Putting minds at ease: Alzheimer’s agency is critical resource for caregivers

Approximately 50,000 people in San Diego have Alzheimer’s disease, the fourth-leading cause of death in the county, according to the Alzheimer’s Association/San Diego Imperial Chapter. Calculate the number of family members, friends, neighbors, employers and acquaintances of each of those individuals, and the number of lives impacted by the disease skyrockets.

“By 2030, there will be over 90,000 people in San Diego with the disease,” said Beth Davidson, director of resource development for the organization. “In that time, the number of Hispanics and Asian/Pacific Islanders with the disease is expected to triple.”

Most individuals with Alzheimer’s receive care at home from at least two caregivers, 75 percent of whom are women. Because many of these caregivers miss work, leave a job or go part time, California employers lose about $1.4 billion annually in productivity.

The devastation of Alzheimer’s disease is not limited to economics. Both those with the disease and caregivers are at increased risk for health complications, the latter being vulnerable to depression and stress-related illnesses.

These are the many reasons why the local Alzheimer’s Association dedicates much of its resources toward the education and support of caregivers, both family members and professionals.

“They’re not in it alone,” Davidson said.

Lending support

“All of our programs are provided to families at no cost,” Davidson said. “Last year, we served more than 34,000 people.”

Since its founding in 1981 by Luna Odland and Anna Tucker, the Alzheimer’s Association/San Diego Imperial Chapter has continued to develop and broaden its services to meet the varied needs of the community.

It offers more than 40 support groups targeted for special demographics, such as Spanish speakers, early stage dementia and younger onset families; a 24-hour help line, (800) 272-3900; care consultations; community and professional education; brain health workshops; a speakers bureau; MedicAlert+SafeReturn; and Memories in the Making, an art program for people with Alzheimer’s disease at more than 20 locations throughout the county.

The bulk of services are targeted toward family members in an effort to help them cope with the extraordinary burden of care giving.

“The nature of the disease means that, in many cases, those caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease will spend many years providing increasing levels of supervision and personal care,” Davidson said.

“The quality of knowledge and care giving certainly has improved over the years as we learn more about the disease, but the cuts to state programs, such as adult day care centers and in-home respite services, are devastating to families, especially low-income families, who rely on these services.”

Making it all possible

Funding to support the Alzheimer’s Association San Diego/Imperial Chapter’s programs and services is received from multiple sources — 60 percent from private donors, corporate grants, gifts and foundations; and 40 percent from fundraisers, such as Our Bright Future Ungala. Unplugged, set for 6 p.m. May 14 at the home of the Black family in Rancho Santa Fe.

“There’s not much about Alzheimer’s that’s bright, but we want to look to the future,” Davidson said.

The event, designed to be the opposite of a traditional gala in that it will be held at a private home and feature a casual atmosphere, will include a private acoustical concert by three-time Grammy winner Shawn Colvin; food and wine donated by merchants such as Pacifica Del Mar, Blue Point, The Prado and Ruth’s Chris; and luxurious auction items.

“We spend very little money putting on the party ... so that all the money raised goes directly to the Alzheimer’s Association,” said NBC 7/39 news anchor Susan Taylor, who co-chairs the event with her husband, Ed Campbell.

Appearing alongside Taylor will be NBC teammates Jim Laslavic and Marty Levin, who is retiring.

“It’s a wonderful cause we’re supporting,” Taylor said of the trio’s involvement with the Alzheimer’s Association. “It’s going to be a bittersweet night because it’s the last night Marty and Jim and I will officially be appearing together as the NBC team. I suspect it will be emotional on many levels. It’s important to us because we have seen or known people affected by this hideous disease. We’ve all been personally touched by it.”

Alzheimer’s research: Are we closer to a cure?

Each year, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on Alzheimer’s research. With the number of people ages 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease expected to reach 7.7 million by 2030, the need for effective treatment and prevention of the disease is critical.

“There have been more disappointments than breakthroughs at this point,” said Dr. John Daly, a board member and chair of the medical and scientific advisory board of the Alzheimer’s Association San Diego Imperial Chapter.

Still, progress is being made.

Research has found amyloid, an abnormal protein, to be one of the key mechanisms in Alzheimer’s disease. These molecules accumulate as plaque, which impair brain function.

“A lot of our clinical trials are now targeted at eliminating amyloids,” Daly said. “This is our best hypothesis of what’s going on. It may turn out that amyloid isn’t the answer.”

Another significant issue being studied is early diagnosis.

“We know that by the time we diagnose someone, the disease process has been going on for one or two decades,” Daly said. “What we’re trying to do now is find ways to demonstrate the disease process before people have any symptoms at all.”

Trials utilizing various scanning modalities and different markers are under way, but the results are still inconclusive.

“I think a potential breakthrough we have on the horizon is a way to identify the disease,” Daly said. “I think it will be here soon.”

Researchers have been frustrated by several factors, including the fact that the disease has rendered extensive damage before even being diagnosed.

“It’s less likely that we’re going to come up with something to reverse the process,” Daly said. “The hope is to find something that slows or halts the disease. The only way we have a hope of changing this trend is through more research and more participation in research.”

— Maria Connor

Our Bright Future Ungala. Unplugged

  • What: Benefit to support goal of a world without Alzheimer’s disease
  • When: 6 p.m. May 14
  • Where: The Black family residence in Rancho Santa Fe
  • Tickets: $250-$500; (858) 492-4400,