Half of all Americans who are 85 years of age or older may have Alzheimer's disease. Some experts compare the chance of getting the disease to flipping a coin. "Alzheimer's is one of the prices we pay for living too long," says Javier I. Escobar, MD, chair of psychiatry at UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
There is no cure for Alzheimer's, but proper treatment can reduce its symptoms, which include memory loss, emotional instability, personality changes, a decline in social skills, and difficulty learning new information. Several drugs are currently being evaluated at The Institute for Alzheimer's Disease at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and other centers to determine whether they will alleviate some of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.
"We are involved in multiple clinical trials right now," says COPSA clinical trials coordinator Julie Grofsik, RN, BSN. "There are two categories of medications we are studying: drugs that improve memory or at least slow the process of the disease (Metrifonate and Exelon) and those that help modify behavior, alleviating anxiety and agitation (Zyprexa, Buspar)."
"These new medications are very promising," says Grofsik. "Improvement has been noted in most patients, particularly the behavioral medications, which tend to calm patients without making them drowsy."
The symptoms of Alzheimer's disease wreak havoc on family life. More than seven out of ten patients live at home, with 75 percent of their care provided by family and friends. Caring for patients is often referred to as the "36 hour day" because of the exhausting, around-the-clock care that is required.
The COPSA (Comprehensive Services on Aging) Institute Day Program, part of University Behavioral HealthCare in Piscataway, provides specialized therapy for people with dementia. It operates five days a week, from 9 am to 3 pm, with a staff of five, including coordinator Mary Catherine Lundquist, three mental health specialists, and a registered nurse. While most patients in the program have Alzheimer's, a few suffer from dementia caused by stroke.
Patients can attend every day, or a few days a week. The day is highly structured, with activities designed to reduce isolation and build self-esteem. Cognitive orientation exercises - such simple things as reviewing the day of the week, the weather, and other mundane details of life - maximize memory, perception and social skills. "Our goal is to have people functioning at the highest level possible," says Mildred Potenza, CSW, COPSA's coordinator of community services. "The cognitive orientation exercises the memory and keeps people in touch with what's happening around them, while the physical exercise encourages activity and mobility."
The cost of the program is $45 a day - a significant sum for those on fixed incomes. While several state and county agencies provide subsidies for some families, others pay the entire cost themselves.
For information about the COPSA program, call 732-235-2858 or 800-424-2494.