Dementia making the headlines isn’t anything new and today’s make for fairly depressing, albeit highly predictable, reading. Anyone currently involved in dementia care in the UK, be that as a person with dementia, a family member supporting/caring for a person with dementia or a professional within health and social care, wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that findings from an Alzheimer’s Society survey of over 1,000 GP’s that was published today found the following:
- There are big gaps in post-diagnosis support from health and social care services, with social care particularly singled out – two-thirds of GP’s surveyed said patients don’t get enough provision from adult social services after a diagnosis.
- Unpaid carers (family, friends and neighbours) are being left to care for loved ones without the support they need.
- GP’s in areas that don’t have good post-diagnosis support provision are more reluctant to diagnose people with dementia or refer their patients to memory services for diagnosis.
Out of these headlines I suspect that council’s will be criticised for not providing enough social care support (which of course most councils are going to struggle to do in the current climate of austerity and huge cutbacks), carers will be given masses of sympathy (when in reality they would rather have action to help them not public pity), and GP’s will be lampooned for not offering more support themselves and not diagnosing patients who they may suspect have dementia (even though General Practice is under more pressure than it’s ever been in the history of the NHS).
Picking up on the diagnosis point, however, really gets to the heart of the issue for me. When dementia was first declared a governmental priority, the initial focus was on improving diagnosis. Fine, you might think, it’s important we diagnose people. Well yes, except that if you diagnose someone but offer them and their family no support all they have is a label to hang their symptoms from and absolutely no idea where to go next or how they might live well.
Those issues then quickly fuel the problems that wider family networks have in providing support and care, and of course when the inevitable breakdown comes there is an increased need to utilise health and social care services, which are often either inaccessible, vastly over-subscribed or have disappeared as a result of cutbacks. Even when there is the possibility of localised support, there is often no one to help navigate complex health and social care systems, with GP’s under immense pressure and third sector organisations like Alzheimer’s Society, Dementia UK (Admiral Nurses) and others all needing additional funding from commissioners in order to offer the post-diagnostic support that they are equipped to provide.
I’d like to say there are some positives in this latest Alzheimer’s Society survey, but I can’t see any. Yet I don’t think it should be used as a stick to beat health and social care professionals with. That won’t help anyone, least of all the huge numbers of families who are needing support and just not getting it. The buck stops with government, and as I wrote about in the run up to the last election, I fear that many of our politicians just don’t understand the importance of social care and, whilst most are very sympathetic towards carers, the needs carers have – particularly around financial issues, access to training, equipment and breaks – are never comprehensively addressed in legislation.
Proper integration of health and social care services, rather than piecemeal promises, a decent carer’s allowance, legally enshrined employment protection for carers who are working alongside caring, freely available training and access to equipment and personalised breaks to help carers, and of course those all-important post-diagnostic services that aren’t subject to a postcode lottery and are personalised, innovative, flexible and based on best practice, are what people with dementia and their families need, and frankly have needed for as long as I can remember.
I have repeatedly argued that resolving any potential shortfall in diagnosis is intrinsically linked to post-diagnostic support. More people will come forward with potential dementia symptoms if they feel their local services are ready and willing to help them, and GP’s will naturally have more confidence with the diagnostic process if they know that the best interests of their patients will be served by giving them access to the care and support that they need. The key point here, though, is that the care and support actually needs to exist!
Allowing diagnosis and post-diagnostic support to get so compartmentalised was a huge mistake that’s leaving more families than ever before to pick up the post-diagnosis pieces alone. I suspect that diagnosis was seen as a ‘quick win’ in terms of statistics – by adopting case-finding in hospitals and GP’s surgeries, people who were developing dementia symptoms were always going to be identified in higher numbers than before such an exercise began.
Diagnosis was a major theme in the 2009 Dementia Strategy, and again in the 2012 PM Dementia Challenge, yet in 2015 whilst diagnosis rates have increased to a more ‘politically acceptable’ level, the personalised support that MUST follow that diagnosis is something many parts of the country are still trying to design, and that’s before they even progress to funding and implementation.
To say this gap in post-diagnostic support angers me would be a bit of an understatement. When my dad was diagnosed, long before strategies and PM challenges, we had about as much support as many families do now. In other words, nothing. The only advantage families have now, as far as I can see, is that with improved awareness of dementia has come a wealth of online and paper-format resources, more helplines, and the hope that with increased political focus will come the action that is so badly needed.
If I could find one chink of light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s stretching a point a very long way, it’s that dementia has come out of the shadows. That, however, is pretty scant consolation for families affected by dementia who feel isolated and unsupported, and whose loved ones living with dementia could be living so much better if only they had access to expertise, advice and support.
Closing the gap between diagnosis and post-diagnostic support must happen, and it must happen quickly.
Until next time…