Opinion: Canada ill-prepared for the impending dementia crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgency of concrete action, while also being an obstacle to progress on the dementia strategy.

Jennifer Walker and Stephen McCullough, Special to Montreal Gazette 3 minute read December 3, 2020

"Canadians have seen the devastating impacts of COVID-19 in long-term care homes. What we have witnessed these last nine months signals the desperate need to adequately support care settings for our aging populations," Jennifer Walker and Stephen McCullough write. AFP / AFP/Getty Images

It is estimated that nearly one million Canadians will be living with dementia by 2031. The current cost of dementia care is $12 billion per year. As the number of Canadians living with dementia grows, so too will the cost.

The emotional and physical toll on families of caring for a loved one with dementia must also be considered as we plan for the years to come.

We are running out of time to catch up with the impending dementia crisis that will have immeasurable social and economic impacts across Canada.

In June 2019, the government of Canada released its first national dementia strategy. More than a year after its launch, we still lack a clearly defined plan that aligns our collective efforts to act quickly and decisively to ease the crushing social and economic stresses of dementia care in Canada.

The federal budget of 2019 committed $50 million over the five-year strategy for surveillance, prevention and improving diagnosis and care.

There have been no new investments in other aspects of the strategy, including alleviating the devastating stigma associated with dementia, public and community engagement; research for advancing quality of life therapies; finding a cure; and improving the organization of care for persons with dementia and their families. As a result, implementation has been fragmented and lacks a cohesive effort to bring partners together. The Canadian dementia strategy must be integrated with provincial dementia strategies across the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgency of immediate, concrete action. People living with dementia often reside in settings where COVID-19 can easily spread, and they are at higher risk for severe outcomes and death from the virus. Canadians have seen the devastating impacts of COVID-19 in long-term care homes. What we have witnessed these last nine months signals the desperate need to adequately support care settings for our aging populations.

While the pandemic has shone a bright light on the deficiencies in long-term care homes and underscored the need to improve care for our aging population, the COVID-19 outbreak has been an obstacle to achieving progress on the dementia strategy. As organizations and networks that address dementia, we are actively reorganizing and reprioritizing our work to continue to support care partners, families and those living with dementia. Across our networks, we are developing innovative, evidence-based, virtual methods to ensure safe access to dementia assessment, care, and support. An effective plan is essential to help sustain organizations and researchers across Canada, and to work together more effectively to achieve our collective goals.

At a recent gathering of the national dementia research network, the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging, we made a collective commitment to establish common objectives and align ourselves as researchers, care providers, people living with dementia, and advocacy and service organizations to address this growing crisis. Together, we have made this commitment and we call on provincial and federal governments; health organizations; researchers; public interest groups; and the general public to join us in re-evaluating the current status of the national dementia strategy.

Let’s work collaboratively with those who are leading the prevention, quality of life treatments and management of dementias to drive the delivery, implementation and advancement of the national dementia strategy.

Let’s help Canadians living with dementia and their families today, and tomorrow, too.

Jennifer Walker is a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Health at Laurentian University. Stephen McCullough is the interim chief executive Officer of the Alzheimer Society of Canada. This article is co-signed by Howard Bergman, MD, professor of family medicine and medicine (geriatrics) at McGill University; Jim Mann, an Alzheimer’s volunteer and advocate for those living well with dementia; and Viviane Poupon, president and CEO of Brain Canada.

This article has been updated to remove the name of one co-signatory that had been erroneously supplied to the Montreal Gazette.


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