Ticking time bomb

January 16, 2009



The health-care system will be overwhelmed if Canada doesn't develop a national strategy now to prepare for the inevitable wave of baby boomers with Alzheimer's disease, experts warn.

"Action is needed because if the present system is left to deal with the demographic changes, it will be catastrophic," says Stacey Daub, director of client services for the Toronto Central Community Care Access Centre.

The Alzheimer Society of Canada warns a national strategy is needed now to prepare for this spike in dementia.

About 500,000 people are currently living with dementia in Canada. About two-thirds have Alzheimer's disease, while the others are affected by vascular disease, or other forms of dementia. But that number is expected to double in the next 25 years as baby boomers get older.

"We need to elevate the cause, and it can only be done if there's a national push," says society CEO Scott Dudgeon. "There is a growing number of countries that are beginning to take this epidemic seriously. Australia, the U.K. and France have given it priority. There's an Alzheimer's study group in the U.S. senate, but nothing of the sort in Canada."

The society did get federal funding to conduct a study on the prevalence of dementia, the economic impact the disease could have over the next 30 years and what services are needed. The study is underway.

A dementia management strategy would help eliminate the "patchwork quilt" of services and policies across Canada, Dudgeon says.

"Access to drugs and services is uneven. A critical part of the picture is the quality of nursing-home, home-care and community support services, which vary across the country."

Ontario, he says, is one of the better provinces.

"It has made some helpful investments in dementia strategy in recent years. We have dementia networks and memory clinics in place and the province has a $700-million aging-at-home strategy."

That strategy is helping fund improvements to home care and community support services.

Provincial Alzheimer societies support the national push.

"The federal government could promote an exchange of innovation and leadership among the provinces," says David Harvey, the Ontario society's chief member services officer. "And perhaps dovetail investments in research at the national and provincial levels more bang for the buck through a co-ordinated approach."

A national strategy could also establish and promote the best treatments and interventions.

For example, Daub says that, with the right support, many more people with dementia could remain living at home easing the financial impact on health care.