More than half of all dementia sufferers in the South West are undiagnosed, with rates of diagnosis being as low as 35% in rural Devon.
As someone who cared for my Mother who had dementia when I was a teenager, I am acutely aware of the importance in diagnosing the disease early.
Early diagnosis means the patient can get the treatment he or she needs and the family or carers support in a situation which can be very tough and isolating.
Late diagnosis is a particular problem for a region like ours with a large elderly population and retired people who may live a long way from their children and other family members.
What are the barriers to early diagnosis? Many people are naturally terrified of being diagnosed so delay facing up to the disease even though that is likely to cause them and their loved-ones more problems in the long run. The training of GPs and other healthcare professionals to recognise early signals has not always been good. Then there are the complexities of accessing support and of the different drug treatments available.
In a predominantly rural region like ours – getting to a doctor and the accessibility of out of hours care can be additional challenges.
And then there’s the impact of the recent Government cuts to health and social services. Social services and the care packages they support have been particularly badly hit. Many families are facing deteriorating care and support or higher charges or both.
The onset of dementia is a stressful period for the patient and their families and credit must be paid to charities such as the Alzheimer’s Society who campaign tirelessly to raise awareness of the disease and the support available to people. I recently visited the Alzheimer’s Society office in Exeter and was hugely impressed by the work staff and volunteers do encourage early diagnosis and support sufferers and their families.
But they need the support of Government. Doctors, experts in dementia and people who’ve been affected by the disease have repeatedly warned of the importance of early diagnosis. Yet these figures show there is a growing post code lottery in services in England. Waiting up to a year for a diagnosis is not acceptable. It also costs the NHS, social services and families themselves more in the long run.
The Government must act to end the wide variation in dementia services across the country so that dementia sufferers in the South West get the care, treatment and support they need, wherever they live.