Saturday, 11 February 2012

Dementia and the NHS

All over the world, Dementia sufferer numbers are rising at a worryingly fast rate. Kyra O’Reilly investigates how this could affect the NHS and the public’s future.

According to a recent report from Dementia UK, there are currently 750,000 people in the UK with dementia, two thirds of which are women. And this number is rising.

 It has been estimated that by 2021 that number will increase to 940,000 and by 2051 that number will have escalated to a staggering 1.7 million.

By that time, many people who are currently in their 20s could be at huge risk of this incurable condition.

With these figures, the question is; how will this affect our healthcare system?

Dementia is a psychiatric syndrome that causes severe memory loss, as well as causing a decline in normal brain functions like language, judgement and understanding.

The most common form of Dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which 62% of dementia sufferers have. However, there are several other kinds, including vascular dementia, Huntington’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Fears for the future

Experts are concerned the NHS and care homes alike will not be able to cope with the rising number of cases due to recent figures released by Dementia UK.

Currently, there are many jobs at risk in the NHS, including doctors and nurses. With the NHS in danger of being the next to face monumental spending cuts, this number of frontline staff could drop perilously low.

The NHS has taken a hit in the past year already, with staff having a pay freeze and wards closing in several areas.

Mary*, a senior staff nurse, said: “The pay freeze is the government yet again kicking us nurses [when we’re down].

‘We always take a low [pay] raise anyway and they feel they are safe to do this as nurses very rarely strike- we are humane.

There are not enough staff in the wards and nursing homes at the moment and experts feel that this urgently needs to be addressed by the NHS and the public, as dementia can be dangerous in certain circumstances.

For example, if a sufferer spills a drink and then forgets it, they could slip over and injure themselves. If there are too few staff, something this simple can easily be missed.

In the future, experts foresee the decline of dementia wards and care homes, with relatives replacing the carers who were properly trained because the ratio of staff to patients is too low.

They also predict the deterioration of dementia healthcare in the NHS simply because there is not enough nursing staff or people willing to study for these positions.

Richard Sharples, a specialist doctor in older persons mental health, said: “There is an urgent need for better care of patients who are in hospitals. There needs to be urgent thinking and research into better ways of providing social care.”
It appears that it is up to the public need to get involved in order to make sure that their care is in safe hands as the outlook is currently not a positive one.

Plans for improvement

Mary had many ideas on how NHS care could be improved. She said: “With Dementia care in particular I would set up homes that really do care and treat people as if it was their home.”

She talked about a recent documentary that showed such a home, where the staff did everything with the dementia sufferers that they would do in a normal home. For example, they would help them do the washing, cooking and cleaning.
The staff loved their jobs, so they didn’t leave and had great morale. However, there was a waiting list to get in.

“I believe all homes should be like this in the future. Also, I feel more money could go into dementia research and see if we can detect early and find earlier treatments that are effective,” Mary said.

“[In the future], capital investment into the provision of wards that are ‘fit for purpose’ is likely to drop. The number of staff to patient ratio may not be adequately maintained. Medical cover is being stretched more thinly and will continue to do so,” said Richard.

“Treatment and suitable help for those with dementia is possible for the future. But this needs to be thought about now, rather than later, if it is to be done all over the UK and funded adequately.”

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