’s.
“My mom was living with my brother in her early stages. It is really, really hard to care for her while taking care of your own family. My dad was with them too. They tried their best and I really appreciate that…I never forget it… I am so grateful.”
Vairamuthu says her mother’s Alzheimer’s declined rapidly after her father was hospitalized. She feels that the stress from her mother’s illness impacted her father to a great degree.
“We found out he had internal bleeding in his head. He had to have surgery and after that he was hospitalized for months. He wasn’t able to walk after and he has some confusion.” Thangammah’s husband, Vairamuthu, resides at a long term care home in Toronto. They live separately.
“She used to ask for him every second of every day. Since then, she declined quickly.”
Despite the challenges, Jeyanthy Vairamuthu says she is lucky she spent time with her mother before she was moved into a long term care home.
“I was aware that it is a very hard responsibility because leaving my mom alone for even 5 minutes is a very risky decision. Slowly, I noticed that I was losing myself. I couldn’t do the regular things I used to do like take a walk, shopping, spending time with my kids…but this is a very very special experience for me. Without taking this big responsibility I wouldn’t know what kind of sickness my mom is going through. I am very fortunate that I decided to take care of my mom.”
The Alzheimer Society London and Middlesex provides education and social support specifically for those either living with or affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. They offer programs and services such as social work support, support groups, memory screening, social recreation programs, public education and more.
The Alzheimer’s Society hopes to change the conversation about this silenced disease. Hashtag #InItForAlz for conversation on social media.
Visit www.alzheimerlondon.ca for more information and resources.
“It’s not just their disease. It’s ours too.” -The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada