Almost every week in Canada someone with dementia goes missing. (Black Press file)

Are we ready for the dementia wave?

Experts warn that the number of people living with dementia could nearly double in the next decade

When Ethel Baranyk walked away from her Chilliwack home last July, the 89-year-old woman wasn’t the first person with dementia to go missing.

Nor would she be the last.

Three months later, the community again was mobilizing to find Ioan (John) Pop – a 79-year-old who’s Alzheimer’s had robbed him of the ability to find his way home.

The incidences are not unique. Almost every week in Canada someone with dementia goes missing. Most are found quickly, providing a terrifying few moments for family and caregivers, and a valuable lesson for the future.

But not all cases end so well.

Baranyk’s body was found five weeks after she disappeared; Pop’s body was found four days later in a wooded area near where he was last seen.

These are private tragedies.

But they are also public calls for action.

Those familiar with Alzheimer’s (the leading cause of dementia), understand that wandering is one characteristic of the disease. It’s estimated that 60 per cent of people with Alzheimer’s will wander.

Dealing with this behaviour in a humane and respectful way is one of the challenges in dementia care – a challenge that will only become greater in the coming years.

It is estimated that the incidents of dementia will increase as we live longer and the number of seniors grows. Although dementia is not assured with age, it does become more likely.

Already there are more than 419,000 people over the age of 65 living with dementia in Canada. Their cost to our health care system and individual caregivers is estimated at $8.3 billion annually.

That amount will double to $16.6 billion in 11 years.

It’s a stark reality that prompted the federal government to launch the country’s first national strategy on dementia earlier this year. The initiative allocates $70 million over the next five years, aimed at prevention, research, and improvement of patient care and support for caregivers.

It’s a lot of money. But the Alzheimer Society of Canada says more than twice that amount is needed to deal with what they call a looming healthcare crisis.

For those caring for people with dementia, the crisis is already here. The fear that a loved one may go missing weighs heavily with every family.

The most recent disappearances renewed calls for an alert system in B.C., similar to the Amber Alert used when a child is abducted. The so-called Silver Alert would hasten response time in the critical few hours after a person with dementia (or some other cognitive disability) goes missing, proponents say.

Other initiatives include one currently championed by the Alzheimer Society of BC that calls for “Dementia Friendly Communities.” The society is providing tools and expertise to help municipalities be more responsive to the needs of persons with dementia.

These are the conversations we must have.

While individual families struggle to find ways to best treat, care for and support their loved ones, we as a community must do better.

We need to ensure that the work already done in the creation of the national strategy on dementia continues and that the money and political will is sufficient to see it through.

Failure to do that abandons our most vulnerable, and ignores the dementia crisis that science tells us is coming.

– Greg Knill is a columnist and former editor with Black Press Media.

Email him at greg.knill@blackpress.ca

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