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Forgetting the pandemic: Living with dementia in a time of crisis

 

Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI) is an organisation that shelters the interests of a number of organisations created to protect the wellbeing of patients of the illness worldwide. It is very closely associated with the World Health Organisation (WHO). During this time of crisis, the organisation has come forward to do what they can to protect this vulnerable population and also try and encourage other individuals to do the same. 

ADI has set out a few guidelines as to how this can be done, talking about how these individuals must not be neglected at a time like this, how governments should come forward and extend help for their citizens suffering an illness such as this, and provide them with the things they need to withstand the virus. 

While this is a global issue, it is certainly not non-prevalent in our island of Sri Lanka. The local non-governmental authority on the illness is the Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation, which is also closely affiliated with the ADI. Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation President and Psychiatry Association of Sri Lanka President Prof. Shehan Williams spoke to The Sunday Morning Brunch, pointing out that this is in fact quite a serious problem in our country. 

As he noted, Alzheimer’s is a disease which is entwined with the memory-related condition dementia, where individuals face problems in remembering basic things. As Prof. Williams put it, this is still not a problem which is spoken about in Sri Lanka and he said that the conservative estimate of the number of diagnosed  patients of dementia is close to 200,000, which is in fact quite a large number. They also have reason to believe that the illness is largely underdiagnosed as a result of the lack of awareness in the country.

“It is still believed that forgetting things is a part of ageing. This is not true. People can live up to even about a hundred years of age with a very good memory. Anything else is a condition and this is often neglected,” he noted. 

He also said that when it comes to dealing with those 200,000 who are diagnosed, there is no real treatment method being practised in Sri Lanka. There are a few activities and such, he said, which can help stimulate the brain and prevent the progression of dementia, which again are not really practised that well in Sri Lanka. However, there is no real “cure” for dementia. Hence, we must simply understand the situation of the individuals suffering with it and do our best to help them live peacefully. 


Forgetting it all

Patients with dementia, as Prof. Williams said, are those that are especially vulnerable at a time like this. As he explained, dementia comes on when certain changes occur in the brain which cause the degenerating process of the brain cells. This essentially means that the brain cells are dying. When this happens, it is further followed by a process called brain shrinking as the brain gets smaller as a result of the reduction of cells (brain matter). This is the reason for those with dementia having problems with their memory. Prof. Williams pointed out that at a time of crisis such as this, there is a great chance that these individuals may forget that we actually are in the midst of one. 

It is important to make sure they are constantly reminded of this. This is what the Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation is currently trying to do. They are helping those with dementia keep in touch with their loved ones and are constantly reminding them of things which were their old favourites so that they may cling on to the fond memories which they have been able to retain.

However, Prof. Willaims said there is a huge challenge in doing this for the same reason why social distancing is difficult for many of us; they are not used to the new way in which things are taking place. Dementia and Alzheimer’s, as Prof. Williams said, are illnesses which occur greatly in the older populations and while they are not used to dealing  with technology, for patients with dementia, their ability to learn new skills is severely compromised.  Hence, while the rest of the population may be able to learn and adapt to get more in touch with technology, these individuals cannot. 

Another concern Prof. Williams brought forward was with regard to the carers of these people. He spoke about how even for any average person, it can be trying to spend time with the same people for a long period of time. Therefore, it can take a serious psychological toll on those who have to repeat the same unhappy news about being stuck indoors and explain that they cannot go outside to the same person over and over again. The foundation has also implemented a few methods, such as psychological aid, to help the carers cope as well.


Managing on their own 

However, Prof. Williams said that there are still individuals with dementia in Sri Lanka who have to manage on their own. Of course, being able to live by themselves is their right, but the issue is that  they aren’t able to access help as easily as they did before. 

Prof. Williams and the foundation are asking that the Government of Sri Lanka and the people of this country refrain from neglecting the vulnerable populations such as this. He said that some doctors aren’t willing to see these patients because of the overwhelming situation of the virus and access to medicine during curfew is not freely available. Prof. Willaims said that we as a nation must know not to ignore the fact that there are other people suffering and can be vulnerable at a time like this. 

He said that being kind in this manner would “add value to human society and our focus on Covid-19 shouldn’t distract us from giving care to other vulnerable people of our society”. Dementia is not a problem we can simply ignore now either.  

Prof. Williams explained that old age and illness are positively correlated, which means that if the number of old folks is higher, the number of dementia patients will also rise. This is currently occurring in our country as according to Prof. Williams’ statistics, while in 2015 the population of those above 60 years of age was 13%, it is predicted that by 2025 it will reach as high as 20%.

It’s not far-fetched to say we must do what we can to take good care of these people, who have been parents and teachers of generations of the future, and treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve. 


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