Tryon resident Moose Penfold, 63, had no particular knowledge of Alzheimer’s disease in 2003, when his father, a surgeon, began making strange decisions.
“If we look back, we are able to put the puzzle together and see the pieces that, when you went through it, didn’t make sense at the time,” Penfold recalls. Thus began what Penfold calls his “trial by fire” as he and his wife became caregivers to both of his parents — a responsibility that would last for the next 10 years.
After his parents’ deaths, Penfold and his wife moved across the country from Colorado to be nearer her aging parents, who live in Charleston, S.C.
“Having gone through this journey with my parents, I decided to do something entirely different with my life and left the business that I was in,” Penfold says. These days, he’s an area manager for Encompass Health, which provides home-based care including skilled nursing and physical and speech therapy. The company has offices in Columbus, Rutherfordton and Marion.
Alzheimer’s awareness and support, Penfold says, is “a cause very close to my heart.” He’s involved in planning local Alzheimer’s Association walks, which take place this year on Saturday, Sept. 21, in Asheville and Saturday, Sept. 28, in Mills River.
Penfold says the walks, along with other education and fundraising events help those supporting family members with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia feel less alone.
“So many times, you feel it’s you against the world,” he explains. “We know that the caregiver often suffers more than the person suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia.” Health issues and fatigue often follow from the overwhelming 24/7 responsibility of caring for someone who’s cognitively impaired, Penfold says.
The events also raise funds for research by the Alzheimer’s Association, which addresses the early detection and diagnosis of the disease as well as treatment. But so far, according to the association, “In the case of most progressive dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, there is no cure and no treatment that slows or stops its progression.”
Making the diagnosis
Neurointerventionalist Dr. Jonas Goldstein uses noninvasive technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging and computerized tomography to create images of the brain’s structure. The scans help doctors rule out possible reversible causes of cognitive decline — including infections, rare autoimmune diseases, bleeding, tumors and masses — when making a diagnosis of dementia. Depending on symptoms, he says, imaging may not be necessary for older patients.
Goldstein gets excited when he talks about the latest frontiers in understanding and diagnosing cognitive impairments. “Just like with cancer — there are so many kinds of cancer, so many different prognoses — it’s the same thing with dementia,” he says. “A lot of the terms that we use now for dementia, we’ll find in 20 years that we’ve been lumping things together.”
What will lead to those new realizations? Leveraging “big data,” Goldstein says. Building on significant developments in magnetic resonance imaging throughout the ‘90s, Goldstein explains, neuroradiologists at Asheville Radiology Associates are now deploying software linked to databases to detect variations in the volumes of brain structures too small to be accurately assessed by eye.
Recalling members of his own family who died after suffering from Alzheimer’s, Goldstein observes, “It’s the devil. It is terrible.” He notes two ambitions for humanity: “I would want us to go back to space,” he says. “And I want to see us cure dementia.”