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Dementia's grip cannot be ignored

For someone living with dementia, receiving care from a person who has specialist training can bring out the sunshine.

It is not unheard of, sadly, for people with the illness to be looked upon by some staff in hospitals and care homes mainly as a source of disruption to other residents. Staff with specialist training, by contrast, understand the needs of the person with dementia. They know how to interact effectively with these uniquely vulnerable individuals and arrange their living environment to minimise any stress they might feel. Anyone with a loved one who has dementia would want to know that their relative was being looked after by carers who really know what they are doing. They will not be remotely reassured by news that only around 10% of care homes provide specialist care for people with dementia, even though up to 90% of all care home residents may have the illness.

The Scottish Government is aware of the issue. The problem is partly due to under-diagnosis. This has in the past led to the impression that the disease is less prevalent than it is, but rates of diagnosis have been improving in recent years. Meanwhile, the first National Dementia Strategy committed the government, councils and the voluntary and private sectors to deliver improvements in staff skills and knowledge about dementia in both hospitals and care homes. Its updated strategy published last year promised to build on this work.

Even so, the shortfall in specialist trained staff is potentially huge. It is not as if this problem has only just come to light. It has been known for years that Scotland is facing a demographic timebomb. There are currently 86,000 people with dementia in Scotland and the numbers are expected to double in the next 25 years. It is clear that staff in all care homes should have specialist training to cope with dementia. That should be the norm. The pace of progress is too slow if only 10% of homes provide specialist care.

Experts insist this problem cannot be addressed without more and better trained staff, which will require money. So what does this mean for the Scottish Government? The time has come for an honest debate about funding of health and social care for the ageing population, including the needs of increasing numbers of people with dementia. That was the conclusion of leading health and social care professionals at the The Herald's health summit six weeks ago. The holding line of successive health ministers - deflecting attention away from money and talking about the need for integrating health and social care to cope with the ageing population, so that more people are cared for in the community - is starting to buckle under the strain. Reorganisation of services is indeed essential and in future, more people with dementia will be cared for at home for longer, but care homes will be as busy as ever and will need more specialist dementia-trained staff. That seems unavoidable.

It is a big ask for any government at a time of austerity, but the changing demographics of Scotland cannot be put on hold. Those who have dementia deserve better.

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