A local expert on dementia said Wednesday the regional health-care community is woefully ill-prepared for what could be an onslaught of new dementia cases in the coming years.
In fact, a new report by the Alzheimer Society of Ontario says as many as 5,600 new cases of dementia could flood the health-care industry over the next decade.
And, says local Alzheimer Society of Ontario executive director, it gets worse.
"We're absolutely not prepared for it," said Shelley Vaillancourt. "We need to start working together a lot more than we are right now."
One in five eastern Ontario seniors could suffer from dementia over the next 10 years, leading to 5,600 new cases and forcing everyone from health planners to employers to rethink how they handle the epidemic and the fallout among patients and their families.
The report says 18,400 eastern Ontarians over age 65 are currently diagnosed with dementia. By 2020, that number is expected to soar by 30 per cent to more than 24,000, or roughly one in five of the estimated 111,000 seniors in this part of the province.
Among the province’s 14 health regions, eastern Ontario is expected to have the fourth-highest dementia rate, behind Hamilton-Niagara and two areas encompassing suburban Toronto.
There are already suggestions the numbers have been understated, and Vaillancourt said now is the time for different health agencies to begin pooling their reources.
"We really need to begin working together to bridge gaps," she said.
The report takes aim at provincial and regional health officials to do more to prepare for dementia’s looming crisis by improving care for patients suffering from brain-wasting diseases such as Alzheimer’s, which has long been overlooked.
"What we now know is that here is a dementia domino-effect happening," said Vaillancourt. "People just don't have dementia, they have diabetes or a corornary disease or ome breathing-type of problem."
Many seniors with dementia also suffer from other illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and lung ailments, making them not only the most difficult patients to treat, but also the most expensive.
The majority take a myriad of drugs, require treatments like kidney dialysis for long periods, and are shuttled between hospitals, home care, family doctors and medical specialists.
The care gaps, as they move from one provider to another, are a key reason many seniors with dementia land in hospitals for long, expensive and futile stays, or are admitted prematurely to nursing homes, the report details.
The problem, Vaillancourt said, is many health care agencies focus on specific ailments, like diabetes or heart disease, but don't attack the litany of ailments that contribute to dementia.
"We need to start being proactive. People have to be forthright about the fact they have been diagnosed and we need to look at planning," said Vaillancourt. "If you go to see a diabetic nurse...then you will see them about that specific issue. Everything is dealt with separately, as opposed to the whole."
What’s more, the unnecessary use of these services drives up health-care costs and provides lower quality of life for seniors and their families.
And families are going to start feeling the pinch.
Some 70 per cent of respondents to a recent poll on the subject suggested they have experienced some kind of work disruption thanks to a family member who suffered from a dementia-related ailment.
Vaillancourt said its time to bring employers to the table, and educate as many people as possible about the effects of dementia and how it needs to be treated - and the impact it can have on people besides those looking for care.
"It's like building a team," she said. "With the numbers that are going up, people are worried. 'Am I going to be the one?'
"We now know we have an opportunity and know we need to be working together. That's where the opportunuty is to turn the fear of it into proactive plannning."