Dementia Friends Simply Can’t Cope
It’s nice to see a flurry of interest in Dementia across the media recently, as the PR machine publicising the new Dementia Friends campaign did it’s job.
Of course we strongly support the idea that the whole country and whole community should get involved in helping to support those with Dementia, a debilitating and distressing experience for individuals and their relatives alike. Greater education and awareness, encouraging volunteering and community support for those with Alzheimer’s is undoubtedly vital. It’s wonderful that people like Sir Terry Pratchett are helping to spearhead change, along with a vast array of kind, well-meaning stars.
We do feel it sad, however, that it takes the glitz of media and music simply to make the subject interesting to the media, unless, that is, they are salivating over some dreadful care home shock story. We also worry that — as good an idea as Dementia Friends is — it rather glosses over the far more pressing problems that surround our country’s planning for an ageing society. It is not only support for the 800,000-plus people living with dementia today that we should be worrying about; it is the million-plus who will be living with it by as early as 2021, with those numbers destined to rise further.
We are glad to see that some smart reporters and channels are giving it a wider consideration too, but suspect such stories will receive much less discussion and debate. We love the article by the Telegraph’s Laura Donelly, for example, which highlights a shocking statistic that over 50,000 people in Britain must give up work in order to care for a Dementia sufferer, because there is no other choice or support.
Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, is vocal on this issue at present, but is failing to make the next logical connection in his arguments. We should not be looking only to communities and carers to fill the gap without also re-examining the entire fabric of how we deliver care to the elderly population. It is simply not possible or fair to expect families, volunteers and communities to shoulder the entire burden of an increasingly aged, infirm and less able population. Dementia is becoming more and more discussed, but often as a form of ‘shorthand’ for old age, and there will be even greater numbers of those who are simply old who are not even being considered. Handling the challenges even of old age can be upsetting, as people decline in health, strength and energy. Advanced dementia, though, is a serious and very hard-to-manage condition – viewers of the latest BBC ‘Protecting our Parents’ programme will have seen some examples of this.
Untrained volunteers, well-wishers and harassed relative carers simply cannot cope adequately with this condition, and certainly not without a firm underlying foundation supported by the establishment. To cope with both the dementia and overall ageing challenge that faces Britainn, the systems that we have bear a serious rethink. It won’t be possible, and it isn’t right, to shuffle millions of elderly people into residential care as a default option: the ONLY logical way forward is to look at ways to enable them to live in their own homes and communities. But doing so will mean much, much more than volunteers can deliver, fresh approaches to managing limited public resources, and many, many more trained carers who must be attracted, trained, supported and with pay commensurate with this vital work.
Until the government wakes up to the need for a more holistic ageing strategy, and assigns someone to take real and active responsibility for it in the form of a minister for the Elderly, initiatives like today’s Dementia Friends launch will, sadly, remain only a patch and a PR exercise, unsupported by a real and workable social care framework. We need a strategy for dementia care AND we need an overarching strategy for the interests (and care) of the elderly. It’s time to stop assuming someone else will take care of it, and us, all.