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As the number of Pennsylvanians with Alzheimer’s grows, so will the burden on caregivers

  • Sarah Boden/WESA
Angela Reynolds of Pittsburgh is the primary caregiver for her mother, Jonnie Lewis-Thorpe, who has Alzheimer's disease.

 Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Angela Reynolds of Pittsburgh is the primary caregiver for her mother, Jonnie Lewis-Thorpe, who has Alzheimer's disease.

As the number of Pennsylvanians living with Alzheimer’s disease grows through the decade, so will the strain on their paid and unpaid caregivers.

That warning comes from the Alzheimer’s Association’s annual report, released Wednesday. By 2025, some 320,000 Pennsylvanians over 65 are projected to have Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of dementia. That is a 14% increase from the 280,000 Pennsylvania residents with the diagnosis in 2020. On a national level, an estimated 7.2 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s by 2025, an 18% increase from 5.8 million in 2020.

The report says the absolute number of people who have Alzheimer’s will continue to grow due to the sheer size of the baby-boomer population, even though the incidence rate of older adults who are diagnosed with the disease appears to be dropping due to improvements in hypertension and education.

Additionally, the report notes that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic remains unknown: “Mortality from COVID-19, and changes in health care access resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, will influence the number and proportion of people in the U.S. with Alzheimer’s in years to come.”

The rapidly growing Alzheimer’s population is driving up the demand for home health and personal care aides. The report projects that another 40,000 workers will be needed in Pennsylvania by the end of the decade.

Yet this need runs up against an already exhausted workforce: The COVID-19 pandemic exacted an emotional and physical toll on direct care workers, which caused many to leave the field.

Another contributing factor to this lack of workers is low pay: Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the median income for these workers is less than $30,000 annually. The Alzheimer’s Association report says higher salaries, career advancement and better training can help retain and attract people to the profession.

In addition to professional health care workers, families and other informal caregivers are also facing an increased burden of attending to loved ones with Alzheimer’s. The report estimates more than 400,000 unpaid caregivers in Pennsylvania alone. Most of this unpaid work is done by women whose caregiving tasks range from overseeing in-home or residential care, assisting with dressing, feeding and grooming, and providing emotional support.

The report finds the pressure of caring for someone with dementia can take a toll on a person’s health as nearly 40% report physical stress and almost 60% have emotional stress; in fact, caregivers of people with dementia note higher rates of depression and than those caring for someone without dementia.

Mental health counseling and support groups can provide some relief, the report suggests. Other solutions include respite for caregivers, such as adult day services, along with professional help with care coordination and planning to help relieve some of the burdens.

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