Alzheimer's continues to increase

With predictions showing that Alzheimer's disease is one of the fastest growing medical epidemics, new centers are sprouting locally to provide care and service to victims of the challenging condition that typically strikes the elderly.

For years, researchers have predicted an explosion in the number of people afflicted with the memory-robbing condition caused by the aging of Baby Boomers, often identified as the largest population group born in the United States in the 20th century.

U.S. Memory Care opened its flagship center in Colleyville in May to serve people with memory disorders, such as Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

The Dallas-based company recently announced that it plans to build at least 20 new facilities throughout the southern United States during the next three years. Construction is underway on one in North Dallas and another in Houston.

This fall, the upscale Watermere retirement community in Southlake will debut The Landing, a new residential complex that will include a floor with 43 units that offer skilled nursing care for complex medical needs —another level of service for seniors with dementia.

"There are more clinical needs in our community so we are trying to meet those needs," said Jon Gulley, executive director of The Landing at Watermere, of the move to add skilled nursing care.

And more facilities that specialize in memory care services are coming.

"There is really a great need and it is only going to get bigger," said Dawn Dietz, marketing director for U.S. Memory Care in Colleyville.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, about 5.2 million Americans have the disease —including 5 million 65 and older. Unless a cure is found, the number will grow to about 16 million by 2050.

In Texas, about 340,000 people had the disease in 2010, the latest figure available, according to the nonprofit organization.

The disease is now the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.

About 20,000 people in Tarrant County are living with Alzheimer's, according to the North Central Texas Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association in Fort Worth.

It is among the most expensive conditions to treat, and poses some of the greatest challenges, local providers and experts said.

Among them is the longevity of Alzheimer's, which slowly erodes memory and impacts behavior over a period of years. As the disease progresses, sufferers frequently exhibit erratic behavior and are prone to unexpected outbursts, sometimes accompanied by hitting and biting, experts said. Care is often needed for bathing, dressing and using the restroom.

The Alzheimer's Association estimates the cost of care at about $203 billion annually.

More than half of residents in assisted living and nursing homes have some type of memory impairment, according to the association. But more than 70 percent of people with Alzheimer's live at home, where relatives and friends provide care at their own expense.

Nevertheless, the new local centers, touting exceptional amenities and best practices in managing Alzheimer's, are counting on the growing prevalence of the disease to increase the demand for memory care facilities.

Locally, most are private pay but accept Veterans' Aid and Attendance benefits and long-term care insurance. Monthly costs are typically at least $5,000 a month.

For the price, residents get active days filled with arts and crafts, music, games, and other activities appropriate for their cognitive abilities. They can stroll outdoors without risk of wandering away.

U.S. Memory Care has a "Main Street" where residents can visit a hometown-style cafe, watch a movie or have their hair cut at the beauty/barber shop.

The real aim is a comfortable, welcoming environment where residents can "age in place" through all stages of dementia.

"For people with Alzheimer's, moving to an unfamiliar environment is very stressful," said Nina Davis, assistant director of Autumn Leaves in Grapevine.

Autumn Leaves is the only area facility that provides day care, albeit limited, for dementia sufferers living at home. It also provides limited respite care.

Adult day care was identified as one of the greatest needs for dementia patients in Tarrant County and throughout Texas, in a 2009 report from Texas A&M, the latest available.