PHOENIX - Compared to the typical five-year average for Alzheimer's and dementia-related deaths in the U.S., 31,000 more people died so far this year than would typically be expected. That's more than 1,000 in Arizona alone.
Kathy and Jean are working together to feed the birds on a beautiful Arizona morning. They'll be marking their 7th wedding anniversary this month and five years since Jean was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
"She knew something was wrong. We could see probably two to three years before her diagnosis. Memory gaps, repeated questions, word searching, and we just started from scratch. Ran straight into the storm," said Kathy Norris Wilhelm.
That storm intensified this year as isolation from COVID-19 took its toll.
"100% of people have seen a negative decline in progression of disease in their loved one. Drastically. I mean exponentially," said Kathy.
Alzheimer's and dementia-related deaths are staggeringly high this year. According to a review of CDC data by the Alzheimer's Association, in Arizona, deaths are up 32.2% compared to the five-year average. That's the highest increase in the country.
"We are, in a lot of ways, the epicenter of this disease," said Kinsey McManus of the Alzheimer's Association.
McManus says the increase in deaths may be because of misdiagnosed deaths early on in the pandemic. Access to health care is changing, and isolation is taking a toll.
"It seems to be complex and multifaceted, but certainly something we wished we weren't seeing because we're losing enough people to COVID directly."
Kathy says they've worked hard to stay engaged in groups and activities as much as they can, but it's still not enough to make up for what a world with COVID-19 has taken.
"I think it's the perfect storm. I think it's the totality of it."
And that was McManus' advice to all of the caregivers struggling out there. Try to find ways to be socially interactive. It's tough right now, but it can be very helpful.
If you know someone with Alzheimer's, send them a letter, FaceTime them, stay connected.