SALT LAKE CITY — As Utahns continue to age and more are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, state lawmakers plan to take action.
At the top of their list is dispelling stereotypes associated with the serious brain condition and, ultimately, providing better care.
A resolution that addresses five categories of care for patients with dementia and their families was presented to the Health and Human Services Interim Committee by representatives of a legislative task force on Wednesday. The plan aims to create a dementia-aware community, provide help and dignity to those who suffer with the disease, support caretakers, prepare for changes to the work force and make way for expanded research.
“Utah is facing a tsunami of Alzheimer’s disease and this tsunami is hitting Utah harder than it is hitting anywhere else, and we are ill prepared,” said Dr. Norman Foster, a neurology professor at the University of Utah and director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Care, Imaging and Research. Foster is part of a 20-member task force that met with stakeholders in various communities of the state throughout the year to identify important issues regarding the disease and related dementias.
He said Utahns are living longer, more people are moving to the state and the younger population Utah is traditionally known for is getting older, which contributes to the growing prevalence of the disease.
“There is a lot of life after diagnosis,” said task force member and Alzheimer’s patient Kathryn Romney.
In the next 14 years, the number of Utahns with the progressively mind-numbing disease will increase 127 percent. Already one in eight Americans has the disease and it leads to death more often than heart disease, stroke, HIV, and breast and prostate cancers combined.
Also, increasingly, nearly everyone in the state knows someone with Alzheimer’s.
Finding and coordinating resources for the care of a person with Alzheimer’s is “indeed challenging,” said Rep. David Clark, R-Santa Clara, whose mother was diagnosed three years ago. He said the already demanding circumstances of the disease are made more difficult when help cannot be found.
The vast majority of Utahns with Alzheimer’s disease are living at home, with care being provided by family members and others who come into the home. However, current state health policies mandate for more costly, institutionalized care and visits to the local emergency departments for crisis management, which is far from prudent, Foster said.
“There is not a single board-certified geriatric psychologist in the state of Utah,” he said. “There is no one I can refer my patients to.”
Over the next five years, legislation will be presented that addresses each of the five categories of the statewide plan. It is unknown how much implementation will cost the state, but officials agree it is past due.
“Early detection and intervention makes all the difference in the world,” said Nick Zullo, a geriatric counselor, associate director of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Utah chapter and member of the task force.
Similar awareness campaigns in other states have proven to reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as health care costs. As Utah has the highest projected growth rate of the disease, Zullo said, “now is the time to stand by our own.”