Raising Alzheimer’s Awareness


 More than 95,000 South Carolinians live with Alzheimer’s disease, an illness that impairs a person’s cognitive functions.

In addition to those suffering, nearly 200,000 individuals throughout our state are responsible for caring for their loved ones who are experiencing Alzheimer’s and other dementiarelated illnesses. Luckily there are resources available throughout our community to raise awareness and provide support to both Alzheimer’s patients and their families, who are dealing with the daily realities of the disease.

So, what is Alzheimer’s disease and how does it relate to dementia?

“It’s important to understand the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s,” said Mary Doyle, Executive Director of Memory Matters on Hilton Head Island. “Dementia can be a symptom of many different diseases, including Alzheimer’s, but also Parkinson’s disease, stroke, a traumatic brain injury or something different. We often see Alzheimer’s patients who are experiencing dementia, but not always.”

There are early signs of Alzheimer’s disease to be aware of, particularly if your loved one is over the age of 65.

“The most common sign is memory loss,” said Doyle, “but not small things like losing one’s car keys or forgetting where you parked your car. It’s more drastic memory loss that starts impacting a person’s daily life, like not recognizing someone in your immediate family, or getting lost when driving a familiar route.”

If memory loss starts to impact a person’s daily activities, then it’s time to talk with a physician. The first step is to contact your loved one’s primary care doctor. Often, you will then be referred to a neurologist for testing.

When a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. As a seniorfriendly community, Lowcountry residents are lucky to live in an area that provides an array of services and resources, like assisted living facilities with trained dementia-care specialists. There are also in-home care opportunities available, which is usually the first line of defense against this difficult disease.

“Our first line of approach is always helping a loved one stay in the comfort of their own home, while providing support to their caregiver,” said Doyle.

Memory Matters will celebrate the organization’s 25th anniversary next year. The non-profit began more than two decades ago by offering programs for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s in local churches.

During these meet-ups, an Alzheimer’s patient would spend time socializing and exercising their brain, while allowing caregivers to have time away for themselves. That early model is still the foundation of Memory Matters today; now they operate out of their own facility on the north end of Hilton Head Island.

Memory Matters provides Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers with the individualized support and training needed to deal with this disease.

One example is their six-week “Savvy Caregiver Class,” which connects caregivers with important resources and provides strategies for coping with the difficulties of a caregiver’s responsibilities.

Strides are being made every day toward a cure, but it’s still crucial to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We’re seeing a lot of research not only with ways to treat Alzheimer’s disease, but also to diagnose it early, before we start seeing symptoms,” said Doyle. “When you start seeing symptoms, that’s usually a sign that the disease has progressed quite a bit. Instead, researchers are looking into genetic markers and other ways to identify the disease early so we can then better treat it.”

Doyle said it’s important to promote the five key interventions to keep your brain healthy: exercise, socialization, a Mediterranean-lifestyle diet, lifelong learning and “resting” the brain. It’s as easy as going on a long walk, learning a new skill, or meditating once a day.

Like improving cardiovascular health, these five steps can help keep your brain and body healthy.