Panelists offer a ray of hope regarding Alzheimers

When Danville's new $21 million Home for Jewish Parents opens in December, Contra Costa County will have its first nursing home that features a synagogue and an overall Jewish focus. The 180-bed center will include an Alzheimer's unit.

Admittedly, dementia and depression aren't upbeat topics. But experts on a panel last week, organized by a local group backing construction of the new home, offered straightforward facts and glimmers of hope.

The Walnut Creek event, sponsored by Rossmoor Associates of the New Jewish Home in Danville, attracted more than 100 people, most of whom were elderly.

"It's an immediate concern for older people about where they end up," explained panel organizer Phil Goodman.

Dr. Linda Duritz, a board member for the facility, was the moderator.

Speakers emphasized the need to plan for the future when a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, which is responsible for two out of three cases of dementia. So far, "there is no consistent or good treatment" for Alzheimer's, said Dr. Neil Kostick, a geriatric psychiatrist. "However, we're making a lot of strides, quite rapidly."

He estimated that Alzheimer's afflicts up to 8 percent of Americans over the age of 65. More than half of all nursing home patients may suffer from some form of dementia, he said.

Caring for a relative with Alzheimer's takes an incredible toll, warned Linda Fodrini Johnson, a geriatric counselor in Walnut Creek.

"In Alzheimer's, there are hidden victims."

In the early stages of the illness, relatives often have trouble acknowledging that something's wrong, Johnson said.

"The family sometimes makes excuses…for the memory loss and changes they're seeing."

Such a state of denial prevents families from planning ahead, though they should, Johnson told the group.

As the disease progresses, the patient — along with his or her spouse and other family members — often become more and more isolated. They may even be shunned by neighbors and friends.

Discussing a theoretical Alzheimer's patient and his or her partner, she said, "friends are no longer inviting this couple to dinner."

As the condition reaches its final stage, the Alzheimer's patient needs round-the-clock supervision, preferably by more than a single person. Often, "the caregiver is really burned out," Johnson said. "Residential and home placement may be best."

Andrew Scharlach, a professor of social welfare at U.C. Berkeley and an expert on elder care, spoke to the group about genetic research into what causes Alzheimer's — and the possibility that someday gene replacement therapy may prevent it.

"To me, that holds a great deal of promise," he said.

He also discussed theories about why Alzheimer's patients sometimes display puzzling and perplexing behavior. Noting that victims of the disease become seriously confused, he said that imagining their childhood homes may help them "give order to [their] world" and "make sense of [their] world."

Unlike Alzheimer's, depression is a condition that can be "highly treatable," said Kostick. But in the elderly, depression sometimes goes unrecognized because a patient's symptoms may resemble those of a physical ailment.

People caring for ailing spouses are at great risk of developing depression, he told the audience. "That is something that is often overlooked," he said, stressing the need to recognize the condition in what he termed "vulnerable elders."

The new home "is really going to be state-of-the-art," said Goodman. "It's going to be a real asset to the Jewish community."