Coming to grips with dementia

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Coming to grips with dementia

The average life expectancy in Korea has risen thanks to medical advances, improved sanitation and higher per capita wealth, to name a few influential factors. But with these demographic changes comes a stark reality: society must come to grips with the obstacles posed by dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, the number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease will increase to 800,000 in 2020 from this year’s estimate of 534,000 and reach one million by 2025.

The major problem is that care for these patients is still primarily taken on by the families. Insurance coverage for long-time nursing homes and institutional care since 2008 helped ease the burden, but there are more than 400,000 who haven’t received the benefits because their symptoms are deemed too minor or have not been registered properly. Health authorities suspect that at least 60 percent of those with dementia-related problems and illnesses are under the care of their families - 40 percent by their spouses and 17 percent by daughters-in-law.

Caring for patients with dementia demands around-the-clock attention. The physical, psychological and financial burden placed on family members is severe. The struggle with the disease should no longer be left entirely with the families.

A 78-year-old man recently killed his 74-year-old wife who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for two years. He became severely depressed after caring for his wife alone. It is a modern-day tragedy of individual and family difficulty amid a lack of societal and governmental support. The burden and pain of caring for Alzheimer’s patients cannot be fully understood without experiencing it first hand.

This scene is becoming increasingly common. We can no longer hide from the problem. We need a thorough and comprehensive system for dementia. The illness is irreversible and treatment is highly costly. But with effective care and support systems, the burden on the family and society can be eased. The government should set a national guideline to provide regular checkups for citizens at a certain age threshold and when diagnosed, have the patients registered for public care.

Patients with dementia need special care, but we lack a specialized workforce for the task. We not only require medical treatment, but also nursing, physical therapy, nutritional advice and social care services. We also need more caregivers and home visitors to extend public assistance. Care and support for dementia patients should be part of the increase in social welfare benefits. It is a pity that none of the presidential candidates has mentioned it despite all their trumpeting about enhancing welfare.
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