Don’t forget to remember the elderly

By Tahnee Hopman

As many as 24 million people around the world suffer from Dementia and that number is set to rise to 43 million by 2020 and to 81 million by 2040. It is a silent epidemic that is creeping up on us, and though Sri Lankan has not felt the impact of it as yet, it soon will. "Being a developing country, Sri Lanka's healthcare system is geared more towards the health of children and youth. At the moment, there is far less focus on the diseases of the elderly," commented Jim Jackson, the Chief Executive of Alzheimer's Scotland.

And we need to be equipped to face the inevitable problems. With healthcare being improved worldwide, the world is now home to a rapidly aging population. The consequences are that increasing numbers of the world's population are prone to diseases like Alzheimer's.

The biggest problem associated with Dementia and related diseases is the fact that people are almost completely ignorant about them. Alzheimer's disease is a brain disorder named after German physician Alois Alzheimer, who first discovered it in 1906. It is a progressive and fatal brain disease which destroys brain cells, causing problems with memory, thinking and behaviour. It is the most common form of dementia, a general term for the loss of memory and other intellectual activities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Although scientists have learned far more about the disease in the century since it was first discovered, there is little else that is certain about the disease.

"The widely held belief is that dementia is a manifestation of old age," explained Mr. Jackson. "People don't realize that dementia is a disease, and a debilitating one caused by the death of certain brain cells." Many think that people with dementia are mentally unstable- yet another false belief.

"There are two steps that Sri Lanka needs to take, and take fast," he says. "One is to create awareness and have people recognize it as a disease; and the other is for the public health sector to improve healthcare facilities for the aged."

The causes of Alzheimer's are as yet uncertain. "However, a healthy lifestyle can mitigate a person's chances of developing the disease. A balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, lots of physical and mental exercise, maintaining social networks and connections would help to some extent, to prevent the onset of Alzheimer's." Yet, it is also possible that a person living a healthy life could still develop one of these diseases.

Patients can often feel disoriented, anxious or depressed, and thus need constant reassurance. "They like to feel appreciated and that they are still part of their family's lives," explained Mr. Jackson. "It is important to remember that the patient's behaviour is not his or her fault, and that they are not insane."
While caregivers need to be better informed and trained, they too need support. This is where the Lanka Alzheimer's Foundation comes in. Established in 2001, the foundation works primarily towards supporting the families of those with Alzheimer's.

"It is not an easy thing to do; taking care of someone with Alzheimer's," says Tami Tamitegama, President of the Lanka Alzheimer's Foundation. “Apart from diagnostics, we help by providing medication and other equipment at cost price. We also offer support to anyone who needs it through a 24- hour helpline."

The biggest challenge faced by the foundation is that of removing the stigma associated with the disease. "The immediate reaction that an average person would have is to consider the patient mad," explained Lorraine Tamitegama. "They still do not realize that like a brain tumour which kills off brain cells, Alzheimer's does the same thing to a person."

The first and most important thing to do would be to create awareness, not only in the general public but among the youth as well. And this is exactly what the foundation has been doing. They plan on building a centre from which to operate, one which could hopefully accommodate a day care centre as well. "We feel that once the centre is up and running, we may get a more positive response from the public and the corporate sector as regards funding," said Lorraine.

Says Jim Jackson, "Before it is too late, it is extremely important that we learn to recognize the signs of dementia and know how to deal with it. And most importantly, we need to be able to help them lead a normal life as much as possible during their illness.

Jim Jackson, the Chief Executive of Alzheimer's Scotland says Sri Lanka needs to do more in creating awareness about Alzheimer's disease as well as improve healthcare facilities for the aged.
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