The cost of dementia goes beyond dollars

A silent epidemic is stalking our society — an epidemic of dementia — and the Jewish community is not immune.

This week we run the second of a two-part series on Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, examining in a very personal way how the disease impacts patients, caregivers and the Jewish social service agencies supporting them.

It’s not a pretty picture.

As many as 600,000 Californians now live with dementia, a number sure to increase as Americans live longer but not necessarily better. The strain on families, institutions and the safety net may near a breaking point in the years ahead as millions of baby boomers reach retirement age. The cost of dementia care in America this year alone is as high as $260 billion.

Fortunately, Bay Area Jewish institutions equipped to deal with the intense needs of this population have seized the initiative, offering innovative solutions for affected families.

As our series details, both the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services and East Bay-based Jewish Family & Community Services have experts on staff and are developing programs to support patients and caregivers. Institutions such as the Jewish Home and Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco and the Reutlinger Community in Danville offer state-of-the-art facilities and programming to make daily life as comfortable and stimulating as possible for memory care residents.

As our story shows, focus is shifting from medical intervention to “person-centered care,” putting the emphasis on quality of life.

Professionals are introducing initiatives such as music therapy and challah baking classes to help patients make the most of their days and bring them comfort. They also offer respite care for caregivers, who often labor alone, sometimes for years and at great emotional and financial cost, to support loved ones at home.

In one hopeful sign on the horizon, Tel Aviv University earlier this year announced a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research, as its scientists isolated a protein missing from Alzheimer’s patients that protects the brain from damage. This discovery could lead to the development of drugs that could slow, halt or even reverse the progress of the disease.

Meanwhile, we must continue to find ways to cope with the increasing numbers of dementia sufferers in our midst. Fortunately, we live in a community that cares deeply about this issue and already has been responding to it. We are grateful to the Jewish institutions, staffers and volunteers who work to ease the burdens.