Monday, May 28, 2012

Vietnam Veterans: PTSD and Dementia

It always seemed a little strange to me that my level-headed and intelligent husband developed dementia at such a young age. I always wondered how much his dementia had to do with his tour in Vietnam.

Years after the fact, it is now presumed that anyone who served in Vietnam was exposed to Agent Orange. There was a time when you had to prove exposure and that was not an easy task. Jim said that while they were in the jungle, they were sprayed with Agent Orange right along with the foliage. After the presumption of exposure, certain diseases among Vietnam veterans were considered to be service connected. Dementia was specifically excluded.

Jim had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) before it was ever talked about. His Vietnam service left him wounded emotionally. Vietnam lived in his nightmares, in his breakdowns, depression, and through flashbacks. Vietnam was a parasite that clung to him and never lost its grip as it tried to suck sunshine from his soul and replace it with dark shadows.

Studies have linked PTSD with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Prolonged or acute stress damages the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory. Veterans with PTSD have a 77% greater chance of developing dementia than veterans without PTSD.

The VA acknowledges a third of Vietnam veterans struggled with PTSD, and some of those lasted a lifetime. They don’t talk so much about how many lifetimes were cut short by alcoholism, suicide, or dementia.

The Internet has conflicting reports about Vietnam veteran mortality. They range from reports that Vietnam veterans are dying at an alarming rate to other reports that their death rate is only slightly higher than the rest of the population. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. It seems that of the Vietnam veterans I know, an alarming number of them died young. I know that Jim died much too young.  

Jim was haunted by Vietnam. He struggled daily to relegate his tour of duty to the past. It was a personal victory of heart over mind when he enjoyed his family and his music. Playing his guitar was his therapy.

Did Vietnam cause Jim’s dementia? I think it did. Is there proof? There never was enough to convince the VA. We couldn’t even prove PTSD because by the time we knew it was considered a reason for disability, Jim had dementia and could not tell his story. It didn’t matter than I had lived with him all those years and supported him through his mental collapses. It didn’t matter that as his current memories faded, the older memories haunted him even more.

The turbulent Vietnam war years did nothing to help returning veterans get their lives back. They were stigmatized and categorized in a way our military had never been before that war. The only thing that brings me comfort is that Jim did finally come to grips with Vietnam on a certain level. He wore a hat that said “Proud to be a Vietnam Veteran.”

On Memorial Day, I placed flowers in front of the columbarium. Jim would have loved the rows of flags placed in front of the wall. He loved his country, and I’m glad that he finally found pride in serving the USA.

Copyright © May 2012 L. S. Fisher

Friday, May 25, 2012

Older American’s Month: Never Too Old…

I just read an article about May being “Older American’s Month” and the theme is “Never too old to play.” I really like that theme and the message it sends. This made me wonder—how did I get older without knowing May was MY month? After all, I’ve been hearing from AARP for a long time now and it seems like every funeral home within a hundred mile radius has me on their mailing list.

From the article, I made my way to the website. I had to make sure that this wasn’t just a joke or something. The site has many cool things on it, including “The Best Ways to Play.”

·         Get Physical—okay, I admit that I dropped my gym membership at just the time when I needed it most. That’s how it goes. Once I got caught up in the endless cycle of being involved with three or four organizations, I just flat didn't have time to go to the gym. Now, my exercise consists of toting around several bags of papers, books, files, and reference materials. It just gets heavier and heavier.
·         Brain Activities—I pass this one with flying colors. My brain is so active that I can’t shut it off. I’m always thinking, planning, learning.
·         Bridge the Generation Gap—What gap? I’ve always loved people of all ages. I enjoy spending time with my grandkids, kids, aunts, uncles, and my mom. My friends are multi-generational.
·         Get creative—seriously? I write.

I have a pretty good handle on this older American thing. I have no shame when it comes to getting a senior discount.

At our Friendship Lunch yesterday, we had quite a discussion on the advantages of joining AARP. “Don has a lifetime membership,” Cindy said. “I really like the magazine.”

“I’ve been getting offers and I’m thinking about joining,” said Brenda, who just recently squeaked past the minimum age for AARP.

When we get older, we start to realize that we are not invincible and the obits are not our friends. We see former classmates, cousins, friends, and family fall to diseases that become more prevalent as we grow older. We cross our fingers and pray that cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s stay away from us and those we love. The knowledge that we are mortal and vulnerable makes each pain free, sunshiny day more precious.

It is as if I’m on a carousel going around in circles with each day pretty much like the one before and strikingly similar to the one ahead. There is comfort in knowing that life is whirling along on an even keel. Anytime that life glides along in a smooth circle is a time to relax, enjoy the ride, and play.

Getting older should be a time when we can be more of ourselves. As my mother recently said, “I don’t care what other people think of me anymore. It just isn’t important.” Yay, Mom! We are all better off when we reach that turning point in life when we can live life the way we want to live it and not the way others want us to live it.

When we get older, we should be able to play to our hearts content. We are never too old to play, or to be young. No matter how old the calendar says I am—or how old I may look—I’m still young on the inside. Have you noticed how the bar for what is considered older, just keeps getting higher? Is today’s 60 the new 40?

It’s time to catch up on all those things we never had time for when we were younger. It’s  time to finish that bucket list. Maybe it’s time to join AARP. After all, we older Americans are all about discounts and bargains.

I scoff at people who indicate that I'm over the hill. All I have to do to feel younger is turn the XM radio to the 60’s channel. When I hear that music, I’m a teenager inside with a world of possibilities and experiences ahead of me. Age, after all, is only skin deep.

Copyright © L. S. Fisher May 2012

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Alzheimer’s Advocacy Frontlines

Roberta Fischer, Rep. Hartzler, Linda Fisher

If we want to declare war on Alzheimer’s, advocates and researchers form the frontlines. What’s at stake in this war? The lives of 5.4 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease will be lost. Who lies within the danger zone? One American in eight over age sixty-five has Alzheimer’s, and those who live to be eighty-five and older have a fifty percent chance of developing the disease.  

The war against Alzheimer’s begins with a battle called the Alzheimer’s Advocacy Forum. Our mission is to carry a strong message to our legislators to implement the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) and co-sponsor the HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act. We are the faces and the stories of a heartbreaking disease that currently has no effective treatment or cure.

My sister Roberta and I traveled to Washington DC to join more than 700 advocates to speak with the VOICE of hope and reason. This was my twelfth consecutive trip, and you would think by now, I would just leave it to others. My reminder of why this is so important to me was reinforced by a side trip to the Veteran’s Cemetery on the way to the airport. I placed flowers in front of the columbarium to mark the seventh anniversary of Jim’s passing. I paused to reflect on the Alzheimer’s type of dementia that robbed Jim of not only his life, but also ten years leading up to his death.

Kathy and Sarah at Candlelight Rally 2012
Each year I see familiar faces, especially my good friends Kathy and Sarah, who have run the Alzheimer’s gauntlet from beginning to end. Then there are new faces of caregivers and people with Alzheimer’s who are reeling from the diagnosis and trying to cope with the drastic changes Alzheimer’s has made in their lives.

One of the early events each year is the candlelight rally. The event was scheduled to be at the Capitol Building, but weather forced it indoors. After stirring music and testimonials from former Congressman Moore and other advocates, we lit glow sticks and held them high in remembrance of our loved ones and to honor the caregivers and persons living with Alzheimer’s.

The roll call of the states was filled with exciting progress made in all fifty states. After a full day packed with research updates, advocacy training, and discussion of our federal priorities, we finished the day with the National Alzheimer’s Dinner where Meridith Viera served as Master of Ceremonies. The Profile in Dignity Award was presented to Pat Summitt, University of Tennessee Women’s Basketball Head Coach Emeritus, and her son Tyler. After a humorous film showing Pat motivating her team, she invited us to join a giant team to fight Alzheimer’s, and, of course, losing is not an option.

On Wednesday, we donned our purple sashes and armed with facts, figures, and personal stories, we headed out to storm Capitol Hill with our message. We asked for the resources to support NAPA. For the plan to be successful, we need a two-pronged approach. (1) The plan needs to include benchmarks that allow legislators to evaluate progress, and (2) resources of $100 million annually for Alzheimer’s research, education, and caregiver support.

In addition to NAPA, we asked for co-sponsors for the HOPE for Alzheimer’s Act. The Hope Act focuses on three key areas: diagnosis, care planning services, and medical record documentation.

I know from personal experience, the vital importance of these three areas. Because Jim was so young, it was hard to get a diagnosis. Once we knew he had dementia, care planning for him and support for me were key factors to consider. This Act allows the caregiver to discuss options with or without the person with dementia present. I kept record of Jim’s treatments, other medical conditions, and test results and provided the document to every specialist that treated him. For those who don’t have someone to do this, medical documentation would ensure the entire medical team was aware of all health issues.

After our visits, we entered the Capitol Building to see the House in action. As we went through security, the guard handed me my purple Alzheimer’s Association bag, and leaned close to whisper, “Thank you for doing such a good job.” As I smiled at him, I realized he knew the pain of having a loved one with Alzheimer’s.

Seven hundred Advocates made a commitment give a VOICE to Alzheimer’s research and care. In this war against Alzheimer’s, our VOICEs are indeed mightier than the sword.

Copyright © May 2012 L. S. Fisher