Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canada needs a national dementia strategy

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Odds are one in three Canadians over the age of 65 will develop some form of dementia.

Ten million baby boomers will turn 65 in the next 20 years.

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Today, about 750,000 Canadians live with some form of cognitive impairment. By 2031, about 1.4 million Canadian will be living with some degree of cognitive impairment.

And Canada is the only country in the industrialized world that has no national strategy for dealing with dementia.

That is frightening, unacceptable and unconscionable. It is not as if the tsunami of aging boomers is a surprise. We have been heading to this point for decades, just as demographers and health experts have been warning for decades dementia poses a substantial threat to health care overall.

It really doesn't take a brain surgeon to recognize that the longer we live, the more likely it is that our cognitive abilities will become impaired to one degree or another.

But it does take a wealth of medical expertise, planning and funding to deal with the explosion that is expected in dementia, the insidious condition that gradually breaks down the mind, eventually leaving one helpless, dependant and then, often mercifully, dead. The scope of the challenge is enormous, as is the collective failure to plan for handling it. Granted, the Ontario government has undertaken some innovative work. But successive federal governments have failed to seriously address this looming crisis for health care.

Now, we are running out of time. This is no longer some nebulous future problem. It is coming -- soon -- and we need to prepare.

We need incentives for research on early detection. Through early detection, there is an opportunity for therapy and treatment that could delay onset.

We need respite and support for caregivers, usually spouses and family. Without that, those caregivers will, themselves, put more pressure on the health-care system, which is already stretched thin.

We need innovative funding for dementia care. Our health-care system will be overwhelmed by the coming need for services, unless we develop flexible funding that balances universality with the need for more diversity in funding partnerships with, for example, the private sector.

We need a new approach to dignified long-term care for dementia patients, many of whom will no longer be able to be cared for at home and will need restraints for their own safety. We cannot simply warehouse these people with little recognition of the importance of their quality of life and the feelings of their spouses and families.

Perhaps most crucially, we need to stop avoiding the issues we know are coming very soon. The federal government must get to work -- now -- on a national plan, as well as the funding mechanisms that will be required to ensure the provinces are able to provide the best -- and the most appropriate -- services.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2014 A9

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