Saint Mary’s physician Kevin T. Foley, MD, FACP, looks at Alzheimer’s disease from all angles. On one hand, as the medical director for the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Program at Saint Mary’s, Dr. Foley is fully aware that Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating condition. At the same time, he is boldly optimistic about the future of treatment for Alzheimer’s.
“If you spend any time with people with Alzheimer’s
disease, you really know how life-changing this condition is,” says Dr.
Foley. “People don’t want to be told that they
have Alzheimer’s disease. There’s such a stigma
associated with the diagnosis, and they often believe that
little can be done for them. Denial prevents others from receiving
a prompt assessment, and the delay that ensues can result
in a less favorable prognosis. Also, family members who do
not seek out advice and support can easily become overwhelmed
with their responsibilities as caregivers.”
When he arrived in Grand Rapids in 2000, Dr. Foley immediately saw how the needs of Alzheimer’s patients were not being met effectively. “Having been the medical director at another memory center in Michigan, I was a little surprised to find that there were no organized and dedicated systems in place for dealing with memory disorders in this area,” says Foley.
Many times, care for Alzheimer’s disease is fragmented, says Foley. A neurologist may diagnose the condition, write a prescription, and then turn the patient over to a primary care physician who may not know the most effective way to work with an Alzheimer’s patient long-term.
“People with this condition like to know that there’s an expert close by who can help them,” says Foley. “They appreciate close monitoring and team-based, comprehensive care, and that’s what we do. We encourage people to partner with us over the long-term.”
When Dr. Foley says “long-term,” he means it in the fullest sense. “We will follow them through all stages of their disease, if that’s what they want,” he insists. “Our follow-up care is individualized and suited to meet the needs of the patient and caregiver."
Under Dr. Foley’s leadership, the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Program at Saint Mary’s opened its doors in 2004 as West Michigan’s only full-time center dedicated exclusively to the condition.
“It takes a passion and a commitment and a knowledge of what’s going on in order to provide excellent service,” says Foley. “We have an interdisciplinary team, so that we can seamlessly move patients from one expert to another, depending on what their needs are. We are truly a comprehensive program. There aren’t too many others like ours.”
The program uses the combined skills of a geriatrician, neuropsychologist, nurse, social worker, pharmacist and other support services. And Dr. Foley and his staff put a premium on patient and caregiver education.
“We feel that it is essential to educate patients so that they know what this disease is about, so that their fears can be reduced,” says Dr. Foley. “Our primary focus is to empower the patient and the caregiver so that they know what’s ahead of them, and how to handle it.”
Dr. Foley and his staff work closely with families, since the disease has such a profound impact on everyone related to the patient.
“Defenses tend to create problems,” he says. “You see denial that can crate barriers to appropriate decision making. We give families reality checks along the way and let them know what they need to plan for. It can be devastating if they’re not ready, and not prepared. We tell them what’s going to make a difference as the disease progresses."
“This is not a condition that you can learn on the job, and hope that you can just do it on your own,” Foley continues. “Not to mention that the caregivers often don’t set realistic goals for themselves as far as what they think they can handle.”
The spouses and children of Alzheimer’s patients are trying to balance their own lives as they attempt to deal with the condition’s impact.
“I see so many over-stressed caregivers,” Foley
says. “They’ll tell me, ‘I made a promise that I would always care for my wife or husband.’ But these caregivers don't set necessary caregiving limits and can eventually become overwhelmed. We’re
here to prevent that from happening.”
Although Foley keeps both feet firmly planted in reality, he sees several bright spots on the horizon. For example, Alzheimer’s research has come a long way in the past 10 years.
“The public cannot imagine how much success we’ve had in understanding this disease,” he says. “Researchers are continually making discoveries to understand the cause of the disease, even down to the minute details of the molecular biology, and the genetics. That’s the foundation for finding a cure.”
According to Foley, Saint Mary’s will play an active
role in Alzheimer’s research. “Our center has
also made a commitment to advance Alzheimer’s disease
research through participation in clinical drug trial research supported by the National Institutes of Health and industry,” Foley says.
And how close are we to an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease?
"One day I expect to see new and better options for treatment of Alzheimer's disease, with medications that induce remission and restore memory. There is every reason to remain optimistic about the future," Foley says.
For now, though, he is focused on providing help and a degree of hope for patients and caregivers as they struggle with Alzheimer’s. He believes the new Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Program meets the most urgent needs of today.