Dementia from a Māori worldview

3:20 pm on 6 October 2019

Whānau support and maintaining ties to cultural identity are crucial in the care of kaumātua who have mate wareware, or dementia, a new study has found.

Young doctor giving helping hands for elderly woman

Photo: 123RF

Mate wareware: Understanding 'dementia' from a Māori perspective, recently published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, is the first study of its kind to explore the way Māori make sense of dementia, and care for whānau members who have it.

Dementia is characterised by the loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other brain functions that affect a person's ability to go about their every day lives.

Researchers undertook interviews with 223 kaumātua from seven regions across the country, and eight whānau from Waikato for the study.

There is no data on the number of Māori who have dementia, but researchers do know Māori are diagnosed with dementia at an average of eight years younger than non-Māori.

Researcher Dr Margaret Dudley, a senior lecturer in psychology from the University of Auckland, said little was known about how mate wareware affected Māori because most of the existing research on dementia was undertaken through a Western lens.

She said this study had found mate wareware affected Māori in very particular ways.

"Whānau was central. The oranga wairua of the whānau was central in the management of mate wareware and this is the message that we've got to get across to dementia services and to the government.

"Māori families require more funding, Māori families tend to keep their loved ones at home longer, dementia services need to be able to address the oranga wairua of the person and the whānau," Dr Dudley said.

"That might mean undertaking karakia and waiata and calling in a kaumātua to help out culturally.

"Whānau living in the country could more readily come together as a whānau, pool their resources, and share the burden. That was not quite easily applied from people in the cities."

The study found that some whānau did not view mate wareware as an illness or disease at all, but as a normal consequence of growing old and preparing to join their tūpuna.

"There were a number of kaumātua who didn't see mate wareware in a negative light. Māori tend to be very tolerant of illness and of our whānau who are māuiui.

"There were a number of people who said it was a spiritual journey and we must respect it and treat it as such."

Kaumātua found being involved in cultural activities were crucial in living with dementia, including being surrounded by te reo Māori, whaikōrero, waiata, and kaumātua groups.

"For older people, going back to the marae is where the first lots of the memories were laid down in their memory bank. For many of them, those memories are still there.

"It's kind of like a cognitive reserve. My recommendation is take your kuia or kaumātua back to their marae as much as possible," Dr Dudley said.

"All those activities that we associate with our Māori identity are all healthy for the brain. I think, ultimately, that is where our wellbeing lies."