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Issue date: Nov. 20-22, 1998

The caregiver generation

Millions grapple with how to care for loved ones with Alzheimer's disease - often risking their own health.

In this article:
For more information

By Michele Pullia Turk

At 41, Susan Mertz quit her job and moved into her mother's home in Riverview, Fla., to care for her. Speaking for legions of children, siblings and spouses who usher loved ones through Alzheimer's, she says, "I'm trying to live a normal life, too, so I'm tired most of the time. It's hard for me to do everything I want to do, at the same time being nursemaid."
THe need for at-home caregivers is about to skyrocket. Today, countless relatives and friends provide most of the care for nearly 4 million Americans who have Alzheimer's disease. By the middle of the next century, when people now in their 20s are elderly, the number of patients with this mentally debilitating disease is expected to jump to 14 million - equal to the population of Florida - unless a cure is found.

While that cure is sought, two recent drugs create mild benefits for some people by slowing the progression of the disease in its early stages.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, 70 percent of patients live at home, and 75 percent of their home care is by relatives and friends (long-term care usually is not covered by government or private insurance).

Caregiving can damage your health, relationships, social life and job, says Leonard Pearlin, a University of Maryland sociologist and adviser to the Alzheimer's Association. "It's not simply that caregiving is tough, but life becomes tough."

Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease can be particularly taxing because the memory loss and behavioral changes are so drastic. Studies at Ohio State University suggest that Alzheimer's caregivers are more likely to suffer depression than the general population and that their immune systems are less equipped to fight off illnesses such as the flu.

It's crucial to learn to accept help and emotional support, says Suzanne Mintz, president and co-founder of the National Family Caregivers Association. It's important to find time to take care of someone else: yourself. "You have to get over that sense of guilt and say, 'I have a right to a life and a right to be healthy.' "

The caregivers' pinch

  • 5.75 million Americans in the "sandwich generation" care for both their children and their parents.

  • Caring for a chronically ill person can damage your own health, relationships and bank balance.

  • A 1997 National Family Caregivers Association survey found 81% of caregivers are women, 77% have children under 18 at home and nearly half work outside the home.

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    For more information

  • Alzheimer's Association, 1-800-272-3900,

  • National Family Caregivers Association, 1-800-896-3650,


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