Living with Dementia, awareness, images, stigma, quality of life: a perspective from India

Every September, those of us whose lives have been changed by dementia find ourselves introspecting about the environment around persons with dementia and their caregivers. We find ourselves building up hopes that in future, the dementia and care situation will have more dignity, an improved quality of life, and more support. Years of being the main caregiver for my mother has made me deeply concerned about dementia awareness and care in India, and I, too, ponder on these issues.

A few weeks ago, I saw a report that discussed how many existing “frames” used to depict dementia are negative/ unproductive and how alternate frames should be used to depict a positive picture and convey the nuances. Then, as I was still piecing together my thoughts on the matter, I realized that the theme for World Alzheimer’s Month 2012 is “Living together”. Alzheimer’s Disease International also plans to release a report on the stigma aspect. I look forward to seeing that report.

(BTW, for those who unsure of the relationship between dementia and Alzheimer’s : dementia is the name given to a group of symptoms, and Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is the most common–but not the only–disease that causes dementia. Most dementia-related work is done under the Alzheimer’s umbrella by associations with names that include the word Alzheimer’s (but may not include the word dementia), a nomenclature that sometimes confuses and ends up excluding those non-AD dementia caregivers who assume the material/ advice will be AD specific 😦 )

Meanwhile, I’d like to share have some thoughts, mainly on how dementia/ care experiences are influenced by the culture and images around dementia, how countries differ, and some lessons for the concerned persons, especially my peers in India. These are just my personal thoughts, not an expert opinion nor a “report” based on any “study”…

…and I’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

I see persons with dementia as major stakeholders in any dementia-related strategy. We already have millions of persons with dementia who try to navigate their lives in spite of the disadvantages dementia imposes, and we have millions of caregivers who try to understand and support them (but don’t always manage to). Medicines and research are also important, of course, and must go on in parallel, but medical research cannot be the sole focus. A world without dementia is pretty far off, because hey, we have millions with dementia already here amidst us, right? Also, current medications are few, not applicable for many diseases that cause dementia. These treatments work on some persons but not others, have side-effects for some persons, and do not reverse dementia. It will take years of intense and sustained research to create enough effective and safe cures adequately tested on humans.

In the meantime, many people continue to “Live with Dementia”.

So I really like this year’s theme: Living with dementia. I like the fact that it focuses on people, on their situation and surroundings, and shows sensitivity to the discrimination and stigmas they may be facing. Living with dementia seems like a wholesome focus. Not struggling with dementia, trying to “defeat” it, or “surrendering” to it or “giving up” or being seen as “negative” or “lacking faith.” Instead, accepting what is there, working with what can be done, focusing on improving quality of life, retaining connections, leading enriched lives to the maximum possible extent.

Dementia care cannot depend just on medical support. It cannot even depend solely on the institutional infrastructure available; most of dementia care occurs in home settings. The care therefore depends a lot on the environment around it: the combination of images and stories around dementia, such as how society perceives the symptoms, the conventions for interacting with people showing such symptoms, the available body of caregiving knowledge, perception of the role of doctors and medication, and so on. Published caregiver manuals and guidelines are only a fraction of the environment around dementia care; the overall environment combines multiple factors like culture and religion, information available in articles, credibility of sources, newspaper depictions, depictions in fiction, mythology and movies, the history, and the societal conventions of how elders and people behaving strangely and differently are treated.

Oh, and also on whether that society even acknowledges such persons openly or whether it expects families to hide them away 😦

Let’s consider the dementia journey, which typically spans years, even a decade or two.

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