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The Conversation That You Need to Have, Now, Regarding Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias
By Nancy Kennedy

Nancy Riggle

Nobody wants to have The Conversation. Nobody wants to confront it, think about it, or talk about it. Nobody wants to consider the possibility that they, or a loved one, may be developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. It’s a topic that is frightening, painful and sad, so we tend to avoid it, in the hopes that the behavioral signs and changes we are seeing are meaningless, or perhaps indicative of some other problem. That’s actually a good possibility.

But until we confront the problem head-on, we have no way of knowing. And so we have to talk about it, to sit down and take a long, hard look at what is happening and what needs to be done to address it. That is the only way to move forward, says Nancy Riggle, a regional expert on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. “This topic scares people. Most of us are afraid to talk about it,” she explains. “We’re afraid for ourselves, our spouses, parents and friends. We’re afraid of losing ourselves, our memories and identities; we’re afraid of becoming helpless and not even knowing what is happening to us. But early diagnosis is critical and enables you to deal with it as effectively as possible.”

Riggle is an aging specialist and a certified Dementia Practitioner /Care Manager with 15 years of experience working with persons with Alzheimer’s disease. She is knowledgeable and passionate about this population, and through her work as Program and Education Consultant for the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Pennsylvania, she is determined to educate the public about the vital importance of dealing directly and deliberately with Alzheimer’s disease. “Alzheimer’s disease is now a national public health emergency,” she says. “The impact is staggering, and the number of people affected by it is only going to grow as the Baby Boomers enter their senior years.”

Early signs of Alzheimer’s disease may include confusion and forgetfulness. Simple everyday things – like counting change incorrectly or misspelling common words – can become a struggle. According to Riggle, “It can start with being unable to piece things together. It affects your ability to live safely and function. Some people withdraw when they start to have symptoms, out of fear.” Having symptoms doesn’t automatically mean Alzheimer’s or dementia. More often than not, it’s something else, such as medication, a thyroid problem, sleep deprivation or a urinary tract infection. There are numerous possibilities, but the cause must be identified; if other causes can be ruled out, then it may indeed be a form of dementia.

“It’s easy to rationalize, to make excuses for changes in behavior. We don’t want to think it might be dementia, but this thinking delays diagnosis,” says Riggle. “It’s important to see your doctor and have testing.” Your doctor may refer you to a geriatrician, psychiatrist or neurologist to help make the diagnosis and plan treatment. With an early diagnosis, one can get the greatest benefit from care, which may include medication and a modified environment. Early diagnosis and treatment can improve symptoms, help one maintain independence longer and plan for the future – for care, living options and financial/legal matters. It can provide entry to clinical trials as well.

Riggle and her colleagues at the Alzheimer’s Association cover a 13-county area and rely on a team of committed volunteers to help spread the word about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. She loves the work and feels that it is the perfect place for her. “I’m passionate about this work. I was formerly a director of a Memory Care unit, and it was a life changing experience. The people I met, patients and families, inspired me to learn and do more, to reach as many people as possible. I believe that knowledge is power.”

Sharing that knowledge with the community is central to her mission. “Aging does not come with a handbook, unfortunately, and dementia can happen to anyone. We have to be smart and pro-active, and educate ourselves about this. Ask yourself: what if it happens to me? How do I prepare? How do I make plans for the end of my life? It’s imperative to have that conversation, and have it more than once. Talk with your family, friends and others that you love and trust.”

Alzheimer’s disease has no survivors, says Riggle, but there is hope. “No one recovers from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. There is no way to cure or prevent it; nothing will stop it or slow it down. But there is treatment, and one day there will be a cure. Research will find a cure.”

To contact Nancy Riggle, send email to nriggle@alz.org. To learn more about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, visit www.alz.org. The Alzheimer’s Association has a 24-hour Helpline. Call 1-800-272-3900.

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