In what seems like the blink of an eye, Alzheimer’s disease has become one of the top health concerns in the United States. Unlike other major causes of death in the U.S., we have no way to predict, prevent, or cure Alzheimer’s disease. Unless at least one of those changes, the figures experts give us for the future are grim. A recent article in STAT, a national publication devoted to in-depth reporting about health, medicine, and scientific discovery, points to North Dakota, of all places, as a “laboratory for the future of Alzheimer’s in America.”
Why North Dakota?
What makes North Dakota stand out in the fight against Alzheimer’s? Well, to start with the state has the country’s second highest death rate from the disease. While Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death nationally, it already ranks third in North Dakota. “Everybody knows somebody” affected by the disease, said Kendra Binger, a program manager with the Alzheimer’s Association of Minnesota and North Dakota. As public awareness rises along with the numbers of cases, “it’s hard to ignore anymore.”
North Dakota also has an unusually large number of elderly residents. Like other Midwestern states, North Dakota has experienced a youth exodus in recent decades as the younger generations leave the rural landscape of the Midwest for larger metropolitan areas in search of work. North Dakota has a particularly high number of what are referred to as the “oldest old,” those age 85 and over, who are dramatically more likely to die from Alzheimer’s than the group age 65 and over. In fact, only Rhode Island has more “oldest old,” according to the latest Census figures.
Lastly, North Dakota appears to be on the frontier of the Alzheimer’s war because of the state’s determination to fight back and to support those suffering from the disease as well as those providing care for Alzheimer’s patients.
Caring for Caregivers
In North Dakota alone, there are an estimated 30,000 North Dakota spouses, siblings, sons, and daughters looking after loved ones with dementia. The state is determined to help them. To do that, a half-dozen consultants are charged with traveling the state to evaluate families’ needs, train caregivers, connect them to services, and offer advice. The strategy appears to be working. Studies show that families are keeping loved ones out of long-term care and saving the state money.
Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s is challenging enough when you are in the middle of a metropolitan city where medical care, support groups, and service organizations. Doing so in the middle of the Great Plains of North Dakota, on a 1000-acre farm or in a small town, can be a daunting task. North Dakota families, however, are doing it. In 2009, the Dementia Care Services Program was started to help caregivers. The program trains “personal care consultants” to provide in-depth, in person assistance to families caring for Alzheimer patients. The program has been so successful, Michigan is now modeling a similar program after it. Care consultants assess patients’ needs, teach caregivers what to expect and how to respond, refer them to services, lead support groups, and answer questions by phone and in person. Importantly, they often visit patients’ homes, even those in the remotest corners of the state. Between January 2015 and this February, nearly three-quarters of the 2,602 consultations were done in person.
Caregivers participating in the program will tell you they couldn’t do what they do without it. Statistical evidence also supports the program’s success. A study conducted at the University of North Dakota Center for Rural Health, looked at the first 3 1/2 years of the program. Caregivers reported that it helped them feel more empowered, less likely to need emergency room visits and hospitalizations for their loved ones, and less likely to place their loved ones in long-term care. The researchers estimated the resulting cost savings at $800,000 for medical and hospital services avoided and $39 million for long-term care.
If you are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s and you have legal questions or concerns, contact the experienced North Dakota elder law attorneys at German Law by calling 701-738-0060 to schedule an appointment.
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