As the debate about the new federal budget surfaces in every corner of America, it’s imperative that students begin to discuss the singular disease that no bill or budget will be able to adequately address in the next several years - Alzheimer’s. Yeah - that disease that “only old people” get is about a lot more than grandma forgetting where the remote is.
Two years ago, I had the privilege of being flown out to the Alzheimer’s Association Advocacy Forum where over 1,100 community leaders, doctors, and researchers from across the country gathered to lobby Members of Congress for increased funds for Alzheimer’s research. Impatient to idea-source retribution plans for my recently diagnosed grandmother, I actively sought to find a like-minded community that I couldn’t find at my college. After seeing a breakout session titled “youth forum,” I was sure I was about to meet my future best friends. To my dismay, there were only about 50 attendees at this forum, and most were in their early 30s. This was not the “youth” I was hoping to find.
The forum as a whole, however, was far from a disappointment. As I listened to a former U.S. surgeon general, Dr. David Satcher, and the current director of the National Institute on Aging, Dr. Richard J. Hodes give their keynotes, I began to understand that for millions of families, Alzheimer’s double-downed on its emotional impact by robbing family caregivers of their jobs and savings. Facts like “only 100 dollars is spent by the US government toward Alzheimer’s research for every 26,000 spent for its care” and “compared to those over 65 without Alzheimer’s, those with Alzheimer’s cost 23 times more to cover through Medicaid” stuck with me. While I hadn’t found my community, I walked away with a transformative bottom-line: the Alzheimer’s epidemic is an economic collapse waiting to happen.
Upon my return to UCLA, I co-founded a nonprofit and began to build this community by sharing my realization with my peers. Bruins are pretty receptive. Under the guidance of former U.S. Secretary on Aging, Professor Fernando Torres-Gil, and world renowned geriatric psychiatrist, Dr. Gary Small, our founding chapter grew to over 75 active members within its first year. As our programs have matured, we’ve been able to raise $10,000 for research scholarships, spread our message to over 20 colleges and high schools, and provide over 2,000 hours of caregiver respite.
Our message has been quick to spread because students have begun to ponder the realities of this disease:
What will happen to our economy when millions more wives, daughters, husbands, and sons have to stop working to provide care for their loved one?
How will senior services accommodate the millions of baby boomers who are soon to retire?
How long will our government be able to provide health insurance to our generation?
Will social security exist by the time my generation needs it?
Who will hold elected officials accountable for increased Alzheimer’s research funding when they are proposing a 20% cut to the NIH (Especially if the patients and their already-stressed caregivers cannot do it themselves)?
With political headlines plaguing our news headlines and twitter feeds, these questions do not get the limelight they deserve. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do know the collective student voice can drastically change the trajectory of our fight against this disease. If you are a young caregiver - be fearless and share your story. If your grandparent was affected - make sure your parents aren’t. If you think healthcare coverage is important - take a stand. Whether it’s by starting a chapter of our nonprofit, volunteering your free time at a memory care facility, or simply starting conversations by asking the questions above, I encourage every student to seek innovative ways to be a champion for this cause. Our peers, the millions currently affected, and millions who will need you. Our collective future depends on it.