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Heinz Becker (Austria)

MEPs speak out on dementia

In September 2012, Heinz Becker, MEP (Austria) and member of the European Alzheimer Alliance, spoke to Alzheimer Europe about the challenges faced by people with dementia and their carers in Austria

Alzheimer Europe (AE): Mr. Becker, what are the key challenges that people with dementia and their carers face in Austria?

Heinz Becker (HB): Dementia patients have to cope with enormous changes in their lives. Simple everyday tasks, such as going to the supermarket become a challenge, due to the progressing memory loss and beloved persons suddenly seem to be strangers, which leaves the people with dementia with a feeling of loneliness and misunderstanding. The permanent deterioration of the disease and the fact that there is no hope for recovery poses new challenges every day of the patient's and their carer's lives. In addition to these problems, people suffering from dementia and their carers have to deal with a lack of support and insufficient information. They don't know who to consult and where they can obtain help, which makes this difficult situation even more challenging. Furthermore carers are exposed to a permanent overload, as around 80 percent of all dementia patients are being taken care of at home. Studies show that carers are more likely to fall ill as a consequence of the permanent emotional and physical stress. As women account for the majority of the carers, this has a particular significance for them. Up to 47 percent of carers suffer from depression and the mortality risk is 60 percent higher compared to the rest of the population. Therefore it is important to take action and improve the support of the patients and their relatives.

AE: Governments across Europe are starting to pay more attention to the demographic changes in our societies and the resulting increase in the number of people with dementia in the future. Are there similar discussions in your country on a governmental or parliamentary level?

HB: The national report of dementia in Austria shows there are currently 100,000 people suffering from dementia, two thirds being female. Due to the rising life expectancy this number could almost be tripled in 2050 with every twelfth Austrian older than 60 being a dementia patient. This makes dementia one of our most important challenges in the future. In the Austrian Government Program 2008 - 2013 the health promotion and prevention of dementia is specifically mentioned as one of the main goals of the current government and various measures towards a better environment for dementia patients and their carers have already been taken. Nevertheless, there is still need for action as not all of the problems have yet been solved.

AE: Do you believe that Austria will follow the example of France, Norway, the Netherlands, Scotland and England and create a National Alzheimer's Plan?

HB: At the moment there are no reports on plans to implement a National Alzheimer's Plan in Austria. Therefore I am calling for a change in this matter. In order to deal with the increasing challenge of dementia we urgently need a specific plan, including a certain budget in order to provide strong support for people with dementia, to finance research in this area in order to provide the patients with a more effective treatment, to develop guidelines for the treatment of Dementia, to offer regular check-ups for an early detection of the disease and the support of Active Healthy Ageing concepts in order to prevent or at least to achieve a decline in the number of people with dementia. We must not accept the fact that 100,000 people in Austria and approximately 9.95 million people in Europe are suffering from dementia (World Alzheimer Report) and that this number is steadily increasing. I am urgently pressing for more specific measures, such as the creation of a National Alzheimer's Plan.

AE: What do you believe the three policy priorities should be for Austrian policy makers to improve the lives of people with dementia and their carers in your country?

HB: First and foremost it is essential to provide more information on this serious disease for the dementia patients, their family members and carers in order to reduce the uncertainty which usually results from dementia. Therefore the implementation of one key contact person for all concerns and questions about dementia and its therapy could be an option. After the diagnosis of dementia the patients and their relatives are overwhelmed by the news and don't know to whom they can refer to. A main contact could provide the people affected by the disease with information and help them navigate through the system and plan their care pathway.

Secondly the establishment of a "competence centre" has already been suggested by the Austrian national report of dementia, in which everyone included in the process of caring for a dementia patient, as for example carers from inside or outside of the family, doctors and social workers, work together. This "integrated care" could result in a better orientation for the people with dementia and facilitate the therapy.

Thirdly a strong focus must be put on the early detection and prevention of dementia, as therapy is especially important in the first stages of the disease. Even though there is no chance for recovery, the progression of the disease can be slowed down. I would also like to point out the importance of "Active Healthy Ageing in a Lifetime Perspective", a subject on which I put a strong emphasis in my work as a member of the Committee for Employment and Social Affairs and to which I have recently hosted an expert's roundtable in the European Parliament. "Active Healthy Ageing" should be centred around mental activity, physical activity and a balanced diet. These factors can decrease the risk of developing dementia and therefore it is essential that we start with preventive action at an early age.

AE: A last question on the need for a European response to the growing numbers of people with dementia. Would you support the development of a European Action Plan in this field and, if so, what should the priorities for such a collaboration be?

HB: As Dementia represents a challenge not only for specific countries, but for the entire European Union, a European Action Plan would be a necessary instrument to cope with the rising number of dementia. It is important to raise awareness for dementia in order to prevent the stigmatisation of dementia patients and the fear of dementia, for example by starting EU-wide information campaigns in which all stakeholders and member states’ authorities should be actively involved from now on.



Last Updated: Tuesday 16 September 2014