S.D. Public Television offers Alzheimer's feature on January 21 Julie Lawson's sister Fran Noonan Powers has Alzheimer's disease. And like tens of millions of Americans who have a loved one with this ruthless illness, Lawson is scared, frustrated and searching for answers.
Today, approximately 5 million Americans have this devastating disease. But the baby boomer generation may be a ticking time bomb. With each passing year, as the first boomers approach 65, America moves closer to the brink of an epidemic.
While recent advances in medical research show exciting progress, effective therapies to combat the disease are still out of reach.
On Wednesday, Jan. 21, at 8 p.m., SDPB Television will present the groundbreaking PBS program that brings this looming health crisis to national attention � offering insight, context, help and hope. The evening begins with The Forgetting: A Portrait of Alzheimer's, a 90-minute documentary that explores this frightening disease, the human toll it takes on patients and caregivers, and the latest research in the race to find a cure.
The landmark program is based on the best-selling book The Forgetting: Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic by David Shenk, who appears in the documentary.
Three local programs will be offered, as well.
A 30-minute television follow-up, On Call: Alzheimer's Disease, will present the South Dakota perspective on the disease with area experts and a chance for viewers to call in with questions and comments. On Call airs right after The Forgetting on Wednesday, Jan. 21, at 9:30 p.m., with a taped encore on Sunday, Jan. 25, at 4:30 p.m..
SDPB Radio's public affairs Forum will look at Alzheimer's disease earlier that day with a special program at noon on Wednesday, Jan. 21. The program will present experts on the issue and give listeners a chance to call in with questions or comments.
SDPB Radio's House Calls program will look at Alzheimer's at noon on Saturday, Jan. 17; with an encore Sunday, Jan. 18, at 6 a.m.
The incidence of Alzheimer's disease in South Dakota is similar to the rest of the country. But, in many cases, the problem is compounded by the extremely rural nature of the state. More than half of the counties (34 out of 65) have no adult daycare, according to Area Agency on Aging resources. Many areas don't even have a nearby nursing home.
In some counties, the largest town has fewer than 500 people. Not all of the state's nursing homes are equipped for the extra care that advanced Alzheimer's patients require. Patients may end up in nursing homes many miles from home. This makes it doubly hard on spouses or relatives, many of whom are elderly or poor or both, since a trip of 20, 50 or more miles might be required to visit.
In examining this looming social and economic crisis, The Forgetting focuses on stories of families whose lives have been steadily ravaged by Alzheimer's.
"Like so many coping with this tragedy, the families who share their stories in The Forgetting all have one major motivation in common � they want to let other people facing similar situations know that they are not alone, that there is help and that they, too, can find the strength to face a tragedy like Alzheimer's with dignity and grace," says award-winning producer and director Elizabeth Arledge. "These families are drawing on reservoirs of strength and compassion to stay focused on seeing the person they love instead of the symptoms of the disease."
The first signs of Alzheimer's can be subtle and disconcerting. Isabelle McKenna had always been a strong and vital woman, full of life and fun. And then her family started to notice a change. She lost weight and looked tired all the time. She started getting up in the middle of night and dressing for work as if it were morning. She'd lose track of simple things she was doing. She'd put bread in the toaster and when it popped up, she'd put it right back in.
In 1990, Isabelle was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. For the past 13 years, her husband, Thomas, and their four daughters have been ground down by Isabelle's illness.
The McKennas' story is all too common. Isabelle is one of the nearly 5 million Americans with Alzheimer's � 10 times as many as there were only 15 years ago. The disease, which today is the leading cause of dementia and memory loss in older people, already costs the United States more than $100 billion annually.
"But," says Shenk, "that is going to be dwarfed when the baby boomers start to turn 65."
Gladys and Harry Fuget have been married for 45 years. At the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Steven DeKosky conducts diagnostic tests that reveal that Gladys' disease is still moderate, but each day, her memory weakens.
In another case, Reda Scully goes to DeKosky's clinic to determine whether her memory lapses are normal aging or Alzheimer's. The bad news is that she probably has early, mild Alzheimer's. There is no cure and no way to predict how the disease will progress. She's thankful she has her son to care for her.
And she may need quite a great deal of care over a long period of time. As the disease spreads, the brain begins to shrink, personality changes and long-term memories eventually disappear. In the late stages, speech becomes impossible. Then, finally, the parts of the brain that control basic functions like breathing and swallowing shut down. The time between diagnosis and death can range from eight to 20 years.
Reda's son will also suffer the effects of the disease. As The Forgetting shows, the caretakers of Alzheimer's patients are themselves often trapped by loneliness, stress and depression as they struggle to face the challenges of their responsibilities. Those related to an Alzheimer's patient also wrestle with the fear they may be genetically predisposed to get the disease themselves. For a small number of the children of Alzheimer's victims, this fear is justified.
Using special animations to reveal the complex workings of the brain, The Forgetting helps viewers understand how Alzheimer's begins, how it does its damage and what kinds of techniques medical researchers are using to arrive at a way of conquering it. While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's, researchers at many labs around the country are searching for ways to slow the progress of the disease. In a hopeful moment, The Forgetting is with scientists as they begin their first human tests in the U.S. on a compound that may prove to be a promising leap forward in treating Alzheimer's.
For information about this or other programs or services offered by SDPB, call 1-800-456-0766 or visit the Web at sdpb.org.