The Northern Advocate
Dementia - urgent government action needed more than ever
Back in August 2019 I wrote about how we in New Zealand needed to re-think the way we treat people with dementia. I spoke about the systems I had seen in Europe where people are enabled to ‘live with’ dementia rather than ‘suffer from it’. I described how this involves supporting those with the disease to live a relatively free and unfettered existence; surrounding them with care in their homes and other familiar environments instead of institutionalising them. I said that with the number of people living with dementia set to rise significantly in New Zealand, it was time we thought again about how we might do dementia care better. This is why I was thrilled that Alzheimers NZ, Dementia NZ and the NZ Dementia Foundation collaborated to develop the first ever Dementia Action Plan for New Zealand, which they launched last year.
Less thrilling, though, is the reason these three organisations felt compelled to take this step a complete lack of political action. The reasons for this are befuddling: dementia is one of the most significant health challenges facing New Zealand after COVID-19.
The number of Kiwis diagnosed with dementia is expected to triple in coming years, which will have an impact on four out of five people and cost the economy some $5 billion a year by 2050. If there was any health issue beyond COVID-19 that should be attracting immediate and significant interest from civil service mandarins and those we have elected to occupy space in The Beehive, this should be it in my opinion.
The plan was widely consulted on as part of its development. The authors received feedback from over 300 individuals and groups and the final result has attracted overwhelming support. It sets out the changes that must be made to the health system to better support people with dementia and their care partners.
It has been presented to health minister David Clark and associate health minister Jenny Salesa. But it cannot be allowed simply to vegetate on a civil servant’s desk somewhere. The issue is too pressing, the human cost of inaction too high. Successive governments have ignored the dementia issue, and the growing number of New Zealanders with the condition have been marginalised. As I said back in 2019, the health services and support structures for people affected by dementia are woefully inadequate. What services there are, are underfunded and largely unsupportive of people living with the condition. It is beyond belief that a group of New Zealanders is so badly forgotten.
All of us will, in the near future, know someone who will be diagnosed with a form of dementia and those people need to be helped by our government to ‘Live Well’. This will help to both delay the onset of dementia and, once it has taken hold, to empower those with the disease to live the life they choose, as far as humanly possible.
In producing the plan Alzheimers NZ, Dementia NZ and the NZ Dementia Foundation have done most of the heavy lifting – now the aged care sector needs government to fund it and support its implementation.