Jan. 25 2017 08:00 AM

Memory loss can be isolating and leave a farm’s future in jeopardy.

Our health is one of our most precious commodities, and it should never be taken for granted. Unfortunately, as people age, the body starts to wear out. One particularly devastating ailment is memory loss, or dementia. Many of us have watched dementia slowly take its toll on a loved one. Both of my grandmothers suffered from this terrible condition.

Dementia is characterized by a decline in memory, language, problem solving abilities, and other cognitive skills that affect a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease is the number one cause of dementia, and an estimated 5.4 million Americans had Alzheimer’s disease in 2016.

Researchers at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom talked with farm families about their experiences with dementia and how it impacts their businesses and home lives. They found that memory loss can be especially destructive to farmers and their families.

One concern they revealed was safety in a farm environment. Working with animals and large equipment can be especially dangerous for someone with memory loss. It can also be difficult for farmers with dementia to maintain their normal ability to properly do their job. Caring for someone with dementia can also add stress for other family members and take time away from running the farm.

Since farmers often continue to work long after retirement age, problems like dementia can become a bigger issue for farms than for other businesses. And unfortunately, many farms don’t have a succession plan in place or documents such as wills updated. Unpreparedness can leave a dairy in great turmoil if a major decision maker is suddenly unable to fill their role.

Dementia may also hit farmers harder because they tend to be more reluctant to ask for help. This can lead to isolation and hiding from the outside world.

Some of the families interviewed were unaware of support or services available to them in their rural communities. Cost of service was also a concern.

While you can’t predict the onset of dementia or some other condition that can tremendously impact an individual, a family, and the farm, a succession plan can prevent some of the struggles that could present themselves over time. And for rural communities, it appears there is a need for more services and outreach to individuals and families who may be isolated from the help they need.

Abby Bauer

The author is an associate editor and covers animal health, dairy housing and equipment, and nutrient management. She grew up on a dairy farm near Plymouth, Wis., and previously served as a University of Wisconsin agricultural extension agent. She received a master’s degree from North Carolina State University and a bachelor’s from University of Wisconsin-Madison.