There is an acute need for exclusive geriatric medical care facilities, geriatric psychiatry units and trained care-givers for those with dementia, as nearly four per cent of those above the age of 55 in the State have been found to have dementia, the highest prevalence rate in the country, doctors said at a workshop organised here recently by the Alzheimer's and Related Disorders Society of India (ARDSI) to formulate a national strategy for dementia.

Nearly 50 per cent of those with Alzheimer's disease have associated psychiatric problems that can grossly interfere with their family's life and environment. The break-up of the nuclear family set-up and consequently, diminishing family support for those with dementia are major problems in the State affecting the care of those with dementia, P.S. Mathuranath, Associate Professor of Neurology at the Sri Chitra Tirunal Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology (SCTIMST), said at the workshop.

Overseas migration of young adults in the family, dual employment of both son/daughter and their spouses, a drastic change in modern work environments with the young adults in the family spending more time at workplaces than at homes are all social factors that have come to have major consequences on the care of the elderly, especially those with Alzheimer's, Dr. Mathuranath said.

“Often, the patient's sole care-giver at home might be the spouse. The increasing burden of care on the spouse, who also might be old and having various physical ailments, is another problem that families are facing. Caring for a patient with Alzheimer's can be very difficult and with a total lack of personnel who have been trained to care for those with dementia, the quality of life is very poor for the patients as well as the care-givers/family members,” he said.

At SCTIMST, mental health problems have been found to be very common, especially if the wife is the care-giver, he added.

Setting up a telephone helpline for the dementia care-givers and trying to take professional medical help to the patient's door, at least occasionally, will be a great help to the families of dementia patients. Self-help groups or social networking of families with Alzheimer's patients, as those run by the ARDSI's local chapters, are very important.

“The government should make special provisions for geriatric care and dementia should be considered a separate entity, with a definite budgetary allocation. Just as the health planners recognised maternal and child health as a priority in the early 70s, what we need now is a special health strategy for the care of the elderly, with emphasis on dementia, especially as the number of those requiring this care is growing fast,” Dr. Mathuranath said.

At present, all welfare programmes and services for those with dementia in the State are being run by non-governmental organisations. The government should take cognisance of the good work being done by them and help them set up institutions – ‘dementia care homes' – where the dementia patients can be given professional care, he added.