Common-Sense Solutions to Help Keep Alzheimer’s Patients Safe and Sound

Lilo H. Stainton | May 10, 2016 | Health Care
Something as simple as indicating on patients’ charts that they suffer from dementia can keep them from wandering off

With a growing number of New Jersey residents struggling with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia — and a massive generation of aging Baby Boomers marching toward the same fate — lawmakers want to ensure the state’s healthcare facilities are best prepared to treat these often challenging aging patients.

There are now an estimated 170,000 Alzheimer’s patients age 65-plus in the Garden State. The Alzheimer’s Association predicts this will rise to some 210,000 patients — nearly a quarter of all senior citizens here — within the next decade. And the state’s rate lags that for the United States, where some 5 million people already suffer with the disease and, according to a recent New York Times report, a new case is diagnosed every 67 seconds.

A degenerative brain disease, Alzheimer’s can effect memory, language, and problem solving and make it difficult to complete daily activities. Eventually patients can lose the ability to walk and even swallow, relegating them to bed with a need for round-the-clock care. The disease is fatal, and the Health Department said it kills nearly 2,000 Garden State residents each year.

On Monday the New Jersey Senate unanimously approved a measure designed to help keep hospital patients with Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders safe and sound. The bill (S-377) would require hospital staffers who admit patients with dementia to mark this clearly on medical charts so others can ensure individuals get proper treatment and are not allowed to wander away from their rooms or treatment areas.

“In a lot of situations they might come in without a loved one, or that person has to leave,” and the notation helps staff in their efforts to communicate with the patient, explained Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), the lead sponsor of the bill along with Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex). “This can prevent avoidable situations like patients wandering from hospitals and endangering themselves. It’s common sense that a patient’s medical record clearly reflects their condition to enable their effective care.”

Kerry McKean Kelley, vice president for communications with the New Jersey Hospital Association, said her organization, which represents the state’s hospitals, nursing homes, and similar long-term care facilities, has not taken a formal position on the legislation. NJHA did request several amendments, she said, to give the patient’s dedicated caregiver a say in the matter and to expand the policy to include other “dementia-related disorders that could be at greater risk of confusion, agitation and wandering.”

While she was not aware of any specific hospital-wandering incidents, McKean Kelley said elderly patients can get lost — just as seniors or anyone can in a mall or other unfamiliar facility. Hospital Alzheimer’s units already have special precautions designed to track patients, she said, “but you also have to be mindful of not interfering with an individual’s rights and privacy.”

[related]In November, Gov. Chris Christie signed a law — also sponsored by Codey, Rice, and many of their colleagues — calling on the Health Department to regulate group homes for patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The law, which takes effect next month, requires the state’s two-dozen “dementia-care homes” to apply for a special license and ensure their staff is properly trained to prevent wandering. A 2012 report in detailed a number of safety problems — including falls, wandering, and resulting injuries — that had occurred at a chain of these facilities in Bergen County.

Codey, who for decades has championed healthcare for those with mental illness and neurological challenges, “declared war” anew on Alzheimer’s during a gathering late last month at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. The former acting governor urged President Barack Obama and members of Congress to boost funding for dementia research, which currently receives less attention and funding than some other diseases — like cancer — that are in fact less deadly.

Alzheimer’s disease, which can take root decades before symptoms are revealed, exacts an enormous toll on families both emotionally and financially. Codey said the disease now costs the nation some $226 billion a year, not counting the lost wages and extra expenses faced by family members and others who must care for dementia patients.

The personal nature of the disease — which Codey has said plagued his own father — has helped attract other sponsors as well. In the Senate, 11 other members joined Codey and Rice to propose the plan, which mirrors a version approved by the full body last year. An Assembly version, with a dozen sponsors of its own, is also expected to pass this spring, Codey said.

Christie’s office has made it a policy not to comment on pending legislation, but three weeks ago the governor signed a proclamation in support of the federal declaration naming May 2016 as “Older Americans Month.” Christie praised the accomplishments of New Jersey’s 1.6 million residents over age 60 and promised to continue to support this group through the Department of Human Service’s Division of Aging and the state’s 21 county-based agencies for senior services. Among other things, the division runs Alzheimer’s Adult Day Programs at 36 sites in 18 counties for residents diagnosed with the disease.