A coalition of health officials, nonprofits and elected leaders last week unveiled a proposed state plan to cope with the impacts of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias in Oregon. The plan comes from a task force charged with addressing Alzheimer’s as a major and growing challenge to public health systems in Oregon and the nation.

Among the findings is the estimate that about 76,000 people in Oregon – about the same number as the population of Bend – are living with Alzheimer’s now. That number is expected to balloon as our ample Boomer generation ages.

The plan seeks to lay out strategies for dealing with everything from the stigma associated with dementia to education for care providers and the availability of resources.

Anyone who has lived with a relative suffering from Alzheimer’s or a related dementia knows the tremendous toll it can take on loved ones and family life. The task force adds a dimension to that, projecting a toll on our community health infrastructure as well.

Dr. Jeffrey Kaye, director of geriatric neurology at Oregon Health and Sciences University, offers this perspective: “The state plan is an important first step toward addressing a major public health challenge that will overtake us, unless all of us – families, physicians, researchers, service organizations and policy makers – work together.”

This is particularly important for the rural areas, where services already are stretched by distance, economics and availability. Wallowa County, with an aging population spread over a broad area in Northeast Oregon, is no exception.

“Those of us who live in the more urban areas of Oregon are fortunate to have a variety of resources available to help our loved ones with dementia, but these resources are spotty and unavailable in many other areas,” said Dee Whitney, whose husband Bill is living with Alzheimer’s. “While Portland has a number of geriatric physicians, other areas have one or none nearby.”

She and the other backers hope the plan will improve access to resources throughout the state.

The task force is setting up meetings across the state to discuss that effort. No surprise, the meetings tend to be in larger population areas, with the nearest to Wallowa County set for Aug. 16 in Pendleton (4 – 6 p.m. at Pendleton City Hall). Those who attend likely will hear about the need for more education and public awareness, as well as better access to health services.

The rural areas must lend their voices to that discussion. They need to express their concerns about how we will address these issues in Oregon, and how services will be delivered throughout the state. After all, the impact – at least on a per capita basis – isn’t likely to be greater anywhere else in the state than it will be right here on our aging frontier.

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