A diagnosis of dementia is one of the most challenging events that can happen to an individual in their life.
Sadly it is becoming a common experience for thousands of Australians. Because we are ageing rapidly as a society and because the biggest risk factor with dementia is age, thousands of Australians are being diagnosed every year.
Already there are over 300,000 Australians diagnosed. By 2030 that will be over half a million. And that also means an impact on half a million families. Sons, daughters, spouses and grandchildren who share in the shock and the grief of a diagnosis of this incurable, fatal disease.
Already the third leading cause of death in Australia, it will be the number one cause of death of all Australians within 20 years. Yet most Australians don’t even know it’s a fatal condition.
With an estimated 1700 new cases of dementia each week across Australia, many families are going to learn about the brutal reality of dementia very quickly.
And that reality is that dementia is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain that may cause a loss of memory, changes in behaviour, frailty and loss of cognitive ability.
The diagnosis often causes shock, grief, fear and distress. As the condition progresses, carers will witness a gradual decline in the abilities of their loved one. It will lead to a carer, normally a spouse or daughter, taking on a whole range of new difficult duties.
Arrangements for community care will need to be put in place, families and friends will either rally around or tragically fade away, unable to contend with the changes dementia brings.
Eventually, for many, placement into a residential facility will occur, often described as the most difficult choice faced by a loving carer.
For many with dementia, death will come before they fade totally into that shadowy world where they lose the capacity to recognise their most loved and loving and loyal partner or child.
But for some their bodies will be strong and they will live on in the residential facility unable to recognise or take part in any of the events of life they used to love and cherish.
Despite the darkness, dementia also throws up countless examples of devotion, tender compassion and extraordinary love, especially in carers. People can and do live with dementia often for many years and can, with love and support, live happy and fulfilling lives.
Our challenge as a civilised and caring society is to do all we can to recognise and serve the needs of those living with dementia, do all we can to support and embrace those who provide personal care and do all we can to find the causes of this terrible condition so that eventually we can relieve the burden that falls on too many Australian families.
John Watkins is the CEO of Alzheimer’s Australia NSW.
The Illawarra Performing Arts Centre is hosting the production Sundowner, which explores the fear, humour and dignity of those living with younger onset dementia. Starring Helen Morse (pictured), it runs until Saturday. To coincide with the production, Merrigong will host a Talking Point on Saturday at 5pm, titled Navigating Early Onset Dementia.