As her mother's Alzheimer's worsened over eight long years, so did Doreen Alfaro's bills: The walker, then the wheelchair, then the hospital bed, then the diapers - and the caregivers hired for more and more hours a day so Alfaro could go to work and her elderly father could get some rest.
Alfaro and her husband sold their California house to raise money for her mother's final at-home care. Six years later, the 58-year-old Alfaro wonders if she eventually develops Alzheimer's, too, "what happens to my care? Where will I go?"
Dementia is poised to become a defining disease of the rapidly aging population - and a budget-busting one for Medicare, Medicaid and families. Now the Obama administration is developing the first National Alzheimer's Plan, to combine research aimed at fighting the mind-destroying disease with help that caregivers need to stay afloat.
"This is a unique opportunity, maybe an opportunity of a lifetime in a sense, to really have an impact on this diseaqse," says Dr. Ronald Petersen of the Mayo Clinic, who chairs a commitee that later this month begins advising the government on what that plan should include.
An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's or similar dementias. It's the sixth-leading killer. There is no cure; treatments only temporarily ease some symptoms. Barring a research breakthrough, those numbers will worsen steadily as the baby boomers gray: By 2050, anywhere from 13 million to 16 million Americans are projected to have Alzheimer's, costing a $1 trillion in medical and nursing home expenditures.