As life expectancy in Britain grows, dementia is emerging as the single biggest challenge to an overburdened health service.
Dementia sufferers already occupy a quarter of all hospital beds and, according to the health department, the problem can only grow as the number of sufferers is expected to double by 2040. Meanwhile, fewer than half the people with dementia have actually been diagnosed.
Part of the dilemma about dementia is medical. We cannot know what advances in medicine will be able to delay the onset and mitigate the effects. What we can do now, however, is radically improve levels of care for sufferers. In an interview that we publish today, the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, promises action on a problem that he describes as the modern equivalent of the cancer scares of earlier decades. Mr Hunt rightly says that the NHS is ill-suited to dealing with dementia because it is geared towards “dealing with curable illness and people going home well” but “this is no longer the world we live in”.
His most important pledge, which he says will be rolled out next year, is the designation of a named individual to manage the care needs of each elderly patient; that person will assume responsibility for managing everything from medication to arranging home help. We should hold him to his word on this important promise. Designated care managers for each elderly patient would be a good idea because the nature of dementia means that sufferers often cannot articulate their needs at all, and so fall through the cracks of a system that tends to respond to those who shout loudest.
The question is whether these co-ordinators will be trained NHS professionals, charged with reasonably sized caseloads, or outsourced staffers nominally in charge of almost countless separate cases and unable to offer any of them much in the way of time or expertise. In that case, Mr Hunt’s pledge won’t be worth much. The devil lies in the detail.