Dementia rates set to double, researcher calls for it to be a national health priority

Thursday 27 October 2011, 9:47PM

By AUT University


Dementia rates in New Zealand are set to double within the next 30 years placing increased demands on families and an already over-burdened health system. But according to AUT University researcher Grace O’Sullivan, life doesn’t have to stop because a diagnosis of dementia.

O’Sullivan – whose PhD research explores the daily lives of people living in the community with dementia - will discuss the impact of dementia at a Dementia Care conference taking place at AUT’s North Shore campus this Friday.

“A diagnosis of dementia can signal fear of the unknown and a sense of hopelessness for the future. With an increasingly ageing population in New Zealand we need to look at improving the quality of life for people diagnosed with dementia,” she says.

O’Sullivan - a keen advocate of occupational therapy and recognised champion of older people’s right to quality of life - was named New Zealander of the Year (Health and Medicine) 2010 by North and South magazine in recognition for her work with people with dementia. She was also awarded the Frances Rutherford Lecture award in 2010.

Dementia currently ranks as the fourth leading cause of death among the population aged 65 years and over. It currently affects more 41,000 people in New Zealand. By 2050 it is estimated this number will double.

“Dementia should be a national health care priority. It's time to do more about the human, economic and social impact of this debilitating disease,” she says. “Life doesn’t stop with a diagnosis of dementia, yet for the person receiving the diagnosis and their family, their way of living is changed forever. The way dementia is perceived in society has a powerful affect on how people with dementia view themselves. This affects their ability to cope with the debilitating symptoms of dementia and ultimately impacts on their way of life.”

Although the total financial cost of dementia in New Zealand is over $712 million, we still have the lowest level of funding for dementia research of all OECD countries.

“If families received the support they needed to keep people with dementia in their own homes, then chances are this overall cost would be reduced,” says O’Sullivan.

International dementia expert Professor June Andrew, Director of Stirling University’s Dementia Services Development Centre in Scotland, will also speak at the conference. She is called upon internationally by governments, local authorities and health services to improve dementia services and was recently presented with the Robert Tiffany International Award. Colm Cunningham, Director of the Dementia Centre in Sydney will also speak at the conference. He is co-author of the book ‘Caring for People with Dementia in Acute Care Settings.’

The Dementia Care conference takes place tomorrow, Friday 28 October from 9.00am, at AUT University (AF Conference Centre, 90 Akoranga Drive, Northcote).