Is dementia a fate worse than death?

Denyse O’Leary
Sep 22 2015
Reproduced with Permission

When Canada effectually legalized euthanasia, I was dismayed. Dementia victims, certain to be targets, can be got to "consent" without any fixed or firm idea what they are doing. With the ageing of the world's population dementia has become the new leprosy.

As Marcus Roberts notes in a recent post on Demography is Destiny, the latest report by Alzheimer's Disease International has projected a steady increase in the number of suffers of dementia worldwide in the coming decades.

World Alzheimer Report 2015 finds that there are currently 900 million people in the world aged 60 years and over. This number will greatly increase by 2050 due to rising life expectancy and there will be a concomitant rise both in the number of people living with dementia and in the cost of caring for such people.

Maybe, maybe not.

All across the Western world, legislatures are increasingly cool with the idea of medically directed death kits . Many proposed initial users will be people with dementias (whether or not they "consent," in any meaningful sense.)

Legislators have sniffed the wind. People with dementias are looked on as beings apart, as lepers once were.

But dementias are not different in principle from other disabilities.

Dementia: The brain is an organ; when challenged, it tries to heal, like any other organ. And it often succeeds, up to a point, just by rewiring ( neuroplasticity ). So dementias go forward and backward, depending. They are more of a problem in some areas of life than others.

In that respect, dementias do not differ much from, say, mobility issues. It is true that mobility declines with age. But it is also true that seniors who arrive in rehab in wheelchairs routinely progress to walkers and canes.

Mental awareness is like that too. Just for example: I was in the dining room in an old age home a couple of months ago. Some residents were complaining that it was too dark for that time of year.

Well, no surprise there, five light bulbs were burnt out. I said, I am going to grab one of those deaders, go get five like it, and just screw them all in. (How big a committee do we need for this? How many meetings?)

Then an old fellow diagnosed with dementia - who usually could not speak clearly - rasped from the back of the room, "Maybe you should leave that to the landlord."

I realized he was right. If I did it myself, I'd be personally responsible for any consequences, no matter how unforeseen. Following his implied suggestion, I spoke to the front desk, and they got Maintenance to do the job.

A couple of takeaways for a compassionate understanding:

It's a bit like mobility issues; when we identify the specific problem, we can work on solutions.

By the way, that old "demented" guy who gave me the advice I mentioned above later ran into a fellow who had been in the armed forces with him seventy years ago. You should have seen the look on his face, how pleased he was that someone else experienced and remembered those days.

Is there something we can do to stop the "leprosy" approach to dementia?