Local experts warn of dementia challenges

By on November 1, 2019

Gail Sonnesso, director of Gentle Expert Memorycare (GEM)

Members of the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Dare County, geriatric professionals and interested citizens heard some sobering assessments and received some crucial advice about seniors and dementia at a Nov. 1 “hot topic lunch” held at Roosters Southern Kitchen in Kill Devil Hills. 

The main speakers at the luncheon were Mary Pendill, a member of the Dare County Center Advisory Board and the Dare County Older Adult Services Board, and Gail Sonnesso, director of Gentle Expert Memorycare (GEM).

Dementia and Alzheimer’s are fast on their way to becoming a major health problem in Dare County, Pendill told her audience. The US Census Bureau projects that between 2017 and 2037, there will be a 172% increase in the number of people in Dare County over the age of 85, she said.

About one in ten people over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s, Pendill noted, a number that increases as the population ages. As the average American lifespan lengthens and more retired people move to the Outer Banks, there is and will continue to be an urgent need for better and more affordable long-term care, Pendill concluded.

According to data from 2014-2016 included in the 2019 Dare County Community Health Needs Assessment, Alzheimer’s Disease was the seventh-leading cause of death in the county – with a death rate of 23.3 per 100,000 people.

Sonnesso then took the floor to discuss what can be done in Dare County to meet the challenges these diseases create. The fail rate for Alzheimer’s medications is 99.6%, she said, so “Don’t put your eggs in the basket of the cure,” she warned. “We need help for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia now.”

Nor can families rely on skilled nursing facilities, assisted living, or in-home care, which are often prohibitively expensive, Sonnesso explained. In fact, as patients live longer with Alzheimer’s and dementia — 8 to 20 years, on average — the cost of care is skyrocketing to an estimated $290 billion last year, a figure which may reach $1.1 trillion by mid-century, Sonnesso said.

She sees the best way forward as helping families and caregivers manage these diseases. Her organization, GEM, operates the first licensed adult day care center, the first “memory café” and the first and only respite program in Dare County.

Sonnesso says the first step is to educate those affected by these diseases and then get them the necessary services. Socio-economically disadvantaged families need particular attention and assistance, she noted.

Although the challenges are daunting, there is a great deal those in the community can do to raise awareness of the disease and support those affected, said Sonnesso, who thanked the Kitty Hawk United Methodist Church, which hosts GEM’s Friday daycare program. She said GEM would like to expand the program, but is unable to find an affordable space of its own.

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