Leading article: The unacknowledged epidemic of our age

Dementia is still barely understood and sufferers often slip through gaps in the system

Share
Related Topics

Coping with dementia is almost impossibly hard, the inexorable decline that accompanies it are unspeakably harrowing for all concerned. And with around 800,000 people already suffering from some form of the disease, and nearly 2 million expected to do so by 2050, the numbers are frightening. Even more alarming – as has been starkly revealed by this newspaper's series on dementia this week – is the inability of Britain's health and social care system to cope with the problem.

At its most basic, the difficulty is one of definition. Dementia is an illness that is so sprawling and still so widely misunderstood that our outdated categories for illness and infirmity have not caught up. Unless aggressive enough to be acknowledged as a mental health problem, it is considered to be an issue of social care alone, no different from any of the other frailties that go with old age. The result is sufferers all too often shuttled from one inappropriate facility to another, "a piece of lost luggage on a dementia carousel", as an Independent writer described her father's traumatic experiences.

Another central challenge is – of course – funding. Currently, all but the least well-off must bear the full cost of managing their condition themselves. Much-delayed efforts to reform social care by capping any individual's costs at around £35,000 are finally making some tentative progress. But even sweeping reforms to funding arrangements will not answer the question raised by Fiona Phillips – who watched both her parents succumb to Alzheimer's – as to why a person with terminal cancer does not have to pay for their own treatment while someone with a degenerative brain condition does.

Dealing with dementia is not just a matter of funding, however. It is also about the quality of care. Here, again, the lack of focus has much to answer for. Horror stories of patients either neglected, or rendered all-but insensible by a "chemical cosh" of anti-psychotic drugs, or confused and upset by being forced to live in deeply unsympathetic institutional environments, are more often the result of inadequate training than malice.

Not only are patients with Alzheimer's and similar conditions rarely accorded separate facilities in care homes and hospitals, but nursing and support staff receive little training in identifying their problems let alone responding to their needs. With a quarter of hospital beds filled by elderly patients suffering from dementia, and research suggesting that they both stay longer than those without the condition, and commonly leave in a worse state than when they arrived, the situation is wholly inexcusable.

What is required, then, is nothing short of a top-to-bottom overhaul of our approach to dementia. That means dedicated facilities for dealing with sufferers' complex needs, and automatic training for all health and social care professionals. Given that the Alzheimer's Society estimates that less than half of those with dementia have been diagnosed as such, attention must also be paid to ensuring that GPs know what to look out for. Meanwhile, more consideration must go into helping those affected to stay in their own homes for longer. A fresh look must be taken at how care is provided, and early efforts to make towns and cities more dementia-friendly must rapidly become the norm.

In fairness, progress has been made in raising awareness. But there must be action as well as talk. Although no less a figure than the Prime Minister recently warned of a "national crisis", and doubled the funding for research, dementia still receives far less than cancer, say, or heart disease. More pertinently, today's patients – and even tomorrow's – are unlikely see any benefit.

Dementia has been called the "thief of thought", its progress "death in slow motion". Sufferers, and their families, can no longer be allowed to slip through the gaps.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower