"Where did they go?": The faces of Alzheimer's in Northern Nevada

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We are really a composite of our life experiences -- memory layered upon memory and Alzheimer's steals that away. -- Meryl Comer

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible and progressive kind of dementia that affects an estimated 5.7 million Americans. Here are some startling statistics:

  • It is the sixth leading cause of death among all adults and the fifth leading cause for those aged 65 or older
  • Causes of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are not completely understood, but researchers believe they include a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors
  • In more than 90% of people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms do not appear until after age 60. The incidence of the disease increases with age and doubles every 5 years beyond age 65
  • Alzheimer’s disease affects mainly older adults, and the growth in the number of older adults is unprecedented. In 2016, 49 million adults living in the United States—15% of the population—were 65 or older. By 2060, that number is expected to climb to about 98 million, or nearly one in four US residents
  • In 2017, total payments for health care, long-term care, and hospice for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias are estimated to be $259 billion

Alzheimer's robs the brain, steals loved ones from their families, and devastates everyone it touches.

While Alzheimer's is a cruel thief, it does not always steal away life, survival -- or hope.

"It's hard to see what's happening to her."

A doctor gave Shellie Morcom the dismal diagnosis a decade ago when she was only 57 years old. He said she had Frontotemporal Dementia. They suspect she got it in her 40s. Now Shellie, former nurse practitioner, who was known for her ability to take care of others -- now relies on others to take care of her.

Shellie doesn't talk much these days but something interesting happens when Mike sings to her. She will mouth the words and even sing a few of the words. Her husband says he misses hearing her voice.

"We have fun together, we sing together. She doesn't communicate verbally, but she does with her smile and definitely through her eyes," Mike Morcom said. "It breaks my heart, I cry at night. It's hard to see what's happening to her."

Mike knows he is slowly losing his wife to dementia. He just moved her into Brookdale Senior Living, an assisted-living home, so she could get better care and he can sleep easier.

"I don't feel like I'm as stressed as I had been. It's less work for me, but the house is so lonely. It's hard. Nights are always the worst," he said.

Hitting close to home

45,000 Nevadans currently have Alzheimer's and that number is expected to grow to 64,000 by 2025. There's a good chance you probably know someone who has it or you will in your lifetime.

Most people who have dementia or Alzheimer's are typically older.

Cathy Maupin's mom Drusilla passed away at the age of 95. Her mom had the disease for 20 years and spent about a million dollars for her care.

"It's been one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever had to endure. It's broken the hearts of my children to watch their grandmother," Maupin said. "There's a lot of grieving before someone passes away. I said, 'it's death by inches.' It's literally death by inches. I have been living with her dying for a long time. "

But Maupin doesn't focus on how destructive the disease can be, instead she is able to see the brighter side of this dark diagnosis.

"You don't know how many days you really have, and that's why it's really important to live each day fully, joyously, beautifully," she said. "I live more in the moment now, I live a joyous life."

"I kind of feel like they got the wrong guy."

Dick Tatro knew something was wrong. He was doing some odd things.

"I started doing wacky things. I would go the wrong way on the golf course," he said.

A doctor gave him the bleak news: He had Posterior Cortical Atrophy, a variant and rare form of early onset Alzheimer's Disease.

"I kind of feel like they got the wrong guy."

Dick was just 52 years old.

"Anyone who hears the word Alzheimer's thinks of their 90-year-old grandmother who has Alzheimer's. That's not the case. There are many young families who are dealing with it, as well," Mona Tatro, Dick's wife, said. "Every day is a struggle but we're learning. We try to laugh as much as we can."

Dick was the key speaker at the Walk to End Alzheimer's 2015. He wanted everyone to know how tough it's been for him, his wife, and then 9-year-old son. News 4 has followed the Tatro family for the past two years and seen Dick slowly lose his words and slide into the disease.

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"I'm so proud of both of them. Mona has just taken over," Dick said. "Charlie is great... I can just feel the love of that kid. He's really awesome."

Dick was unable to hold on to his job. Mona has taken on the role of caregiver and financial provider.

"He left work in October (2014) and never went back, so we lost his income. I lost my husband. I don't really have a partner anymore that helps me with running our house," she said.

Charlie, who is now 12 years old, is slowing losing his dad.

"It's been hard because instead of him taking care of me it feels like I have to take care of him. So I have to grow up really faster," Charlie said.

Physical exercise can lessen the decline in mental function and improve thinking. Dick used to hit the gym at Saint Mary's Fitness Center in Reno several times a week. He loved the social benefits. Exercise can lower the risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease.

"He's the happiest when he's here. So, even if he's done exercising, done showering he just wants to sit in the lobby and just kind of hang out and talk to people," Kellie Flynn who works at Saint Mary's Fitness Center said.

Mona had to move Dick into Stone Valley Alzheimer's Special Care Center on June 1. Unfortunately he just passed away last Saturday, October 21, almost four years to the day after being diagnosed.

Help is out there, but underutilized

Nevada has many resources for those suffering with the disease, but people often don't take advantage of them.

"Nevada is emerging as one of the leading states in terms of addressing the needs of people living with dementia in communities," Dr. Peter Reed, Director of the Sanford Center for Aging on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. "There is a vast network of care and support services around the country and even here in our community but one of the challenges is that people are not aware of those services," Dr. Reed said.

Barbara Singer's mom lived with Alzheimer's in Minnesota. The Carson City resident visited when possible and called often.

"Sometimes it changes her mood, gets her out of the anxiety or doesn't escalate so music works really well with my mom," Singer said.

Singer reached out for information and services to help her along this difficult road.

"In Carson City, there's not enough facilities, not enough care givers, not enough help," she said.

So she ended up starting a support group for caregivers like herself.

Singer's mother passed away this year at the age of 93; but her support groups continue and are more in-demand.

Northern Nevada offers many programs to care for dementia patients, but often families don't utilize them early enough. There are support groups, respite care, adult daycares, and medicines that can slow the progression of Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, most programs are geared toward older adults because that's typically who is diagnosed with the disease.

"We want to help people remain in their homes to maintain their independence and to live well with Alzheimer's disease. It doesn't have to be a tragic end-of-life diagnosis," said Niki Rubarth, the Regional Director of the Alzheimer's Association of Northern California and Northern Nevada.

At Arbors Memory Care in Sparks, they offer Moments of Memory. It's an art program that gives people with dementia an outlet to work on their cognitive skills.

"Call it a right brain-left brain activity; first, you have to be thinking about the image you want to create. And then, the other side of your brain is thinking, 'How am I going to do it? What am I going to do it with?' So, you're not thinking about being depressed or isolated or in pain," Lynette Schweigert, Director of Moments of Memory said.

Daybreak is Washoe County's licensed adult daycare program, a medically-based program supported by full-time nurses. It's licensed for 33 clients and is often full. It keeps its clients working on their cognitive skills and, at the same time, gives families respite care for the day.

"We're trying to, at a minimum, maintain their level and hopefully improve their cognitive capacity level of function," Patrick Brumley, Supervisor of Daybreak said.

He says caregivers burn out, and then find Daybreak -- rather than using those services to hold off burnout.

The future of Alzheimer's in Nevada

On the medical front, there are drugs that can slow the progress of Alzheimer's. Dr. Steven L. Phillips, a geriatric doctor said finding a cure in the future may be difficult so prevention is crucial.

"Certain diseases predispose one to Alzheimer's disease. Diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, congestive heart failure, previous strokes, obesity... So, in a high inflammatory state....our body releases certain chemicals and those chemicals have shown to affect the brain in a bad way.," Dr. Phillips said.

Research is at the highest level ever. Jacob Harmon, the former Regional Director for the Alzheimer's Association said that translate into something positive.

"The national plan is to address Alzheimer's disease indicated that a national commitment of $2 billion dollars in Alzheimer's funding would be sufficient to meet our goal of having a treatment by the year 2025 and a cure by 2050," Harmon said.

Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto, whose grandmother died of Alzheimer's, sits on the Senate Committee on Aging. She said, as a country, we need to fight for better brain health. She put together a listening group with leaders from the healthcare community in Northern Nevada. The focus was to close the gaps on Alzheimer's care.

"It includes better educational outreach, making sure everyone in the community is focused on what Alzheimer's is, that it is something that is not curable, but we can sure do a better job helping people live with it and their families live with it," Cortez-Masto said.

What happens now?

Here's an update on all four families News 4 has followed for this special.

We asked people at the Walk to End Alzheimer's in fall 2018 to share what they want you to know about the disease.

Getting more help

The Alzheimer's Association of Northern Nevada and Northern California offers a list of help, support, services and research on its website. You can also make a donation or volunteer. It also offer a 27 hour helpline: 1-800-272-3900.

Find an interactive map of memory care facilities in your region below.


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