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Physicians encourage education, understanding this Alzheimer’s Awareness Month

Dr. Martha Carmichael and Dr. Huy Nguyen go to work each day knowing the bulk of their time will be spent caring for Islanders who have dementia. While this is a population commonly misunderstood due to their difficulty in concentration, mood changes and forgetfulness, these doctors and the team at the Provincial Geriatric Program put the stigmas aside every day because they know people diagnosed with dementia are like anyone else dealing with an illness; they deserve care, compassion and understanding.

“We often associate dementia with negativity and struggle, but that’s not always the case. I see the joy in people’s lives even when they’re living with dementia,” said Dr. Carmichael. “With care and solid information, people with dementia can take control of their future. More and more people in mild to moderate stages of Alzheimer’s, for example, are living normal, happy, joyous lives. It’s part of the reason I truly enjoy what I do.”

Dementia is the overall term for a set of symptoms caused by disorders affecting the brain. It’s a word used when brain illness or brain changes make it hard for someone to remember, think, see, move, communicate or connect, and it’s intense enough to affect daily life. One of the more common forms of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, accounting for sixty to eighty percent of all dementia diagnoses.

Alzheimer’s is a chronic neurodegenerative disease that destroys brain cells, causing thinking ability and memory to deteriorate over time. It can also cause personality changes. It is not a normal part of aging and is irreversible. While it is most common in people over the age of 65, it is also seen in 40- and 50-year-olds. Young-onset dementia can even be seen in people in their twenties and thirties, although it is much less common.

More than 2,800 Islanders are currently living with dementia, a number that’s expected to double by 2050. While the statistics and projections for the future are staggering, Dr. Nguyen says it’s part of living in a province with an aging population.

“Most of our referrals are about memory loss. Half of our patients have dementia. Age is a risk factor for dementia, and we have an aging population that’s having or is going to have an impact on all specialties in health care,” Dr. Nguyen said. “The care is complicated and challenging, but being aware of the issue and the resources available is important. There are many financial barriers for patients, their families and caregivers that need to be addressed. We also need to find more ways to keep people living at home as long as possible rather than putting them in a nursing home or hospital.”

A new dementia specialty team has been created on PEI to improve and standardize the way care is delivered on the Island. The team, once fully staffed, will also look at supporting education and prevention. The hope is the team will be able to work with well-established organizations such as the Alzheimer Society of PEI.

“We encourage everyone who has concerns about their memory or thinking to talk to a care provider and be assessed. Medications work better if they’re started sooner. Reducing risk factors helps and is most effective if started earlier,” Dr. Carmichael said. “The more people are educated and the more they focus on improving their overall health, such as reducing smoking and alcohol use and increasing physical activity, the better their futures can be.”

The dementia specialty team will help build capacity in primary care for dementia care, examining and creating ways to support in the diagnosis and treatment of patients with dementia.

“We know that most dementia care in PEI is not actually provided by the geriatrics team and we recognize that more support for care teams is needed,” said Dr. Carmichael. “The best way to improve care provincially is through teamwork and education, and we hope to support that. The Alzheimer Society of PEI has created an excellent Dementia Care Training program for health care providers, and ideally we can ensure funding for training for those working in various sectors of our healthcare system.”

January is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, which brings a renewed focus each year to dementia and its impacts on Canadians. Currently, more than half a million Canadians are living with dementia.

“No one likes to be labeled, especially with something that comes with a stigma. Stigmas are reduced when we, as a society, become more educated and understanding. Education is never a bad thing. It’s vital to know the risk factors and ways to reduce them or help patients reduce them. I encourage everyone to take advantage of the growing resources available through organizations like the Alzheimer Society,” Dr. Nguyen said. “Early detection is important, as is knowing and understanding what you’re dealing with, and that applies whether you work in health care, are the patient, a caregiver, or family friend. Having an illness doesn’t define you. Dementia is something we can treat and manage together.”


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