You've seen him as the dad in Tortilla Soup, as Joe in The Princess Diaries and most recently as the shrink in Monk. But here's one role you haven't seen Hector Elizondo in: Health advocate. Elizondo spoke with Hair Balls about his work raising awareness for Alzheimer's disease, including how the disease affected his family.
"My mother was the patient, my dad was the caregiver," he says. "He died a month before she did, from the stress of the situation. We didn't see the signs, all the red flags that were indicators of things to come. We didn't recognize them. We just put it down to forgetfulness. We'd say Momma was nervous, she was high-strung. So, she never got diagnosed, and my father never got any help."
Not surprisingly, Elizondo's work with Alzheimer's is focused on the caregivers. "When I heard the figures, that there are at least 5 million people [with Alzheimer's in the US], and that there are at least 10 million caregivers, I thought this is not just a problem. This is an epidemic. There's not much I can do for patients, that's the doctor's area. But I can do something for caregivers. They don't realize it, but the caregivers are at risk as a result of providing 24/7 care."
"In the Latino community, where we take care of our own and we don't discuss personal problems. It's a virtue, but in this case it was hurtful, especially to my father. By the time we got [my mother] to the doctor, she was already entering the late stages of Alzheimer's. By that time my father was slowly deteriorating from caring for her.
"No one ever said it's not going to get better, this is it, so get ready. No one said we need your father to take care of himself so that he can take care of your mother. We need professionals to be involved. Your father will need respite care. We never heard any of that," says Elizondo.
"The inevitable happened: my father had a nervous breakdown. My mother was losing her life backwards, and my father was in the same hospital, in another wing, having a nervous breakdown."
Alzheimer's expert, Dr. David Crumpacker, Assistant Chief of Psychiatry at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, works with Elizondo raising awareness and he says, "That story is more common than not. People don't die of Alzheimer's, they die with it. And that takes a toll on their loved ones. We're finding that the average is ten years from diagnosis to death. My soapbox [stand] is for early diagnosis and early treatment. If we can stop the deterioration early, we can have ten good years as opposed to ten bad years. That's better for the patient and the caregivers."
Dr. Crumpacker says families today can avoid the obstacles Elizondo's family faced.
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He says, "There are resources available that we just didn't have just a few years ago. There are resources online, support groups and education that we didn't have then. We have medications, we have treatments. We still don't have a cure. But we're working on the cure, and there are some good treatments that we just didn't have 20 years ago.
As for Elizondo, his message is simple: "Caregivers must take care of themselves first."
For more information, visit www.CaringForAlz.com.
-- Olivia Flores Alvarez