The rapidly increasing population growth in the number of older people in the world brings new challenges to health and social care services. While dementia is not a natural part of ageing, the risks of getting dementia increase with age. Estimates from 2013 suggest there are around 44.4 million people worldwide with dementia. Predictions for this are to increase threefold within the next 40 years.
Dementia is a term used to describe a collection of symptoms – this includes memory loss, impaired reasoning and judgement among others. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia. Yet the picture is blurred by the lack of diagnosis and underdiagnosis ranges from 20 – 50 percent in high income countries and is as low as 10 percent in low or middle income countries. This matters because early diagnosis and treatment can slow the progress of the disease and improve the quality of life for people with dementia.
The financial costs of dementia are high. Figures are derived from direct health and social care costs and indirect unpaid care provided by family and friends. Alzheimer’s disease international suggests that while costs are set to increase, it is the lowest income countries which will be hit hardest because the numbers of people will increase with the ageing population and cost in health and social care tend to rise alongside economic development.
Research funding into improving outcomes or finding a cure is much lower than funding into such areas as cancer and heart disease. Even so, the focus of funding is on medical responses which locate it at an individual level. Yet this is a global problem experienced at the level of community which impacts upon the affected person and their social network.
People with dementia might lose their sense of self as part of the illness. Finding ways to retain their membership of a community is more likely to sustain them for longer. Institutional care will sever those links more rapidly. While hopes for a cure remain high, it is a public health problem which needs a public response.
One response to the greying of societies and the associated challenges is to recognise it not just as an individual medical problem but one that requires a compassionate community response. Learning from other countries who offer a social model of care based on compassion has to be part of the way forward.