"Is it ... Alzheimer's?"

“Is it … Alzheimer’s?”

A brief pause, an audible sigh, then: “Yes.”

A phone conversation this week between friends, about a mutual friend. I had heard from yet another that a fellow we three, among many others, had considered ourselves fortunate to know and regard as a friend and mentor, a good man to have in our corner, an older pal of unrivaled professional competence and unquestioned personal integrity, was no longer … himself. I had feared as much, earlier in the year. I didn’t see him as often as before, but considered that my failing, my loss. Then some weeks later, as part of some research I was pursuing, I called to ask for his memories of a certain restaurant, closed years ago, a legendary political gathering place.

“I just … just … don’t remember it,” he said, in an unsettling blend of cheer and remorse.

Only days ago had I observed first-hand that another treasured ally, an executive of superb intellect and the vitality of a man a quarter his age, had lost rather much of both qualities. It showed in his face, his gait, the extra moment or two it took him to respond to questions he would have answered in a millisecond at our last lunch, just five months previous. Not Alzheimer’s, a protege informed me the next morning, but a close cousin, a related form of dementia.

November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, so designated to highlight a nightmare from which millions of Americans never awake and which millions more — their families and friends, their caregivers — live with night and day, and whose awareness of Alzheimer’s extends, without prompting, to the other 11 months. And beyond, even — after the disease has finally done its awful work and the loved one succumbs.

Alzheimer’s is very much a problem for every state but ours especially, given our percentage of citizens aged 65 and older, which in the last census ranked Arkansas 10th in the nation. There is no cause for relief in government projections of a sharp decline — to 25th — by 2030, for the number of Arkansans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by then likely will exceed 80,000.

Alzheimer’s is frightfully expensive from an institutional standpoint: Almost half the 34,000 Arkansans in nursing homes suffer from moderate to severe cognitive loss. Its psychic toll on volunteer caregivers — usually spouses, children or other relatives — is incalculable: the husband unrecognized by his wife, the wife suddenly slapped by her husband, the children — “strangers” or “burglars,” in the patients’ minds — ordered to leave a parents’ home. The Alzheimer’s Association estimates almost 170,000 kin and comrades of dementia sufferers were struggling to keep their own emotional equilibrium as they dealt with the diminishing, or disappeared, comprehension of those they hold dear.

An even more blunt assessment, in a memo earlier this month, from Dr. Guy Eakin of the American Health Assistance Foundation: “Of the top 10 deadliest diseases in the U.S., only Alzheimer’s disease has no treatment to slow or stop the disease beyond symptomatic treatments. There is currently no prevention, no remission, and no cure.”

Caring for Alzheimer’s patients will cost $183 billion this year and Congress approved $450 million for Alzheimer’s research, a fraction of the sums allocated for study of other ailments in Eakin’s Top 10 Deadliest. The outlook for increased funding is about as encouraging as Washington’s handling of our deficit-debt disorder.

My two friends, and their families, are fortunate only in that they have the financial resources to deal with the tragedy in their midst. They are decidedly a minority. And they are nonetheless impoverished, measured in the currency of the here and now.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.