Call for action on Alzheimer’s

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Mon Mar 29 2010

Alzheimer’s is a terrifying diagnosis for the individuals who will lose the ability to speak, care for themselves, and even recognize their loved ones. It is also devastating for their family and friends who will watch it happen.

This is a disease that is growing faster than our ability to provide quality care to patients and manage the social and health costs.

This is why the provincial government should heed the Alzheimer Society of Ontario’s latest report and call to action.

Last week, the society urged Ontario to adopt a proactive approach, including earlier intervention, more community-based services and financial supports for family caregivers to delay the admission of patients to costly nursing homes.

Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s at home involves taking on enormous physical, emotional and financial burdens. Supporting caregivers so they can keep their loved one at home for as long as possible ensures a better quality of life for Ontarians with dementia and considerable savings for taxpayers.

Ontario should look for ways to increase access to respite care and home support services and introduce more flexible workplace policies and tax credits to support caregivers. Any costs associated with such measures would be more than offset by fewer emergency room visits and $50,000-a-year nursing home beds.

“Dementia planning isn’t just good social policy; it makes economic sense,” the Alzheimer Society’s report states. “The time to act is now.” The society is right, on both counts.

Since age is the primary and unchangeable factor for Alzheimer’s and related dementias, we are running out of time to come up with a strategy that will address the impending crisis. Next year, the first of the baby boomers turn 65.

Today, there are 181,000 Ontarians with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. In just 10 short years, the society’s report warns, that number will grow by 40 per cent to 255,000.

Along with other health costs that are rising due to a rapidly aging population, the growth in Alzheimer’s patients threatens to undermine our entire health-care system, or bankrupt the province. To avoid that outcome, the provinces and the federal government need to restructure our health system with an emphasis on early intervention and less costly community-based care.

Otherwise, we will forever be reacting to crises and adding dollars to a health-care budget that already consumes 46 cents of every program dollar instead of redeploying the money to achieve better results.

Some advances have already been made, such as Ontario’s Aging at Home Strategy and the First Link program, which connects newly diagnosed dementia patients with appropriate services. But neither has sufficient funding. And because implementation is left to Ontario’s local health integration networks (LHINs), there is a patchwork of services available across the province.

For example, only five of Ontario’s 14 LHINs have included dementia in their elder care strategies, according to the Alzheimer Society.

The combination of an outdated health system, inconsistent community-based services and inadequate supports for caregivers results in a system that forces people suffering from dementia into nursing homes sooner than is necessary.

That is an unacceptable result for Alzheimer’s patients, for their families and for the province’s taxpayers.

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