The federal government has released a long-awaited national dementia strategy, providing a road map for the first time for how it intends to address a costly and rapidly growing public health concern.
But while dementia experts welcomed the strategy as an important initial step, some emphasized the government will need to devote much more funding than promised to actually implement it.
At a press conference in Toronto on Monday, Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor outlined the main objectives of the strategy: prevent dementia, seek better treatments and a cure, and improve the quality of life for people with the condition and their caregivers.
She affirmed the government is spending $50-million over five years to fund the strategy, as set out in the 2019 federal budget. And she announced the Canadian Institute of Health Research, the federal funding agency, will contribute $31.6-million over the next five years to support a national dementia research consortium.
“Over the past years, governments of all stripes have put [in] place an array of national strategies. Some are more effective than others. So, you may ask yourself: Why is this one any different?” Ms. Petitpas Taylor said. “Well, it’s because we’re putting our money where our mouth is.”
But for some dementia experts, such as cognitive and stroke neurologist Sandra Black, director of the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Research Program at Sunnybrook Health Sciences, that amount is not nearly enough.
“This $50-million over five years is like a toe in the water,” she says.
Canada is the last Group of Eight country to put together a national dementia strategy. About 30 other countries around the world have taken this step to tackle the condition, which affects an estimated 50 million people globally.
Ms. Petitpas Taylor said she did not know why it took so long in the past for Canada to develop its own strategy. But she said, “I can tell you for our government, it has been a priority.”
In Canada, more than 419,000 adults aged 65 and older were living with some form of dementia between 2015 and 2016, and an estimated 78,600 new cases are diagnosed each year. The health care and out-of-pocket caregiver costs associated with the condition are projected to reach $16.6-billion by 2031.
The dementia strategy highlights the need to prevent the condition through measures such as the promoting healthy living. It also includes the need to eliminate stigma against those with dementia, promote early diagnosis and develop a skilled workforce, from researchers to care providers.
The strategy also emphasizes the need to engage with Indigenous governments and communities, stating that Indigenous peoples face barriers to equitable care and are at higher risk of developing dementia.
Among its “aspirations”: annual investments in dementia research in Canada exceeding 1 per cent of dementia care costs.
At present, that 1 per cent would amount to about $100-million a year, Dr. Black said, saying that the $50-million over five years in the federal budget is paltry by comparison.
Pauline Tardif, chief executive officer of the Alzheimer Society of Canada, said she is happy to see the release of the strategy. However, she added: "We already know that delivering on the commitments of this aspirational strategy will need added investments as we go along.”
Ms. Tardif, who co-chaired the ministerial advisory board that contributed to the development of the strategy, said she was optimistic that various levels of government will invest further, as some initiatives outlined in the strategy are carried out."
For Jennifer Walker, a Canada research chair in Indigenous health at Laurentian University, one important aspect of the national strategy is that it does not dictate how Indigenous communities should address dementia. Rather, she said, it provides a framework that allows them to develop their own strategies.
Dementia is increasing at faster rates among Indigenous populations in Canada than the general population, she said. Indigenous communities also grapple with fragmented health-care systems and a dearth of culturally-centred resources, she added.
“What I want to make sure is that there is enough and adequate attention paid across all of the elements of the strategy for Indigenous populations, and that Indigenous communities have access to that funding to develop what they need to develop,” Dr. Walker said.
As someone who lives with Alzheimer’s disease, Roger Marple of Medicine Hat, Alta., who was diagnosed in 2015, says eliminating stigma was what he wanted to see most in the national strategy.
“It all boils down to understanding," Mr. Marple said. "If people have a better understanding, a lot of these problems we’re having with stigma – whatever way it may look – will simply go away.”
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