NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Finding out a family member or friend has dementia is a tough blow, but even worse is entering the caregiving process without a good plan to deal with it.
More and more households face the issue each year. According to Dr. Richard Frank, a medical director at Indianapolis health benefits firm Wellpoint, 43.5 million U.S. adults care for someone 50 years or older suffering from dementia, with 60% of all Alzheimer's and dementia caregivers being women.
Wellpoint defines dementia as someone having loss of memory and other symptoms that interfere with daily life, "a disease caused by physical changes in the brain that result in cell death. Alzheimer's, a fatal brain disease, is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60% to 80% of cases."
As serious and debilitating a disease as dementia is, the fallout goes beyond the emotional. There's a financial side to the issue, as well. The Alzheimer's Association website reports that "15.5 million caregivers provided an estimated 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care for people with dementia in 2013 valued at more than $220 billion."
To deal with the emotional and the financial toll from dementia, Wellpoint offers caregiving households some advice:
Get the facts. The more you know about dementia, the better the caregiving experience, Wellpoint says. The Alzheimer's Association website is a great place to start. There you can learn how to work with dementia patients to construct sentences (the loss of this ability is a common byproduct of dementia) and help patients recall names, numbers and other lifestyle details.
Know your insurance benefits. By and large, dementia affects mainly older Americans, which explains why 20% of all Medicare dollars goes to dementia care. But Medicare doesn't cover everything; you may need to cover home health care, mental health services and hospice, long-term care or assisted living. The stronger the patient's health insurance, the lower the financial burden on loved ones and caregivers. Check with the patient's insurance company to see what's covered and what's not.
Don't procrastinate. Wellpoint advises that you plan out caregiving responsibilities as soon as possible. Most important is to sit down with the family member or friend diagnosed with dementia and discuss what he or she wants in dealing with the disease. Then begin discussions with a good lawyer about power of attorney options (which gives the primary caregiver direct responsibility to make health care and financial decisions when the person suffering from dementia is no longer able to do so.)
Prepare for the unexpected. You hope this won't happen, but incidents of dementia patients wandering around lost or trying to drive when they no longer should are common. Find tips here on keeping your loved one safe while coping with dementia.
Take care of yourself too. Wellpoint is firm on this one: You can't be an effective caregiver for a dementia victim if you're not healthy yourself. The Alzheimer's Association reports that dementia caregivers faced an additional $9.3 billion in extra health care costs annually. Make sure to check with your own doctor, and make time to talk about your caregiving experiences with family and friends. Seek out local support groups through the Alzheimer's Association website -- it can be an effective tool in helping you cope with your new responsibilities.
The best advice is to be there for a loved one suffering from dementia and build your caregiving experience from there. The disease a major blow, but there are ways of coping with the disease that makes things easier for the loved one -- and for yourself.