Dementia’s dangerous rise prompts lawmakers to ask for up to $500,000 for Alzheimer’s

By Madison Vega | Cronkite news

PHOENIX – State lawmakers are introducing a bill to build a state dementia plan and set aside up to $500,000 for new jobs focused on Alzheimer’s disease, a common type of dementia that is on the rise especially quickly in Arizona.

“We call it the silver tsunami,” Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, said Wednesday at a news conference at the state Capitol. “The number of people expected to experience Alzheimer’s in the coming years is going to be significant.”

Sen. TJ Shope, R-Coolidge, sponsored Senate Bill 1220, which would require the Arizona Department of Health Services to build a dementia plan for policies and programs to combat Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, according to advocates. It will include hiring two dementia service coordinators to work together across state agencies. Longdon is sponsoring a similar bill in the House.

The Alzheimer’s Association said in a 2023 report that Arizona’s diagnosis rate for a disease that destroys memories and leads to cognitive decline is expected to jump more than 33% over five years, ending in 2025. This affects patients and their loved ones, who usually become caregivers. It costs – an estimated 18 billion hours of unpaid care, says the association.

Leonard Chayrez, who has Alzheimer’s, and his partner and carer Mark Garrity, said the diagnosis was delayed.

“Over the course of three years, until they finally decided we’re going to start testing you,” Chayrez said.

Marisa Menchola, a dementia specialist in Tucson, said diagnosing symptoms early is key.

“We cannot reduce this burden without earlier diagnoses, and there is no early diagnosis without public education and awareness,” Menchola said.

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Dementia upsets families.

“Nothing prepares you for the day your own mother looks you in the eye and doesn’t know who you are,” said Merry Grace, who cried at Wednesday’s news conference as she spoke about her mother, who died five years ago. Now Grace takes care of her father, who also has dementia.

Shope, who represents the Southeast Valley and parts of Tucson, said his great-grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. As a child, he watched his relatives take on caregiving duties.

“You look at the sacrifices that your own family has to make because my grandmother, my aunt and my mother didn’t want to send our great grandmother away to a nursing home,” Shope said.

Menchola said the fight against Alzheimer’s needs help from people from different backgrounds.

“Our carers are doing their bit. Our healthcare workers and our researchers are doing their part. We need our partners in the legislature to do their part as well, Menchola said.

Similar bills, including one to raise awareness of the disease, are moving through the Senate and House. Garrity and other advocates say that if the bills pass, it will also help reduce misunderstandings about dementia.

“There’s kind of a stigma that you don’t talk about it — something that happens to old people,” Garrity said. But it doesn’t, he said.

His partner, Chayrez, is 57.

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