SEBRING - TaxWatch expects the number of Floridians afflicted with Alzheimer's to grow by nearly 50 percent in the next decade, straining the health care system and increasing costs for taxpayers. A TaxWatch report, "Florida's Looming Alzheimer's Crisis," calls for more research.
But in Highlands County, which has one of oldest populations in Florida and the nation, "We are already experiencing these symptoms," said Cathy Albritton, public information officer. Florida Hospital's 17-bed senior behavioral health unit in Lake Placid cared for more than 400 patients last year.
"I am very worried about this growing mismatch between health care needs and health care providers," said State Rep. Cary Pigman. He is also an emergency room physician. "The growing needs of those battling dementia will further stretch our system of limited delivery."
Cindy Canales, program specialist for the Florida Gulf Coast chapter of the National Alzheimer's Association, thinks the rate of increase will be closer to 20 percent.
The age of onset for Alzheimer's and other dementia-causing diseases usually starts around 60, said Canales, who works in Highlands, Hardee, Hendry and Glades counties. "Actually, we are starting to see it now as early as the 40s or 50s."
According to alz.org/facts, 12 percent of seniors have some form of dementia, Canales said. Alzheimer's is the most common form; others may include Lewy Body, Parkinson's, Huntington's and Creutzfeldt-Jakob diseases, Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome and normal pressure hydrocephalus.
"Alzheimer's is the insidious disease that touches nearly every family in Florida," said Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring. She is also a registered nurse.
"Florida has an estimated 480,000 residents with Alzheimer's in 2014," TaxWatch said.
Because the number of Floridians aged 65 years and older - currently 17 percent - will grow to more than 24 percent of the population by 2030, the number with dementia will also rise to more than 800,000, according to alz.org/facts.
Another reason for the increase, Canales said, is that more caregivers and doctors are starting to recognize the symptoms: memory loss, inability to do planning or solve problems, difficulty with familiar tasks, confusion about times or places, inability to understand visual images and spatial relationships, problems speaking or writing words, misplacing things, losing the ability to retrace steps, decreased judgment, withdrawal from work or social activities, and changes in mood and personality.
"We're just now recognizing it," Canales said, even though it was discovered in 1906 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer. "We have to raise awareness of it."
"More research is needed to find effective treatments," TaxWatch encouraged, "to determine preventive actions individuals can take on their own and, someday, to fully stop Alzheimer's in those who have it."
"We are working to leverage state dollars to help our research institutions draw down federal and private support," Grimsley said.
At the same time, Grimsley said, caregivers - husbands, wives and loved ones of the afflicted - must also be supported.
Behaviors change after dementia's onset, Canales said. "They can be mean and insulting. People ask, 'Why is he doing this? He never behaved like this before.' We have support groups available. We have caregiver training to help them manage better. Other people can tell them different techniques that they use. It's really about understanding their disease, the medication, the signs, what really happens to the brain, stress management, and how to cope with this job that's really 24/7. And it's all free. Anybody can come."
"There are spouses and family all across Highlands County and the state who are physically and emotionally exhausted," Grimsley said. "I have been working closely with Sen. Garrett Richter and Rep. Matt Hudson on House Bill 709 to give broader structure to competitive research grants, as well as guidelines for memory disorder clinics and special needs shelters. This effort follows recommendations from the Purple Ribbon Alzheimer's Commission."
More info on dementia services in Highlands County: 385-3444, or drop by the Alzheimer's office at 134 N. Ridgewood Drive, Suite 17, in Sebring.
The Change of Pace day care and activity center for adults with Alzheimer's and dementias is open at Sebring Christian Church, 4514 Hammock Road, Sebring. More information: 382-1188.
Bills in 2014 Florida Legislature
HB 709 - Alzheimer's Disease, by Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples. Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, is a one of nine co-sponsors.
Requires Florida Division of Emergency Management to develop and maintain a special needs shelter registration program; establishes Ed and Ethel Moore Alzheimer's Disease Research Program within Department of Health to provide grants and fellowships for research relating to Alzheimer's disease; creates Alzheimer's Disease Research Grant Advisory Board; requires Department of Elder Affairs to provide incentive funding, subject to appropriation, for certain memory disorder clinics.
SB 872 - Alzheimer's Disease, by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Lehigh Acres.
Requires the Division of Emergency Management, in coordination with local emergency management agencies, to maintain a registry of persons with special needs; providing additional staffing requirements for special needs shelters; authorizing the Department of Health, in coordination with the division, to adopt rules relating to standards for the special needs registration program; establishing the Ed and Ethel Moore Alzheimer's Disease Research Program within the department.