Oregon Public Broadcasting

The state unveiled its new plan to improve care for people with Alzheimer's Monday. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of Oregonians with Alzheimer's or a related dementia has increased by one third.

That growth is a result of people living longer. The older we get, the more likely we are to see the symptoms.

Speaking on OPB's Think Out Loud, Jon Bartholomew, the public policy director of the Oregon chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, says about 76,000 Oregonians now have the disease.

"That's approximately the entire population of the city of Bend. And by 2025 we're expected to add enough to raise that to 110,000 people in Oregon and that's like adding all of Clatsop County to Bend."

Similar growth is being seen across the nation. In fact, there's already a federal Alzheimer plan. Oregon is just the latest state to set up its own.

Oregon's plan has a number of goals, including providing treatment; optimizing the quality of care and improving access to care -- especially in rural areas. Bartholomew says the plan also aims to reduce the stigma surrounding the disease.

"People don't like to accept the fact that they're losing what is the most personal thing to them, which is their memories. Their self. People don't know how to deal with someone with dementia, and that's the other factor, that people get terrified of it. So you don't want to tell your friends, 'Oh, my mother has Alzheimer's.' because then maybe that person won't want to go visit that person's mother.'"

Bartholomew says such stigmatization needs to stop.

The new state plan does not call for spending more money. Bartholomew says the idea is to improve communication and efficiency between groups that serve Alzheimer's patients.

Bill Whitney was diagnosed with Alzheimer's five months ago -- after he started forgetting words and then drove his car through his garage.

He says finding a local memory loss group helped a great deal.

"I was reluctant at first. But I'm so glad I went. I've made some friends and helped regain a sense of normalcy, if there is such a thing. I continue to attend the support group meetings and really find them beneficial."

Whitney lives with his wife, Dee Whitney, in Southwest Portland. He has a gerontologist and regularly attends speech therapy, physical therapy and art therapy sessions. Dee says access to such resources is key to stopping the progress of her husband's disease.

"In another location, we would not have had access. So the state plan, the hope of the state plan is to make these resources available, no matter where you live."

The plan has been put together over the last two years by a broad coalition of partners -- from the state to non-profits and the private sector.

A series of seven public town hall meetings will now run through August in communities across the state. The first is in Eugene on Saturday.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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