Canadians unprepared to spot signs of dementia

Prof. Lorna de Witt wasn’t surprised by the results of a national survey demonstrating that most Canadians are woefully ill-equipped to spot the signs and symptoms of dementia. Moreover, as the co-investigator of a research network whose primary aim is to create a shift in thinking regarding the way people with dementia are treated, she’s in an excellent position to help solve the problem. “That’s why I took the opportunity to do this kind of work,” said the assistant professor of nursing. “This really gives me the opportunity to influence a large number of people.” Dr. de Witt is a member of the Partnerships in Dementia Care Alliance, a $1.8 million network of 13 investigators and 15 regional, provincial and national partners all dedicated to conducting research that will ultimately de-stigmatize dementia and Alzheimer’s so that patients diagnosed with those conditions will be cared for with greater dignity.

Earlier this week, the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada released results of a survey of more than 1,000 respondents aged 45 to 65, indicating many of them are unprepared to deal with dementia. Among other things, the survey found one in four people could not name a single symptom of the degenerative brain illness, while only one in two identified memory loss as a key warning sign. Far fewer respondents could identify other common symptoms such as disorientation, repetitive behaviour and wandering. In a Globe and Mail article about the survey, Mary Schulz of the Alzheimer’s Society said education should be a key component of a national strategy to deal with the 500,000 Canadians currently living with dementia, a number which is expected to double in the next 20 years.

That’s a message which resonated with de Witt, who will contribute to the research network’s goal of establishing new post-secondary curriculum for students in disciplines such as nursing, social work, and medicine that will support greater emphasis on involving people with dementia in the decision-making process about how they’ll be cared for. But before that can happen, society will need to confront its collective fear, negative stigmas and misconceptions about aging and dementia in order to adequately address dealing with the issue of caring for people living with the condition, de Witt said. “If people don’t regard it as a priority, they’re not going to want to learn about it,” she said. — Stephen Fields