Growing old in Montana is not for the faint of heart. Not only are Montanans two years older on average than the typical American (40.1 vs. 38.1), but we are spread thinly across our massive state: fewer than 7 people per square mile. That’s great for privacy, but when it comes to caring for our oldest, most fragile residents, it creates significant challenges.
Add in that Montana is considered a “dementia neurology desert” because it is one of 20 states projected to have fewer than 10 neurologists per 10,000 people with dementia in 2025. That’s not the ideal setup for coping with a disease like Alzheimer's, which affects about 11% of people over age 65.
Two Montana organizations: Montana State University Extension and the Alzheimer's Association of Montana, are joining forces to make a difference in how our state addresses the challenge of caring for aging loved ones, particularly those living with dementia that puts them at greater risk.
“People want that human contact,” said Dr. Dan Koltz, assistant professor and MSU Extension gerontology specialist at Montana State University’s Department of Health & Human Development. To achieve that personal contact across the state, Dr. Koltz’ plan is to capitalize on the fact that MSU Extension has agents in each county, and the Alzheimer’s Association can equip them with expertly crafted, pre-packaged curriculum that will be meaningful to Montanans.
“We can bring information and skills in-person to rural areas of our state to help residents better care for loved ones who require specialized treatment,” he said. “It’s a great partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association and a great benefit to both of us and our shared constituents.”
There are 22,000 Montanans among the 6.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, the seventh-leading cause of death and the only major disease without prevention or cure.
However, about half of those living with Alzheimer’s are never diagnosed. Lack of information about the disease is part of the problem. Unfortunately, in Montana, there were just nine geriatricians in 2021. That number will need to more than quadruple to 59 by 2050 in order to serve just 10% of the state's population age 65 and older.
Bringing education to where people live
Familiarizing Montanans with dementia, how to recognize it and how to cope is at the heart of the partnership between MSU Extension and the Alzheimer's Association.
While the MSU Extension agents are busy in the summer planning other events, Dr. Koltz is already looking ahead to the colder months when he can partner with his counterpart at the Alzheimer's Association of Montana, Program Director Melanie Williams, to train the MSU Extension agents in delivering Alzheimer's education programs. This year, they plan to focus on three basic, developmental education programs:
“Communication is critical for both the patient and caregivers,” said Dr. Koltz. While the MSU agents have a broad overall health and wellness mission, the Alzheimer's-specific content dovetails nicely.
“This is perfect for us,” said Dr. Koltz. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
From the perspective of the Alzheimer’s Association, the partnership with MSU Extension is ideal, giving the four-person Association staff additional reach across the state.
“We value and appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with MSU Extension and its agents across Montana who know their communities, recognize the aging population, especially in the agricultural areas, and provide education for them,” said Williams. “We look forward to building relationships with more MSU Extension agents and their communities.”
This is personal
Dr. Koltz’ passion for educating Montanans about Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, as well as the implications it has for caregivers, comes with a personal understanding of the impact the disease has on the whole family. His father-in-law died from Alzheimer’s about a year ago. His grandmother also had the disease.
“It touches all of us,” he said. “I bring that first-hand knowledge to the table.”
As part of his broader health and wellness approach, Dr. Koltz is focused on a caregiver respite retreat program, utilizing Montana Department of Health & Human Services funding. AARP-Montana has been part of that along with Big Sky Senior Services in Billings and the Alzheimer’s Association.
The broader program, the Montana Healthy Aging Initiative, has a master plan that focuses on five areas: healthy caregivers, healthy transitions, healthy living (including fall prevention, exercise program and nutrition); Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline; and aging in place.
“Only about 6% of aging seniors will relocate into assisted-living communities, so we need to help the other 94%, and help their family caregivers understand how to support their loved ones as they live independently,” Dr. Koltz said.
The target for caregiver education is a broad one. Dr. Koltz estimates that while about 70% of family caregivers are age 50 and older, many are in their 40s, 30s and even 20s.
“Younger people are taking on caregiving responsibilities more and more,” he said.
To learn more about MSU Extension’s outreach programs across Montana, go to MSU’s Healthy Aging webpage at https://www.montana.edu/extension/health/healthy_aging/index.html
or contact Dr. Koltz at 406-994-4351 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about the programs and services of the Alzheimer's Association, which are provided at no charge, go to alz.org
or call the Association’s free 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900.
The Alzheimer's Association leads the way to end Alzheimer's and all other dementia — by accelerating global research, driving risk reduction and early detection, and maximizing quality care and support. Our vision is a world without Alzheimer's and all other dementia.™ For more information, visit www.alz.org or call the 24/7 Helpline at 800.272.3900.