Time to take real action on dementia

Don Touhig4x3Backbench Peer Don Touhig explains why the upcoming Social Care White Paper is a historic opportunity to overhaul our care and support system

The House of Lords last debated dementia in June 2009 when Baroness Murphy helpfully pointed out that with the average age of 68 one third of Peers could expect to die with dementia!

Today there are 800,000 people with dementia in the Britain, two thirds of whom are women. We can expect there to be a million people with the illness in our country by 2021. In 2012 alone, it will cost the UK over £23bn.

Often spoken of as a ‘hidden disease’, I know from the investigative work carried out during my time on the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that diagnosis is hard to come by. Currently only 43% of people with dementia have a formal diagnosis.

All too often I have come across cases where by an elderly person has a fall and breaks a limb. That person is admitted to hospital and it is only then, because the person seems not to respond to questions from a ward nurse, that dementia is diagnosed. Yet diagnosis is the key to accessing information, treatment and support services.

Currently there are 600,000 family carers of people with dementia.

The pressures on carers are often too terrible to imagine. A couple of years ago I led a Memory Walk. It was intended to bring together carers and dementia sufferers to remember their loved ones. I walked alongside a man whose wife had not spoken a word in 18 months. She was doubly incontinent and her only carer was the husband who was sometimes given respite when their son took over.

The family had no ground floor toilet and shower and he told me that the only day he was confident his wife was even clean was the one day she went to a centre which had showers. He was in tears telling me of his battles to get a grant to provide these facilities at home. And that is so often the case. The carer not only cares but often has to do battle with the authorities to get help.

While significant resources are being spent on dementia, they are often being done so inefficiently and in ways which do not meet the needs of people with the illness and also their families.

The Alzheimer’s Society has been campaigning for many years for a change in the way we pay for care. The forthcoming Social Care and Support White Paper is a historic opportunity to implement the necessary overhaul to our care and support system. That should be the basis for a national debate on care and support for people with dementia. But please, oh please, not a long-drawn out one – we need to indentify the key actions needed and get on and implement them.

After all, as Lady Murphy said, a great many of us will die with dementia.

Lord Don Touhig is a backbench Labour Peer in the House of Lords

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