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Elderly care: An ‘Alzheimer’s Show’ does make sense

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A show aimed at the issue of dementia will help baby-boomers to care for their elderly parents. But a large number of sufferers do not have such support.

At first, I assumed I’d misread the poster. Going down the escalator at a Tube station last week, I’d been absent-mindedly staring at the passing advertisements when something rather extraordinary grabbed my attention: ”The Alzheimer’s Show, 19th-20th of April’’.

That can’t be right, I thought, people don’t hold exhibitions about that sort of thing. Whose idea of a good time is to attend something like that? People go to weekend exhibitions about pets, ideal homes or weddings, not about an incurable, personality-destroying disease.

And then I spotted another poster. This time, I looked at it hard. I hadn’t been mistaken. An ”Alzheimer’s Show’’ was indeed taking place at a prestigious venue, the Royal Horticultural Halls in the capital, which suggests a large crowd is expected. What on earth was the commercial motivation? There’s no money in Alzheimer’s.

I’ve worked in this area of medicine on and off for many years. I know only too well what a ”Cinderella speciality’’ it has been, with little investment in research, special care or support for sufferers and their families. Yet this ”show’’ is a remarkable and shocking sign of our times, as the number of Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers in the population continues its inexorable rise.

At first glance, the show might appear to be a good thing: an indication that the stigma attached not only to dementia but also to old age is on the wane. Some 15 years back, when I was at medical school, older people were forgotten and dismissed. They had limited political cachet and economic capital. Was the decision to hold the show, the first of its kind I discovered, a reflection of changing demographics, with an ageing population made up of vociferous baby‑boomers now a more powerful lobby group?

 

But this didn’t quite make sense. The baby-boom generation is now in its fifties and sixties. Only about 1 per cent of 65-year-olds have a form of dementia, compared with nearly half of those aged 85. And then the penny dropped. It’s not those in their eighties that this conference is targeted at, it’s their children. It’s the baby-boomer generation who find themselves faced with caring for increasingly frail and failing parents in their late seventies, eighties and nineties.

And, of course, it’s this lucky generation who have some money to spend. The baby-boomers are the ones who have benefited from escalating house prices over the decades, more secure jobs and better pensions than those of us who’ve followed in their wake can ever expect. So it’s not that we, as a nation, have become more enlightened about older people and the issues surrounding elderly care, it’s that there is a cohort with cash to spend who have parents to care for, whereas previous generations at a similar age would have lost their parents long since.

While I welcome the show, it would be wrong to become complacent and think that dementia is now firmly established as a cause for concern, socially and politically. That is not the case. That the Alzheimer’s Show is taking place at all is a reflection of the failure of state provision for people with this disease and other forms of dementia. For many people, this show offers current and future carers the possibility of hope and help in how to negotiate the dark and desperate days that lie ahead.

As NHS budgets are cut, so geriatric psychiatry services have suffered, with ”memory services’’ reduced to little more than one-stop diagnosis shops. Patients are assessed and then discharged back to the care of GPs, who are not specialists and who often struggle to manage patients appropriately. Beds on acute geriatric psychiatry wards have been cut or merged with general adult wards, while social services for older people are at breaking point. This is why the show is necessary and will, I am sure, draw a crowd.

But, tragically, there are too many sufferers in our fractured atomised society who do not have family support. A study conducted by the Alzheimer’s Society and published last week found that one third of those with dementia – almost 250,000 people – are living alone. Of those, 29 per cent see family or friends once a week, and a further 23 per cent can expect just one weekly phone call from their nearest and dearest.

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