The predicted growth of people in the 65 and older population in the next few decades is expected to nearly double the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in Ohio, and local advocates say a larger workforce is needed to meet the future needs of that population.
A Dayton Daily News examination of the issue found health care systems are in short supply of physicians who specialize in geriatrics, there is a shortage of dementia healthcare workers and more preparation needs to take place to prepare for the influx and care for patients and their families now.
“We have a system that needs to improve already, and we’re putting more people into it,” said Eric VanVlymen, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Miami Valley chapter.
Who is being impacted
Roughly 6 million people nationwide, including more than 200,000 Ohioans over the age of 65, live with Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common cause of dementia. A predicted 250,000 will be living with the disease by 2025 in Ohio, a 13.6% increase. By 2050, the population of Alzheimer’s patients in the state and nationwide is expected to double in size.
The disease typically begins in the part of the brain that affects learning, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. As Alzheimer’s advances through the brain, it leads to increasingly severe symptoms; this can include disorientation, mood and behavior changes, confusion, unfounded suspicions about people and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.
“The greatest risk factor is age,” said Annemarie Barnett, executive director for the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Cincinnati and Dayton chapters.
One in three people older than 65 dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. In 2019, more than 5,000 Ohioans died with the disease. More people are living past the age of 65, typically when Alzheimer’s disease presents itself in patients, due to advancements in health care and quality of life.
What are the problems
The expected influx of these patients statewide and to the area will impact not only patients themselves, but also health care systems and area families, VanVlymen said.
Although the number of assisted living and nursing home facilities is expanding in the area, health care systems are nationally in short supply of physicians who specialize in geriatrics, the branch of medicine dealing with the health and care of older people.
A significant shortage in the dementia healthcare workforce exists today, and Ohio would need to see a more than 200% increase in its number of geriatricians by 2050 to meet the projected demand, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
More than 100,000 home health and personal care aids are employed in the state, but that total would need to increase, too, by 31% to meet the 2050 demand.
The jump in the population of people most vulnerable for Alzheimer’s, too, will impact their caregivers. Two-thirds of people with dementia are living at home, and often, their caregivers are family members: most commonly, a child of the patient, VanVlymen said. Caregiving is a full-time commitment for many, and adults often have to juggle their jobs with raising children on top of caring for their parents.
“So many caregivers are trying to figure out how to balance their role,” he said. “And so they either have to step out of the workforce or they have to go part time, or they just feel divided.”
A larger workforce is needed
“As we look at the statistics, the statistics aren’t great,” Barnett said. “We need a 31% increase in geriatric physicians to meet the demand.”
The Alzheimer’s Association is hopeful the new treatments for Alzheimer’s and dementia will make the field of geriatrics more enticing for physicians. Barnett said a previous deterrent for physicians to entering the geriatric field was having to give patients a dementia diagnosis, but now there is more hope for those future patients.
“Last year, the first ever treatment that affected the underlying disease came out,” Barnett said.
With other treatments going through clinical trials, those results are seeing a 27% reduction in cognitive decline.
“I think that’s going to give physicians a new light,” Barnett said.
In addition to geriatric physicians, there is a need for more employees throughout the dementia care workforce, including neurologists, nurses, home health aide workers, and nursing home workers. The Alzheimer’s Association’s 2022 Facts and Figures report noted challenges in recruitment, retention, career advancement, regulation, and training for the dementia care workforce.
The profession can be difficult but rewarding, Barnett said, adding that nursing home and long-term care facilities saw a lot of loss and patients decline rapidly during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That’s hard. That’s been very hard on everyone,” Barnett said.
What care is available
About one-third of families seek long-term care outside the home for their loved ones with Alzheimer’s diseases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The Ohio Masonic Home’s Springfield location has numerous residents living with Alzheimer’s and dementia at varying degrees of the disease. Its Pathways building is dedicated to Alzheimer’s and dementia patients who cannot live independently, said Tony Berardi, Springfield Masonic Community president. The Pathways Center has 24-hour on-site nurses and dementia strained staff, among other services like social services and specialized programs.
Empathy is a crucial part of training for staff who work with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients and their families, Berardi said. The Masonic Home is working to train its staff about how Alzheimer’s impacts a patient through a virtual reality program called Embodied Labs. Participants wear the headset and are placed into a simulation where they are a character with one or more conditions. One simulation puts a person in the perspective of an Alzheimer’s patient, Beatrice. The simulation shows the characteristics of early, mid- and late-stage dementia.
Credit: Bill Lackey
Credit: Bill Lackey
Wood Glen Alzheimer’s Community, a skilled nursing and memory care center in Dayton, offers Alzheimer’s, dementia care and memory support. Elaine King, director of public relations for Wood Glen Alzheimer’s Community, said they frequently work with the Alzheimer’s Association, Veterans Affairs, hospice providers, and home health providers to meet the needs of local dementia patients.
“One of the challenges of a growing Alzheimer’s population is the stress it places on family members and caregivers,” King said. “This community of people needs compassion, time, and resources to care for them and sometimes it can be too much for immediate family. For our industry, we will need more, qualified nurses and health care staff to assist in taking care of the increased number of residents likely to seek assistance.”
Wood Glen creates individual care plans for residents, including activities like exercise classes, gardening, therapy dog visits, and group outings, King said. Additionally, Wood Glen’s Honors 360 program is aimed specifically at veterans, providing them with specialized medical care plans and services tailored toward veterans.
“Alzheimer’s remains such an important issue in America because it touches so many families,” King said. “Millions have been afflicted, and millions more will effected by this disease. And it’s just not a memory loss disease but also cause serious complications and may cause serious health complications. All of us need to lend a hand in support of this growing need, which can be emotionally and physically devastating and difficult to manage. This is part of why our staff who work in this space are so unique and extraordinary in caring for some of the most vulnerable in our society.”
No cure for Alzheimer’s
Although there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are treatments that may change disease progression. Treatment options for Alzheimer’s patients are also expected to expand in the next few years, but patients need to be diagnosed with the disease to begin treatment. Health care providers do not regularly screen older patients for cognitive issues, per Alzheimer’s Association research.
Running screens for cognitive issues increases the amount of time a physician will spend with a patient, and treatment for Alzheimer’s has been minimal for years. The Alzheimer’s Association is working to encourage primary care sites to up their screening capabilities in order to diagnose people early and give them the option of beginning treatment and their loved ones more time to plan.
Credit: Mark Skalny
Credit: Mark Skalny
Walk to End Alzheimer’s on Saturday
The Alzheimer’s Association is boosting efforts to spread awareness about the disease. The Alzheimer’s Association’s 2022 Walk to End Alzheimer’s in Dayton is set for 10 a.m. today at Day Air Ballpark, 220 N. Patterson Blvd. in Dayton. Currently the association have reached over 70% of its $510,000 fundraising goal.
Pre-walk activities will start at 9 a.m. Saturday, along with the ceremony at 9:45 a.m. and the walk at 10 a.m.
For more information, visit act.alz.org.
How to get help
The Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 hotline to offer support to individuals with Alzheimer’s and families caring for them can be reached at 800-272-3900.