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Updated Mar 16, 2017 - 9:33 am

Alzheimer’s disease could become trillion-dollar health care crisis in US

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
LISTEN: Alzheimer's disease could become trillion-dollar health care crisis in US

This is the first of a five-part, weeklong series studying how Alzheimer’s disease can affect you, no matter your age. Read the other parts here

PHOENIX — Alzheimer’s disease is among the top five killers in Arizona and economists are predicting the malady will soon become a trillion-dollar health care crisis.

When you think of Alzheimer’s, 82-year-old Barbara Yavitt and her 86-year-old husband, Richard, may come to mind.

“We’ve been married 61 years,” she said while adjusting a blanket as Richard laid back on a recliner.

He absently hummed a tune in the background.

“He had just returned from serving in Korea when we went on a blind date,” she remembered. “He was sharp.”

Richard earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting in just two years. They married and had three kids before he opened his own CPA firm.

“He had about 16 employees with several offices throughout the Valley,” Barbara said proudly.

Ambitious herself, Barbara used her college degree to help children in Illinois’ low-income communities integrate to wealthier schools for a better education in the late 1960s.

They moved to Arizona after she began experiencing a string of health problems.

“In 1990, I had brain cancer, then six months later, colon cancer,” she said.

Then, a decade later, “I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” she said.

“I had just had a mastectomy when we got Richard’s diagnosis.”

The disease forced the couple into retirement.

 

Barbara mashes Richard’s medicine into a powder before mixing it with a snack.

“Okay, this is your pain medication,” she explained before presenting him with the cup of medicated applesauce. “It will make your legs feel better.”

She carefully made sure none of it went to waste.

“When you’re sick, it’s very costly,” she said. “Richard’s medicines were coming to $450 per month.”

The Banner Alzheimer’s Institute figures show caregivers’ spent an average of $12,000 out-of-pocket taking care of a spouse with dementia last year. Their children spent an additional $5,000 to help cover additional costs.

“We know that in Arizona we have more than 319,000 caregivers taking care of more than 130,000 people — just in Arizona — who are dealing with Alzheimer’s and other dementias,” explained Lori Nisson, a licensed social worker with the institute.

Dr. Edward Zamrini, a geriatric specialist with Banner, said caregivers lose an average of $15,000 in wages while they care for loved ones.

It also comes at a personal cost, “in emotional terms and in times they have to be taken away from themselves, from their loved ones and their jobs in order to be caregivers,” he said.

If a family member can afford to hire help, Nisson estimated it would cost thousands of dollars per month.

“An in-home caregiver can cost $20 to $25 dollars per hour,” she said. “Putting someone into assisted living community can run anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000 a month.”

Costs also rise quickly as the patient becomes increasingly dependent.

Richard is entering the late stages of Alzheimer’s, which places Barbara’s life in limbo most days.

“Mostly what I do is I stay right here and watch Richard,” she explained, “He sleeps usually 20 out of 24 hours, but it’s a light sleep.”

And, when Richard wandered off a couple times in the past, “We had the police all over. They found him out in the middle of the golf course.”

When an elderly person or someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia goes missing, Arizona officials issue a Silver Alert. National data showed it takes an average of nine hours to locate a missing person with Alzheimer’s at a cost of $1,500 per hour.

With research showing one out of nine Arizonans develop some form of Alzheimer’s by age 65 — about 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day in America — Zamrini sees a serious health risk impacting everyone.

“This is very much an epidemic,” he said. “There are over five million people today with Alzheimer’s disease.”

Zamrini estimated that, in 15 years, there will be 15 million people with the disease.

“Simply doing the math, it’s a huge problem.”

Right now, that math adds up to $300 billion spent annually on Alzheimer’s in our country. If we do nothing to slow it down, economists predict babies born in the U.S. today will face a $1 trillion price tag trying to care for their parents in 2050.

More Alzheimer’s disease resources:

Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium

The Banner Alzheimer’s Institute

Barrow Neurologica Institute

Translational Genomics Research Institute

University of Arizona Health Sciences Alzheimer’s Research

Arizona State University Bio Design Institute

Hospice of the Valley

Duet Partners In Health and Aging

The Alzheimer’s Association

KTAR’s Kathy Cline contributed to this report.