Canada needs national plan for dementias

January is Alzheimer Awareness Month. Here in the Cowichan Valley, The Walk for Memories will happen on Jan. 25 at the Island Savings Centre, starting at 10 a.m. While this walk honours people living with Alzheimer’s and supports the families that provide caregiving, it is also important to raise awareness of the growing health-care crisis.

In Canada, 747,000 people live with dementia now and that number will likely double by 2031. It costs the Canadian economy $33 billion – not including the many hours of unpaid caregiving provided by family members.

Some estimates put that unpaid caregiving as high as 444 million hours a year – the equivalent of 227,760 lost full-time equivalent employees in our work force. And that will grow to a staggering 1.2 billion hours by 2040.

Canada is alone among G8 countries in not having a national plan to deal with increasing numbers of people with cognitive impairments.

New Democrats introduced Bill C-356 calling on the government to develop a national dementia plan in consultation with the provinces and territories.

The bill calls for increased funding for research into all aspects of dementia; promoting earlier diagnosis and intervention; strengthening the integration of primary, home and community care; enhancing the skills and training of the dementia workforce and; recognizing the needs and improving the supports for caregivers.

Although health care is provided by the provinces, the federal government has a role to play in all five of these areas.

Through funding of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the federal government helps determine what areas of health study get substantial funding.

Despite Conservative efforts to reduce the federal government’s responsibilities to fund health care, provinces and the territories depend on federal dollars.

Employment and Skills Development Canada has multiple programs designed to increase the number of health care professionals and encourage them to work in under-served areas.

And the biggest change in supports to caregivers has been the creation of the Compassionate Care Benefits program to allow caregivers to use EI to replace lost wages when they need to look after a loved one.

It is that final program that is particularly needed for people caring for loved ones with dementia. Right now, the program is only available to people whose loved ones are near death.

For most families, it is the early and mid-stages of dementia when they must take time away from work to deal with the changes in their loved one.

The federal government must develop a better system or program to help families with income support. One that helps them stay attached to the workforce and that they may use over a longer period of time – for example, up to 20 weeks of benefits over five years.

Jean Crowder is the Member of Parliament for Nanaimo-Cowichan. She can be reached at 250-746-4896.