“Nurse, nurse, nurse”, called the woman repeatedly. She sat in an armchair staring straight ahead, eyes focussing on nothing. When a nurse came and asked the problem she said there was not one, only to continue to call, “nurse, nurse, nurse” as soon as the nurse had left her side. Periodically the woman beside her would turn to her and ask, “what did you say her name was?” During thirty minutes in the room the words became like some sort of mantra – the constant repetition accompanied by the question as a refrain.
Television advertisements declare that the battle against cancer is being won, that more people now survive than die from cancer. Health education features show us how to have healthy hearts and avoid cardiac illnesses. No such positive news exists regarding dementia; no television pictures showing people who have recovered, no information pages on how to avoid it.
The number of dementia sufferers in the United Kingdom is said to be currently around 800,000 and by 2021 is likely to exceed a million, what will that be, one person in sixty or seventy? Presumably the incidence in Ireland will be at a similar level, enough sufferers to fill Croke Park. It is a chilling prospect, particularly as by 2050 there will be one person of pension age for every two people of working age. The burden of so many pensioners is daunting in itself, but if a significant number of those over seventy or seventy-five years of age, or whatever the pension age might be by 2050, are entirely dependent upon nursing care for their daily existence, then how will such a burden be borne?
The question of what the future for elderly people might be like has a personal dimension. Should I enjoy life for as long as my grandmother, who died in 2007 at the age of ninety-four, then, as I only reach my 90th birthday in 2050, I would be one of those whose state pension depended upon the labours of two workers (and whose occupational pension would probably by then worth a fraction of its projected value).
Clearly, the 2050 scenario demands action, it is as close as 1979, the year I did my A levels, but there does not seem the urgency we apply to our response to cancer or heart disease. Occasionally, there will be a report on experiments on mice, or research published on the effect of proteins in the brain, but a condition that is going to affect many of us is hardly discussed beyond the homes of families directly affected, or the nursing homes in which their loved ones pass their final days.
Perhaps ground breaking research is about to be revealed and there is no cause to be unduly disturbed, but watching the women repeating the same words again and again and again, there was a fear that the future might be upon us before we know it, that by the time a cure is found it might be too late, that we might be sitting in chairs in homes that by then will be ill-equipped, badly heated and poorly staffed because nothing better can be afforded. It is a bleak prospect.