Nearly 400,000 people in New York State are living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. The Medicaid costs of caring for people with Alzheimer’s statewide is expected to top $4.6 billion this year, and by 2025 that number will increase by a third.
More than 8,200 people in hospice statewide have a primary diagnosis of dementia, and more than 1 million people provided roughly 1.2 billion hours of unpaid care for individuals with dementia statewide last year.
In the 10-county Rochester and Finger Lakes region, some 30,000 people are affected by the disease, and it is estimated that for every person with the disease, they have at least three family caregivers helping them.
But as daunting as those numbers are, the Alzheimer’s Association, Rochester & Finger Lakes Region chapter, wants families of those with dementia to know there is hope and they are not alone. And, for the first time, the local chapter is taking that message to the airwaves.
“We work with thousands of families every year, and we know the journey is incredibly difficult, challenging, painful, isolating,” said chapter President and CEO Teresa Galbier. “We want to find a way to recognize that but continue to instill the level of hope that we have that one day there will be a prevention, a treatment and a cure for the disease.”
To do that, the Alzheimer’s Association enlisted the help of Roberts Communications, a nearly 50-year-old, Rochester-based public relations and advertising firm.
“We shared with them how we’ve marketed our programs and our cause, and raised visibility of the organization’s services, as well as concern about the disease in the past, and then we asked them to knock everything on its head,” Galbier said.
The relationship began earlier this year, with Roberts doing its due diligence and learning more about both the disease and the local chapter, said Samantha Burkett, communications director at the Alzheimer’s Association.
“The campaign is really focusing on radio and print,” Burkett said. “It was important to us to make sure that we’re hitting the right audience, and we have a very specific audience we’re looking to reach. Although, at the same time, Alzheimer’s touches so many different families and age groups, and it can be quite broad.”
The advertising campaign is called “Disrupt Alzheimer’s,” and it is aimed at empowering those living with the disease and their caregivers and loved ones.
“The idea is that as a disease Alzheimer’s disrupts your memory, your relationships. It cuts you off from a lot of activities you used to do,” Burkett said. “The whole idea is to flip that on its head and give the power back to the people and the families that are affected. Alzheimer’s has disrupted their lives, but now we’re going to take action and disrupt Alzheimer’s.”
Through the ad campaign, the Alzheimer’s Association is hoping to show people that disrupting the disease can be done in a number of ways.
“You could do that by coming to a support group and learning strategies to live a better life with (the disease). It could be coming to educational programs and learning how to stay healthy to manage symptoms,” Burkett explained. “It can be to join our walk and participate and fundraise and try to find a cure.”
The disease wreaks havoc on relationships and can be costly at home and at work, Galbier noted.
“It devastates people in the workforce on a host of scales, and it also devastates the economy,” she explained. “It is the single most expensive disease in the U.S. today. The cost will bankrupt Medicare by the middle of the century.”
The Alzheimer’s Association data show that nationally, more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease, and as many as 16 million will have it by 2050. The cost of caring for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is estimated to total $259 billion this year, increasing to $1.1 trillion by midcentury.
Nearly one in three seniors who die each year has Alzheimer’s or another dementia.
“And we all know that we can’t—as a society, as a representative of an organization that is there for people 24 hours a day—stop this disease right now, but we can disrupt it,” Galbier said. “And disrupting it means doing something positive, bringing meaning to your life, bringing purpose, finding ways to get more involved in the community, breaking down the social isolation.”
In the past, the local Alzheimer’s Association chapter had a very limited advertising budget. Most of the organization’s advertising was done via public service announcements and partnerships with local television and radio stations. But the approach was more reactive than proactive, Galbier said.
“Over the last couple of years we had a couple of state grants that gave us the ability to promote the programs and services that they were funding,” she said. “So we started dabbling a little bit in advertising. But this past year we made a commitment as an organization to put aside some funding that was comingled with some state grants that supported the concern and awareness side … with some discretionary dollars that we had through other efforts and came up with a full-on campaign.”
The organization already has seen results from the campaign, which began in earnest in May, and hopes to continue that success when it begins advertising its annual fundraising walks, which take place in October.
“Some of our programs are seeing a 10-times increase in participants coming to educational programs, to conferences, to workshops,” Galbier said. “Our support groups are busting at the seams. We have had sell-out conferences that we’ve had to turn people away from, which we’ve never done in our history.”
In the last year, the Alzheimer’s Association has had more than 8,800 people take part in its educational programs, all of which are free.
Galbier and Burkett note that the premise of the ad campaign is not to raise money but to raise awareness of the disease.
“Of course we would love to have additional resources, because that means we can serve more people, but the intention of this campaign was to empower people, to empower our constituents,” Galbier said. “What we’re saying is, this is an action verb; we are punching this disease in the face.”
Adds Burkett: “The biggest message is it’s about hope. There is hope for those affected by the disease. There is hope for those struggling on the journey of figuring out how to care for their loved ones. They’re not alone.”
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