Maine resident Dair Gillespie, 77 suffers from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. She spends her days in bed, unable to get up for simple tasks and only able to utter a few words once in awhile. Her care is overseen at home by Ann Leffler, the partner she’s known since 1970. In addition to the memory loss and confusion that Alzheimer’s causes, Gillespie experienced anxiety, hallucinations, aggression, insomnia and incontinence. The effects of a previous stroke and a broken hip still linger and contribute to her suffering.
Three years ago, after Gillespie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she experienced what can be referred to as vascular dementia, a series of mini-strokes that can occur in Alzheimer’s patients as well as patients with non-specific dementia. Leffler believes the medication given to Gillespie may have contributed to her deteriorating health. “Dair was taking all the usual, very heavy-duty drugs for Alzheimer’s, and she was taking other drugs for the side effects of those drugs,” said Leffler. “She was starting to have psychotic meltdowns. Things were getting very difficult.”
About a year ago, Leffler tried a cannabis regimen after consulting a hospice nurse. Today, she is off almost all of the Alzheimer’s medication and simply administers cannabis and over the counter pain medication to Gillespie.
“On cannabis, she’s very, very different,” Leffler said. “She is much less anxious, much less fearful. She’s much more ‘there’ — she’ll laugh, she’ll smile, sometimes she’ll say a word or two that can be understood.”
Gillespie is one of a few patients in Maine who is using cannabis to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. 30 states have medical marijuana programs, and each one varies in terms of qualifying conditions, potency of products, cost and availability. While there is very little research into the effectiveness of cannabis on Alzheimer’s, cannabis can treat many of the symptoms that accompany the disease, like anxiety and pain. Even though medical marijuana has improved Gillespie’s life far more than prescription drugs, it is still illegal and therefore not covered by Medicare or Medicaid, and no insurance program will cover the cost.
Doctors who oversee patients at the end of their lives are beginning to prioritize quality of life rather than waiting for definitive medical marijuana research.
“Comfort becomes more important than function,” said Dr. Clifford Singer, a geriatric psychiatrist in Bangor. “I think that at that stage you try everything to help stop the suffering.”
Dr. James Van Kirk is the Director of Supportive Care at Eastern Maine Medical Center, and is president of the board of the Maine Hospice Council. He said that many physicians are simply referring patients interested in medical marijuana to others who can recommend it, and he believes it’s already being used in hospice environments. “I’ve been recommending it ever since it became medically available,” he said. But patients are still hesitant to try a cannabis treatment, especially older patients who have been raised under a cloud of anti-marijuana propaganda.
Gillespie’s experience may contribute current research being done in Maine. The University of New England is working with The Wellness Connection, a group of four medical marijuana dispensaries, to study how cannabis affects chronic illnesses, including Alzheimer’s. Leffler has already connected with the university and looks forward to sharing her experience. Gillespie and Leffler met at the University of California at Berkeley as sociology students in the graduate program, so Gillespie knows the importance of solid, peer-reviewed research and knows that her partner would feel the same.
“If she were cognizant, she would be very proud to share her story,” Leffler said.