Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases are two very serious and all-too-common types of debilitating diseases that slowly rob a person of their physical and mental abilities. If you or a loved one is diagnosed with one of these conditions, it is important to begin planning immediately. Don’t wait until the disease takes its toll. You will lose valuable years of planning time, and it may become impossible to sign important legal documents due to dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting approximately 5.2 million Americans, and it is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. This disease of the brain progressively impairs behavior and personality, while causing problems with memory, thinking, and judgment. Symptoms usually develop and worsen over time, eventually interfering with daily tasks. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “those who have Alzheimer’s live an average of eight years after their symptoms become evident, but survival can range from four to 20 years, depending on age and other health conditions.” There is no cure for Alzheimer’s but current treatments can temporarily slow the progression of the symptoms. Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of the aging process, although most people who have Alzheimer’s are over age 65. However, up to 5% of those who have Alzheimer’s have “early-onset Alzheimer’s,” often in their 40’s or 50’s.
Parkinson’s disease is a motor system disorder, resulting from the loss of brain cells that produce the chemical dopamine. Dopamine allows the brain to transmit signals to produce smooth movement of muscles. Loss of dopamine causes neurons to fire without normal control, resulting in the person being less able to direct or control his or her movement. These motor control symptoms of Parkinson’s are familiar to most people as tremor (or trembling) in hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face; rigidity or stiffness of the arms, legs, and trunk; bradykinesia or slowness of movement; and impaired balance and coordination called postural instability. Parkinson’s also has “non-motor” symptoms, including cognitive impairment ranging from mild memory loss to dementia, and depression and anxiety. Parkinson’s symptoms affect patients differently. Not all patients experience all of the symptoms, and the rate at which the symptoms worsen varies, too.
The average age of onset for Parkinson’s disease is 60, but the disease can strike as early as age 18. An estimated 1 million people in the United States, and between 4 and 6 million worldwide, have Parkinson’s. There is no cure for Parkinson’s currently, and the types of treatment depend upon the symptoms evidenced by the particular patient.
The need to take action
Sufferers of debilitating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease slowly are robbed of their physical and mental abilities. After years of suffering with the disease, the person may the point where he or she no longer can provide his or her own care or make his or her own decisions, or even attend to the most basic human functions. Not only do these prolonged illnesses drain the individual’s physical and mental abilities over time, but the individual’s loved ones must bear a burden no matter how willingly borne, that can be heartbreaking and physically exhausting over time.
Adding further insult is the astounding cost of paying for nursing home care for a person in the later stages of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s who needs placement. And with the prospect of declining capabilities and increasing costs come important legal decisions and planning strategies to prepare and plan for likely future medical and financial needs.
While the medical world strives to improve the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, those dealing with these conditions and their families can take steps to understand critical legal and financial issues.