[Viewpoint]Senile people deserve better care

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[Viewpoint]Senile people deserve better care

May is the month of the family. There are days earmarked this month for family happiness. When a family member suffers from a chronic disease, that happiness is limited.
That is especially the case for families dealing with a senile member.
The difficulties faced by older people who live in solitude, struggling with pain from the disease, are numerous. The meaning of the month of the family is lost on many of them.
Senile dementia patients are the most pitiful. Alzheimer’s disease crushes the integrity of human beings and brings devastation to the lives of the individuals who suffer from it, as well as their family members.
We can easily find dementia patients around us, because about 7 to 10 percent of the population over the age of 65 and about half of those over 85 in our society have dementia.
According to the National Police Agency, the number of police reports filed due to the disappearance of senile dementia patients from homes increased from 2,886 in 2005 to 3,544 in 2006 ― 18 percent in a year. About 80.7 percent of the dementia patients who left home were over the age of 70. The older the patients get, the more serious the problem becomes.
The elderly are not only vulnerable to disease, they have a lot of economic problems. In an opinion poll of 1,000 people over the age of 60, carried out in five countries ― Japan, South Korea, the United States, Germany and Sweden in 2000, 48.6 percent of Koreans, the highest rate among the five countries, said that they suffered from economic difficulties.
It is obvious that Korean senior citizens cannot save enough money for their retirement because they have spent profusely on their children ― on care, education, marriage and even housing. On top of that, Korea’s social security system is primitive. There is no doubt, therefore, that they lead a difficult life during retirement.
Korea’s national health insurance system is responsible for diagnosing, giving medical treatment to and rehabilitating dementia patients.
But the medical care system for dementia patients is in poor condition. There are reasons, such as the fact that the average life expectancy of Koreans has risen to almost 80; more than half of people over the age of 85 are dementia patients; and about a quarter of them have been temporarily missing after running away from home.
One fortunate thing is that the “long-term recuperation insurance system for the elderly” law passed in the National Assembly on April 2 and will be enacted in July 2008.
With the passage of that law, we can provide services which guarantee the livelihood of and even housing for dementia patients, instead of providing limited service centered on medical treatment.
In a nutshell, we are now prepared to provide the proper social welfare services, as well as medical care, to people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Following the introduction of that law, the National Police Agency announced plans such as tracing dementia patients through their cell phones and providing volunteer nursing services for dementia patients using 182 call center and social organizations, including religious groups.
According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, however, the nursing facilities across the country meet only 22.4 percent of the need. The social infrastructure for dementia patients is still far below adequate.
First of all, we must expand medical facilities for the aged and train enough people to take care of them in a hurry.
At the same time, a system is needed to encourage community, public and civic organizations to provide volunteer services for elderly patients, as well as giving those employees the appropriate software to utilize those facilities to the maximum extent.
Finland has set precedents that offer us plenty of suggestions. The group home system for dementia patients was introduced in 1946 by some nongovernmental organizations in part of the country. It is now a nationwide system.
Although the central government controls the system, its efficiency is enhanced because local autonomous organizations are responsible for the direct management of the system. And through cooperation between nurses who specialize in elderly patients and social welfare workers called “home helpers,” they provide both welfare services and medical care for dementia patients at the same time.
They also provide a variety of services according to patients’ needs, such as all day service (24 hours), day service (from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m.), afternoon service (from 1 p.m. until 9 p.m.) and night-time service (from 9 p.m. until 7 a.m.).
Considering the precedents set by other advanced countries and through active cooperation among the government, private organizations and citizens, we must cope with problems related to senile dementia patients by efficiently managing the existing national health insurance system and the “long-term recuperation insurance system for the elderly” that will soon be enacted.
In particular, the government should play a more active role in solving problems including the management of dementia patients. It is not longer just a problem for the individual or his family.

*The writer is a professor of public health at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Moon Ok-ryun
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