Here is some very sad news, which tells us what we already knew, most of us: dementia is on the increase. Read about it here.
I first heard the term “Alzheimer’s disease” when I was an undergraduate at university, which would have been some time about 1983. I remember having to ask what exactly it meant. Nowadays it is a familiar term, though we have dropped the “disease” part of the phrase. Not all people with dementia have Alzheimer’s of course, but within twenty years I was to become personally acquainted at several levels with dementia – as a priest visiting hospitals and nursing homes, as the friend of people whose parents were suffering from dementia, and most of all as the son of a demented parent.
Dementia is increasing because we are all living longer. That is the standard explanation. There have always been demented people around, however. The novels of Dickens contain a few examples of people suffering from dementia, not unsympathetic portrayals of dotty old people. But these were dotty old people who were in society, which is important to note. But even going back to medieval times there were hospitals and almshouses for those who were so enfeebled by old age that they had to be institutionalised. However, and this is important, this was only on a very small scale.
What we are facing now is the prospect of one in seventy of the population suffering from dementia by 2021, and this is clearly unsustainable – something has got to change in the way we look after those with dementia. It is of course possible that the trend of ever-lengthening life spans will go into reverse, but until it does we will need more nursing homes, and more care for the demented in their own homes.
A married couple I know, and who were both only children, had to care for not one but two elderly and demented mothers. It was very difficult, and quite a struggle, but they did so at home, even though, by the end of the lives of the old ladies, they themselves were already in their seventies. I do admire them for their self-sacrifice, which was all the more remarkable in that there were no siblings to help. In a large family, though, it would in theory be easier. The children and the grandchildren can take it in turns to sit with Granny. If they are sufficiently numerous, they may not have to do this so very frequently. And it seems to me that this will have to be the case: we will soon no longer be able to afford to farm out our care needs to strangers. The family will have to take up the slack. That of course will mean the family rising to the challenge, as my two friends so bravely did.