(Commentary by Mary Unger, Palm Beach Post) — Our state is experiencing difficult economic times. Elected leaders are seeking to meet the challenge of budget shortfalls by cutting services. This exercise takes much wisdom and discernment, because there are Floridians with needs that are bigger than they can handle on their own.

One such population is those who have been affected by Alzheimer’s. This terrible disease not only afflicts the individual but also the families, who must provide emotional and physical care at great personal cost.

If you ever tune in to watch the legislators put together a budget, you will hear a lot of facts and figures bounce back and forth, often in dry and austere tones. Yet the budget is more than a collection of dollar figures. Legislators would do well to put a face on the numbers before them. They can start by considering Edwin Unger.

Ed worked in Port St. Lucie for 29 years as a mail clerk. He is a former Boy Scout leader, a dedicated father and my best friend. My husband was diagnosed in May 2005 after an 18-month search for a diagnosis. Since then, my family has had the privilege and the pain of caring for him. We have watched this strong and giving man, who never met a stranger, struggle with the simplest tasks. Each day, I awake wondering how much more will be taken from him.

We are not alone; there are more than half a million Alzheimer’s patients in Florida. In Palm Beach County, more than 49,000 people are affected by the disease. In Martin County, there are more than 6,400 people and in St. Lucie close to 9,000. It is projected that the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease could more than triple to 16 million by mid-century.

As soon as my husband was diagnosed, I knew that I wanted to care for Ed as long as I could. I also knew that I was going to need help. Fortunately, we found an incredible resource in our time of desperate need. Alzheimer’s Community Care is helping Ed preserve his dignity while giving us indispensable support and relief. Through community-based centers, Alzheimer’s patients across our region maintain their well-being, their safety and their access to quality medical care.

Because of the availability of the day center, I have been able to continue to work and keep our home. Words cannot express how important the program is to us and to the many others whose lives have been touched by Alzheimer’s.

Why should legislators care? Because the program is also cost-effective. When you help families keep their loved ones at home, and for as long as possible, you delay or avoid nursing-home placement, which is the most expensive option available. Whether you are motivated by compassion or cost, this is a program that makes sense.

Local legislators are taking a sharp look at the budget in order to ensure that taxpayers are getting the best value for their dollar. However, they must not blindly chop away. When viewed with a careful eye, they can find programs like Alzheimer’s Community Care that are keeping families together, delivering quality services to those in need and achieving measurable cost savings to Florida taxpayers.