The name Lorraine Yu or the Lanka Alzheimer Foundation might not ring a bell. But you know who and what they are, because if you live in Colombo you must have bumped into both at some point over the last few years. Because Lorraine is the lady with a raffle ticket book and leaflet you’ll [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Remember, we can all become victims of Alzheimer’s

With a fast increasing aging population in Sri Lanka, Duvindi Illankoon looks at the threat of this disease and the work done by Lanka Alzheimer Foundation

The name Lorraine Yu or the Lanka Alzheimer Foundation might not ring a bell. But you know who and what they are, because if you live in Colombo you must have bumped into both at some point over the last few years. Because Lorraine is the lady with a raffle ticket book and leaflet you’ll meet at the city’s shopping malls and Alzheimer’s is what she wants you to know about.

A quiet haven in Maradana: The Lanka Alzheimer Foundation care centre. Pix by Nilan Maligaspe

Alzheimer’s disease can cause dementia, a condition which results in brain cells degenerating at a faster rate than normal, causing impairment in memory, thinking, orientation, language and social behaviour. Dementia is most commonly caused by Alzheimer’s disease and can also be a result of vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease, alcohol and drug related brain damage and other rare conditions.

The Lanka Alzheimer Foundation (LAF) was set up as an approved charity in 2001 in response to an increasing number of Sri Lankans succumbing to the disease. The foundation’s cause is all the more important in the light of recent findings that dementia is largely an Asian problem, says Consultant Psychiatrist and Head, Department of Psychiatry of the Faculty of Medicine, University of Kelaniya Dr. Shehan Williams who serves on the Board as an Executive Director of the foundation. “According to figures from 2003, 46% of dementia patients are from the Asian region.”

Lorraine, the Founding Executive Director and President of the LAF has been raising funds and awareness about the foundation for almost a decade. Awareness is important because Alzheimer’s can affect anyone from every walk of life. As Lorraine herself will tell you, “forewarned is forearmed” because it just might be you.

Dr. Williams warns that Sri Lanka has an increasingly aging population, increasing our chances of having a higher rate of those with dementia. In 2010 about 12-13% of the total population were over the age of 60 and this is set to exceed 20% by 2025.” It is estimated that there are more than 120,000 people in Sri Lanka with dementia. This is why Sri Lankans should pay special attention to their memory performance, he points out. “Age is the biggest risk factor when it comes to dementia and the disease is not a normal part of aging.” It can affect anybody but it is most common after the age of 65 (Dementia affects 6% of people over the age of 65 and 20% of people over the age of 80).

Lorraine Yu

They’ve just wrapped up a successful memory screening session as part of their two-month celebration of World Alzheimer Day on September 21. Every year since 2001, the team behind LAF rally to fundraise, create awareness and celebrate their most important calendar day. In 2011 a decade worth of effort came to fruition with the opening of the Lanka Alzheimer Foundation care centre, a beautifully well planned modern and spacious facility in a quiet corner of Maradana. In addition to raising awareness about dementia (they run a Dementia Services and Information Centre) they offer free counselling services, provide training for carers, conduct home visits and provide hygienic products for dementia care at subsidized rates.

The foundation also conducts three meetings a month for a Caregiver Support Group. As Lorraine says, the disease is often harder on family and friends of those affected than the persons themselves. Her father suffered from vascular dementia-“I didn’t know at the time,” she says. “That was really what opened my eyes to the need for awareness about this disease.” Dr. Williams adds that caregivers for a dementia patient must act as partners in the process. “The GP, the psychiatrist or neurologist, the nurse or field officer and carer together with other support groups-like the Lanka Alzheimer Foundation-can work together to provide a safe and secure environment for the patient.” The foundation goes someway in facilitating this-they provide a day care service of sorts on weekdays, where families can leave the patient in the foundation’s care, safe in the knowledge that they’re being looked after by a team of professionals.

The LAF also strives to address the stigma surrounding dementia. “We don’t have the proper figures for Sri Lanka because very few people come forward with it,” says Dr. Williams. “With the foundation we try to remove the stigma associated with the disease so people can talk about it and accept it.” He strongly believes that for this purpose the government must play a more active role. “There’s only so much we can do from our end, because our reach is very limited in comparison with that of the government.

A national strategy that will address the needs of the patients as well as their carers is imperative. After all, there is still no cure for this.”

Dr. Shehan Williams

The Lanka Alzheimer Foundation is currently the only such organisation completely committed to the disease; in addition to being privately run, it is also funded purely on donations that Lorraine and her team of volunteers campaign for three months every year. “It’s been an uphill struggle,” she smiles. “But we accomplished our fundraising goal to meet the costs of building the centre so if we can do that anything’s possible.”

The multi-million rupee project drained the foundation’s resources and they must continually be on the lookout for donations to meet administrative expenses and continue providing their services. Lorraine’s next mission is to foster an endowment fund of Rs. 100 million so her successors can take her exemplary work forward. This is why you will still find her out and about – two years after completing the foundation’s centre-raising funds for her next big project and lifelong cause.

Celebrate World Alzheimer Day with LAF

Memory Walk – Saturday, September 21at 8 a.m. (starting from Cinnamon Grand Colombo), a musical concert to celebrate the LAF Centre’s second anniversary- September 21 at 7 p.m. (St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk, Colombo 3) and a public lecture-Sunday, September 29 at 6 p.m. at the Lanka Alzheimer Foundation (Maradana)

Creative expression: An artwork by an Alzheimer patient

To donate, or volunteer with the Lanka Alzheimer Foundation, call them on 0112667080 or visit them at 110, Ketawalamulla Lane, Colombo 10.

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