BILLINGS -- Thousands of Montanans live today with Alzheimer's disease, and the number of those effected from the debilitating mental disease is only expected to grow in the coming decade.
But without a comprehensive state plan to improve care and bolster resources, officials are concerned that they won't be able to meet the needs of people suffering from the disease, as well as those of their families and caregivers.
"We have numerous resources at the ready but have lacked an organized inventory and efficient way to deliver them throughout the state to those in need," said Lynn Mullowney, executive director of the Montana chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.
With that in mind, Gov. Steve Bullock and the Montana Alzheimer's/Dementia Work Group rolled out on Monday the Montana Alzheimer's State Plan, Montana's first-ever plan to prepare for and deal with the disease and similar conditions.
"Montana now has a framework to cooperatively address the full range of issues surrounding Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias," Bullock said in a prepared statement. "While the scientific community continues seeking treatments and curative therapies, Montana’s comprehensive state plan will help provide vital services and supports for individuals and families facing the disease today."
Across the state, 19,000 people have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's or related dementia and another 49,000 people provide care for them, while officials expect the number of people effected to grow by 40 percent by 2025.
The plan involved a two-year examination of the disease and its effect in Montana by the work group and lays out a set of recommendations to address the social and economic impact it has around the state.
"We've needed a thoughtfully prepared and purposefully executed Montana Alzheimer's State Plan," Mullowney said.
Included in the plan are 11 main goals that, ideally, would create and improve health care opportunities for Alzheimer's treatment and management in communities statewide.
The goals range from promoting public awareness and providing education, training and tools for health care professionals to expanding and improving home- and hospital-based care and better data collection, keeping enough trained health workers at the ready and implementing systemic changes to help caregivers.
Along with the recommendations, the plan includes action steps specific to each goal, with the planned end result being a higher quilaity of life for people living with Alzheimer's.
Mullowney said the prevalence of the disease in Montana, along with its impact on families and those who treat it, makes it something that has the potential to touch every person in Montana.
That combined with what the working group determined to be a health care system that currently doesn't meet all of the needs of Alzheimer's patients due to a lack of coordination makes it a serious concern and stresses even more the need for a comprehensive plan, she said.
Even so, the plan won't mean much if it isn't put into action.
"Now begins the critical work of implementation," Mullowney said. "If everyone in Montana who has Alzheimer's or a related dementia (and those providing their care) lived in one city, it would have a population of nearly 70,000, and be second in size only to Billings. Because Alzheimer's affects another person every 66 seconds, we have no time to waste."
The plan's announcement intentionally came in conjunction with The Longest Day, a daylong national Alzheimer's Association effort held each year on the day of the summer solstice to honor those suffering from or caring for people with the disease, spread awareness and raise funds.
In Billings, recently-opened Expresso Brake mobile coffee shop and espresso bar teamed up with the local Alzheimer's Association to help in the effort, sharing information with customers and donating $1 from every drink sold to support the association.
Owners Dan and Lisa Williams brought in a guest barista from local businesses and organizations at each of a dozen hourlong stops throughout the day to help serve coffee, espresso and other drinks.
The custom-built truck follows a route through town, stopping at various points for an hour or so and serving people who work in nearby areas before moving on, as well as working hired events.
Dan Williams said he's known Mullowney for years and when she approached him about helping, he and his wife got on board right away.
"The idea was to get guest baristas and maybe they'd bring a new crowd with them," he said. "We absolutely want to help out and give back, and this is a way to spread awareness about the disease."
Stephanie Bond works in performance improvement at St. Vincent Healthcare and served as a guest barista twice throughout the day. She said since she's worked around Alzheimer's patients and has lost grandparents to the disease, she didn't think twice about volunteering to help.
"I've seen the impact it can have on families," she said. "It's really difficult to describe. It can be devastating."
The working group that designed the state plan is made up of more than 40 Alzheimer's advocates who spent the last two years gathering information from people, agencies and organizations across Montana.
Mullowney said the group's work and ensuing plan comes on the heels of the first National Alzheimer's Plan to Address Alzheimer's Disease, set in 2012 with a goal of treating and preventing the disease by 2025.
It's an effort, she said, that could provide much-needed help and resources to thousands of people in Montana.
"We are fortunate to have a skilled and impassioned collective of private individuals and public entities — all wanting to make a difference in the face of this unrelenting illness," Mullowney said. "Now begins the real work of creating a dementia-capable Montana."