27 Feb 2016

Communities key to dementia care - expert

8:42 pm on 27 February 2016

Community support will become increasingly important as the number of dementia sufferers trebles in the next three decades, a global dementia expert says.

Dementia patients in a housing complex in Hameln, Germany.

Photo: AFP / Ole Spata / DPA

Professor Graham Stokes has more than 25 years' experience in specialist dementia care and is the global director of dementia care for aged care provider Bupa. He has just completed his 10th visit to dementia groups in this country.

During an interview in Wellington, Professor Stokes told RNZ News that New Zealand had 45,000 - 50,000 people with dementia, and was doing as well as any other high-income country in terms of the standard of care provided.

But he said the number of people in this country with dementia will more than treble in the next three decades, in line with worldwide trends.

That was a "huge challenge".

"We have no treatments coming our way, no magnificent cure is going to come within the foreseeable future.

"It's difficult to invest in the quality of care that we need to provide whilst people are going on a long journey from diagnosis to being exceedingly vulnerable.

"And so in the absence of money coming from government to really radically improve services, and in the absence of treatment and cure, either we despair or we say, 'Look, dementia is a disability, it's a disability that lasts for several years and we need communities to support their own'."

Dementia expert professor Graham Stokes

Dementia expert professor Graham Stokes Photo: SUPPLIED

It meant such things as improving education in schools around community attitudes and awareness, and looking at the design of urban environments to enable those with dementia to navigate and cope in their community, he said.

"That starts from schools where you can actually see that young children have got a prejudice and a stigma attached when they think about dementia, and let's see if we can drive through a social action by working with schools to drive that stigma truly away within a generation."

Professor Stokes said governments weren't able to fund dementia adequately and that wouldn't change.

"The money's not there. We would like to have more and more facilities with workers who are paid more. Governments across the world just haven't got the money now..."

If you asked those with dementia what they wanted, "they never say 'I want more doctors, nurses, social workers or hospital beds'."

Professor Stokes said he thought New Zealand was headed toward a commitment to civic responsibility; community support, dementia awareness and dementia-inclusive communities.

He pointed to Rotorua as an example, where more than 100 people turned out to a meeting hosted by the Rotorua Lakes Council to hear about the idea.

Mayor Steve Chadwick said Rotorua was committed to developing such communities by 2030 and was leading the way nationally.

"It's education in our schools, it's some design in our supermarkets, it's training in the workplace so that we're a much more friendly community when we can identify and understand a sufferer of dementia, or even understand what their families are going through."

Asked how people may protect themselves from getting dementia - including Alzheimer's Disease - Professor Stokes said recent talks had given people the idea that they could reduce their chances of dementia.

"A healthy heart equates to a healthy brain, so it's not a radical new health message. It's about looking after your heart, blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity, diabetes, not smoking."

Those measures, with an intellectually stimulating lifestyle, would reduce the risk of dementia.

There was evidence that a good education was also protective, he said.

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