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Ole Christensen (Denmark)

MEPs speak out on dementia

Ole Christensen, MEP (Denmark,) speaks about the key challenges that people with dementia and their carers face in Denmark.

It is estimated that 80,000 people have dementia in Denmark and that one in five Danes that reach the age of 85 years or more will be hit by some form of dementia. While the illness is severe enough for the person suffering from dementia, it also implies notable changes in the daily lives of family, friends and carers. In Denmark no less than 400,000 people are related to a person with dementia.

As demographic changes start to take place over the coming years, resulting in a larger segment of elderly people, prognoses indicate that people with dementia in Denmark will double within a period of 25 to 30 years.

These demographic changes are not unique for Denmark. A number of countries in Europe are experiencing a larger share of elderly people in their respective populations and governments are starting to pay more attention to the prospect of an increased number of people with dementia in the future. 

 This same prospect is also dawning on Danish politicians and during recent years the debate on dementia has increased in scope and depth.

However, despite this awareness, the general effort on behalf of dementia has, until recently at least, been rather less organised and of less quality than in other European countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Norway and Sweden where national action plans have been in place for a number of years.

Recognising this lack of a coordinated approach towards dementia, Denmark launched a four-year action plan for Dementia in 2010. The plan presents 14 specific recommendations which will strengthen and improve national efforts to deal with dementia. The recommendations include giving a timely and better diagnosis of dementia in all parts of the country.

The plan also includes recommendations for the different regions of Denmark to follow guidelines in order to create cross-sectional diagnostic procedures. Since dementia has been dubbed "the illness of relatives and close ones" it is also important that recommendations are made not only for the people directly suffering from dementia but also there informal caregivers.

I certainly find the plan a step in the right direction and it sends a clear signal that dementia is beginning to receive the recognition in the public and political debate that it deserves. However, it should merely be seen as a first step. As already mentioned the demographic changes that European societies will experience in coming years will present enormous challenges for politicians and requires continuing adjustments and updating of the current framework for dealing with dementia.

In light of these challenges, I am of the opinion that the policy priorities for Danish policy makers are threefold:

First of all, it is of utmost importance that policy makers focus on achieving the highest possible effect of our investments for the admittedly increasingly scarce resources available.

Already today, dementia accounts for DKK 7 to 8 billion in expenses for treatment and care. If one adds the indirect costs of dementia in the form of lost income for relatives and close ones the expenses are easily doubled. The growing amount of people with dementia will therefore result in an increased pressure on public finances of European societies in the near future.

In addition to the challenges of demography, most governments in the EU are currently tested by the economic and financial crisis which leads to implies a growing public budget deficit and resulting cuts in public outlays for certain health expenses.

Therefore we need to spend the money we have more smartly. The administrative burdens should be lessened and resources currently being used to bureaucratise treatment of dementia should undergo a reprioritisation.

Furthermore, in Denmark there is a widespread division of tasks in health care where the state, the regions and the municipalities all play important functions. This division of labour has a long history in Denmark and should not necessarily be changed. However, it does require imply that the different actors should communicate when completing their tasks so that we achieve effective coordination between the levels responsible for treating and caring of people with dementia.

However, a more effective use of resources should not be made by sacrificing the quality of the treatment and care. I recognise that there are limits to how efficient we can be for the resources available. Therefore, we should not demand too much of carers and medical staff who contribute massively by investing time and effort in the lives of others and thus face large enough challenges as it is.

This also leads me to my next policy priority for Danish policy makers. As already mentioned, carers of people with dementia are essential. In a world where there is not only an increasing number of people with dementia but also a decreasing number of younger people to look after the ill, a second priority should be to create improved day-care and relief facilities for people with dementia and their close ones. More specifically, we should make better use of patient-organisations and volunteers that can help relieve the efforts of family and friends.

Finally, I think it is important to raise public awareness of dementia. Public awareness campaigns could be initiated as has been the case for other illnesses affecting large segments of the public. These campaigns should inform people living with dementia about the initiatives undertaken, the research being conducted in the area and the possibilities of meeting other people confronted with the challenges that dementia poses. Since dementia is going to affect an increasing number of people in the future and thus increasingly become a societal challenge that we will have to solve in community, information campaigns should also have a broad focus informing the general public about dementia.  

In addition to the responses on national level, I find it important that we develop a common European approach to dealing with dementia. Dementia is an illness that confronts most EU member states especially the ones experiencing aging populations. Therefore, I find it essential that we tackle the issue in cooperation.

I would therefore be very much in favour of a European Action Plan in line with the ones that are already in place for cancer, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and heart diseases. Within such collaboration we should focus on achieving a better and coordinated effort to have the illness diagnosed as early as possible. In Denmark for example only a third of all people with dementia have been given a diagnosis.

It should also be a priority to improve the amount and quality of aid that is given to people with dementia and their close ones. These are the people most affected and most in need of aid and it is long overdue that we give them a helping hand by easing the daily challenges posed by the illness.



Last Updated: Friday 30 March 2012