Sunday 1 October 2017
On the United Nations International Day of Older Persons it’s time to recognise that dementia is not a natural part of ageing, it’s a medical condition that can and will be tackled with collective action. Age remains the biggest risk factor for developing dementia and too often older people face discrimination and their urgent needs unmet due to an ageist society. Today we must consider how we can support older persons with dementia to live well and recognise their contributions and potential.
One of the most significant challenges facing ageing populations around the world is dementia. The condition affects almost 50 million people worldwide, with a new case occurring every 3 seconds. The World Health Organisation lists dementia as the 7th leading cause of death worldwide and in 2018 it will become a $1 trillion disease.
Global ageing population
Almost 700 million people are now over the age of 60. By 2050, 2 billion people will be 60 or older – for the first time in history there will be more persons over 60 than children in the world.
The increase in the number of older people will be the greatest and the most rapid in the developing world, with Asia as the region with the largest number of older persons, and Africa facing the largest proportionate growth. With this in mind, enhanced attention to the particular needs and challenges faced by many older people is clearly required.
Projections indicate that the number of people with dementia will only continue to grow with rates rising fastest in lower and middle income countries (LMICs). Despite this, global diagnosis rates are low. Older persons with dementia are receiving sub-standard or no care and stigma in many communities remains rife.
In many parts of the world dementia is seen as a natural part of aging. Worryingly, in some countries, there’s not even a word for dementia. A lack of recognition or understanding of the condition permeates from within the community right up to a policy level. Silence on dementia leads to older people with dementia being denied proper medical and social care which is extreme discrimination.
People living with dementia and their families frequently face stigma and discrimination and in some parts of the world can even face violence. Older people living with dementia can be doubly discriminated against due to their age and medical condition. Public perceptions of dementia can act as a barrier to people ageing with dignity, and in turn ageism can exacerbate stereotypes around dementia.
Older women living with dementia particularly face cumulative inequalities as a result of their gender-based roles in society. Furthermore, older women often take on greater responsibilities for family care while managing inflexible working conditions, mandatory retirement ages and inadequate pensions and other social security benefits, which leave them, and those in their care, extremely vulnerable.
Dementia can also have a negative impact on employability of older persons – people with dementia have reported being made redundant or unable to find work due to discrimination or lack of understanding. This practice can have an impact on developing economies employment rates and social welfare systems, with severe implications for international development progress.
Societies now need to tap into the often overlooked and under-appreciated contributions of older persons, including those with dementia, to ensure their talents and experiences are not wasted. The contributions and protection of all older persons are necessary to achieve a range of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including reducing poverty (SDG1) and inequalities (SDG10), alongside ensuring good health and well-being for all (SDG3) and decent work and economic growth (SDG8).
A key measure to strengthen the participation of older persons and tackle ageism is to spread awareness of the global dementia challenge. We must amplify the number of voices advocating and educating on dementia to build commitment and action at a national and international level. Dementia awareness protects vulnerable older people, encourages risk reduction strategies and ultimately increases diagnosis and support.
Governments now have a responsibility to dramatically increase awareness, detection and diagnosis of dementia, by meeting targets of the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Dementia Action Plan. International civil society collaboration is needed to cement recent gains, working in partnership with UN agencies, champion governments and other actors.
Join the Global Alzheimer’s & Dementia Action Alliance: gadaalliance.org/join