Michele Munz is a veteran journalist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who specializes in revealing complicated social issues through the lens of the people who are impacted the most.
Last year, Munz published an insightful and emotional series about one woman’s struggle with memory problems and how it highlights the issues of dementia, which is a growing challenge for our aging population.
Face Aging MN is beginning a new series, “Scoop on Senior Care,” in which we talk to journalists who cover senior issues in Minnesota, the Midwest and across the country. We asked Munz to answer some questions about what she has learned.
For the past 10 years, Munz has been covering health and medicine. She has won awards for her coverage of midwifery care, an experimental treatment for ALS and the opioid epidemic.
Munz grew up in Tulsa, Okla., and attended the University of Arkansas, where she ran track and cross-country and graduated with a double major in history and political science/journalism. She started working at the Post-Dispatch 21 years ago as a police and courts and general assignment reporter. She is married to Dan Munz and has three children.
The questions and answers with Munz have been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Michele, you were able to get such an intimate view of the challenges of Alzheimer’s and dementia through Lonni Schicker’s journey. What were some of the most important revelations about the challenges of dementia and the continuum of care for our senior loved ones?
An accurate and early diagnosis is critical in creating treatment plans and getting access to information and support, but I was surprised to find that is often hard to get.
Doctors struggle to identify dementia when symptoms are in the early stages. Findings can be unclear, so doctors will monitor patients with appointments six months to a year later. Misdiagnosis is common, even among highly trained dementia experts.
The Alzheimer’s Association launched an imaging study in 2016 in which patients with mild cognitive impairment or a questionable dementia diagnosis were given a PET scan, a diagnostic tool currently not covered by insurance. Preliminary results showed that after the scans, physicians changed medications or recommendations for their patients in two-thirds of the cases. Diagnoses shifted dramatically, particularly for those who had been wrongly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
I was also surprised to find younger patients like Lonni, who was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment before she turned 65 and no longer able to work as a professor. These patients often end up with poor medical coverage at a time when interventions and better coordinated care could keep them healthier longer.
Given the looming increase in numbers of people with Alzheimer’s and related dementias, we need better diagnostic tools and care among a team of providers. Costs are lower once a person with Alzheimer’s gets on the right care path. The disease is better managed, and there are fewer complications and hospitalizations from other conditions.
The latest annual report by the Alzheimer’s Association shows diagnosis during the mild stage of the disease would save as much as $7.9 trillion over the lifetime of all Americans currently living with the disease.
What struck you the most about families who are trying to make sure a loved one ages with dignity and respect?
So many caretakers initially say, “I will never put my loved one in a facility.” But they learn that this is something they can’t and shouldn’t ever promise. Sometimes, they are placing both of themselves and their senior loved one in danger when they don’t turn to a care facility. Other times, a person feels more dignified by having someone other than a family member or spouse bathe, feed or toilet them.
Family members are amazing advocates for their loved ones, teaching others about patience, respect and understanding. I was struck by family members’ ability to find joy and connect with their loved ones in very heartbreaking times.
Your series demonstrated that often symptoms of dementia can be misinterpreted as something else. What more can be done to help families recognize early signs of dementia?
Know that the signs don’t necessarily mean forgetfulness. People may spend months seeking help for depression until they consider dementia. Or they don’t understand a loved one’s odd spending or strange behavior. Some even incorrectly believe the person is lazy and avoiding responsibilities, trying to annoy them or wanting attention.
Divorce and severed relationships are not uncommon. If a loved one doesn’t seem like herself or himself, dig more. Don’t just accept their explanations, as many will try to hide the fact that they are suffering. The Alzheimer’s Association can offer help in confronting a loved one and encouraging him or her to get help.
Your reporting noted that Congress approved last year the largest-ever funding increase — $425 million — for Alzheimer’s and dementia research. What can be done at the state and local level to help support families who are trying to care for loved ones with dementia?
Seventy percent of people with Alzheimer’s are living at home with family support. State and local governments can provide assistance with respite support or care-related products. They can fund programs to train and check in with caregivers and provide stipends to relieve the financial hardships of providing care. They can better coordinate health, aging, transportation and social services to ease the burden on families.
While doing this series, how did it affect you on a personal level? What did you learn about yourself and your priorities regarding aging issues and caring for seniors in your life?
It definitely had me thinking more about saving and preparing for my future. I do not want to be a burden on my children, financial or otherwise. I talked with my husband about how we are saving for the possibility of needing long-term care, and we actually beefed up our plan a bit. My husband and I have both been blessed with very healthy and active parents, but I know they won’t always be that way. I have always been the type to want to do things on my own without help, but working on this series, I learned how that attitude could make you miserable.
The quote at the end of the final story of your series was so poignant. It’s a quiet moment where a mother fears she has become a burden to her family, and her daughter gently replies, “Part of our joy is seeing you get what you need.” What does that tell us about the importance of seniors in families and in communities, as well as the importance of being aware of the challenges and responsibilities of caring for our senior loved ones?
It is a delicate balance. Parents do not want to burden their children, but children love their parents and are grateful. Children want to show their gratitude for all that their parents have done for them. Our elders are important. Younger generations want to care for them, but we can’t do it in isolation. One family can’t do it alone.
Families and communities must care and support each other in this effort. It will take our friends, neighbors, church groups, charities and public services all working together to fill in the gaps.