Dementia care is very much like cancer care was in the 1950s. Underfunded, under-recognised, and under pressure from an ageing UK population.
The extremity of the challenge was recently laid bare when David Nicholson, NHS chief executive, said that the UK was in the bottom third of Europe in delivering high quality dementia care. This indictment of past failures is set against rising need as the number of people with dementia soars from 700,000 today to over one million by 2025.
The announcement of a National Dementia Strategy in August this year was a colossal and rare opportunity to create radical change.
But the situation is severe. Only a third of people ever receive a formal diagnosis, while those who do, go on to navigate a confusing system characterised by overstretched services, poor carer support and a lack of awareness and training.
All of this is taking in place in an environment of funding cutbacks, services closures and a reduction of early intervention services that allow people to remain independent in the community for much longer.
Never could the scale of the challenge be greater.
After June’s damning report from the National Audit Office on the £17bn that dementia costs the UK every single year, the government has announced it will work with the Alzheimer’s Society and others to develop a National Dementia Strategy. It is a unique opportunity for those in the Department of Health and for those of us charged with leading the fight against dementia to shape the future of dementia care in this country.
Care services minister Ivan Lewis pointed out that “the scale of our ambition must now meet the scale of the challenge.” But there is a lot of ground to be made up and a serious government commitment is needed if we are to be ready for the expected increase of people with dementia and families who need our help.
How we take up the mantle to reverse this situation will be defined as the National Dementia Strategy takes shape over the next 12 months.
We have seen “strategies” succeed and fail over the years but this one will define how we meet the one of the biggest threats to the state of health and well-being in the UK. The key will be securing benefits for people’s lives, rather than guidance that sits on a shelf gathering dust.
Neil Hunt is chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society.
This article appeared in the 8 November issue under the headline “Enemy at the gates”