Pennwell web 375 600

Dementia not just a disease of the elderly

Feb. 2, 2012
Dementia is rapidly becoming a major health threat in the United States, and according to Maureen Murphy Chodaba, RDH, no one among us is immune to the disease. Chodaba talks about how dementia has impacted her parents and urges hygienists to be supportive when treating patients with the disease.
by Maureen Murphy Chodaba, RDH
Today is January 20, 2012. My Mom is 82 years alive today. I hold in my hand a black and white photograph of my Mom. I imagine it is probably from 1934. I laugh and wonder if it could possibly be January 20 as the ground is covered with snow and Mom is posing with a beautiful doll carriage. Perhaps it was a birthday present.
In the background, I see that the stone house on the right is the house that eventually became the dental office where I was employed as a dental hygienist for over 20 years. I am always amazed at such interesting tidbits of life. If only Mom could have known that some day her real life “baby” would grow up to work in a spot just a few feet from where she was standing!I remember another January 20 in 1966. Mom had worked late that night at the bank. Dad had bought a fancy birthday cake at the local Grand Union. My grandparents, my brothers, my Dad and I all hid in the dark with only the light from the candles. We surprised Mom with a chorus of “Happy Birthday to you!” as she walked through the door. I sang, giggled, and almost choked with excitement. It is still one of the most perfect memories of my life. The world was just right. The world was my family, and my family was all about simple love.I REMEMBER! Ah, what a gift it is to remember! My Mom and Dad remembered that happy moment for a very long time.
My Dad’s life, once filled with his dedication to family, his 40-year career at IBM, and his active participation in basketball, softball and other sporting events is now riddled with confusion by the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease in his brain. He struggles to find the correct word to communicate with others. He can’t sign his name unless he copies it from his personal ID card. He becomes surly and belligerent at the drop of a hat. My Mom used to love to talk about her career in banking where she started as a teller and climbed the ladder to become an Assistant Vice President. Now she can’t even manage her checkbook. She still struggles to attend her Jazzercise class. She stands in a corner of the gym and uses very limited movements. At one point in time, she thrived with the beat of the music and the hip hop of the dance steps. After her class, she comes home and scribbles her attempted answers of the newspaper crossword puzzle. In spite of her lifelong dedication to physical and mental exercise, she is afflicted with vascular dementia caused by carotid stenosis and transient ischemic attacks. Dementia is rapidly becoming a major health threat in the United States. We, as a population, are living longer. However, it is not just a disease of the elderly. College basketball coach Pat Summitt has been diagnosed with early onset dementia at the age of 59. Although her diagnosis has raised awareness of this terrible disease, one cannot avoid feeling helpless in this heartbreaking situation. One cannot avoid the reality that there is no one among us who is immune to it. is the web site of the Alzheimer’s Association. There you can find an abundance of information about Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, along with opportunities to donate, share your thoughts and become an advocate. At this point in time, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and the only cause in the top 10 without a way to prevent, cure, or slow its progression. I find hope in the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) (Public Law 111-375), which requires the formation of a plan to address the accelerating crisis of Alzheimer’s Disease in the United States and coordinate such efforts across the federal government. Maybe someday we will have some answers. Maybe someday we will see the kinds of advancements that have increased survival rates of heart disease and many types of cancer. Maybe someday dementia and other forms of mental illness will no longer be accompanied by the stigma of shame and guilt that has been fueled by public misunderstanding. My parents are indeed the faces of dementia. I hope that I may, on some level, be a voice in the fight against dementia. As dental hygienists, we are afforded the gift of human contact. It is a very important role of our profession. Let us all remember that our patients with dementia are still people who have lived active and fulfilling lives. I think there is still so much that we can learn from each and every one of them, even if it is only because of an opportunity to learn more about the disease itself. That dementia patient whose personal and oral hygiene now leaves much to be desired, was probably once a career person with an appearance as “neat as a pin.“ The patient who can’t effectively answer your questions or seems to be speaking their own language because nothing they say makes any sense, may have been a great storyteller at their family gatherings or a onetime “social butterfly.” You just don’t know. When you try to speak with that patient and you almost literally see the information “going in one ear and out the other,” it is not their fault. No one would willingly choose to have what appears to be a blank slate of their mind. When they become obstinate and cranky, realize that it is not them, but the disease itself that exhibits this behavior as one of its symptoms. When you see the caregiver, quite possibly a family member, who has transported this patient to their appointment, please realize that their life is not easy either. Family members of those afflicted with dementia are victims themselves. Personally, I can tell you that my heart breaks a little more with each passing day. Yet I will hang on to these days and cherish them. They are still the days when I have my parents alive in this world.Most importantly, I want to speak not just as a dental hygienist, not just as the daughter of Tom and Jane Murphy, but as a human being. There is no one among us who is really that different from any other person. We all have strengths and weaknesses. These strongholds and frailties are just exhibited in different ways throughout our lives. Every single one of us was once a child. No one was born old. No one was born with dementia. Every one once had skills, goals, hopes and dreams.
Every single one of us is important to someone. And every single one of us at some point, in some way, can, will, and has made a difference!For more information, please go to, and suggested reading, Still Alice, by Harvard neuroscientist Lisa Genova. The book is a work of fiction, but gives an enlightening description of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.
Maureen Murphy Chodaba, RDH, is a 1977 graduate of Onondaga Community College, Syracuse, N.Y. She was a 2005 recipient of the Sunstar RDH Award of Distinction. She was a registered dental hygienist in the office of Dr. Alan Viani, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., until her “retirement” in November 2010.To read a previous article in RDH eVillage FOCUS written by Maureen Murphy Chodaba, go to article.