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July 19, 2012

Dementia: A Tale of Two Countries

Reuel S. Amdur

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Dementia, particularly Alzheimer's, is a problem that increases as populations age. France and South Korea are two countries with aging populations who are taking measures to address the problem. There is no cure, but both countries are committing resources toward research and implementing policies to meet the needs of sufferers and their caregivers.

President Nicolas Sarkozy announced France’s program in 2008, a program that incorporates measures for treatment and support.  France will establish “independence and integration centres” across the country, one-stop shopping centres, as it were.  These centres will develop individual care plans for each patient and family and will coordinate needed services for care in the home.  As well, there are to be respite centres to give caregivers a break. Efforts are being made to improve early diagnosis in order to prepare families and patients for upcoming needs.

South Korea is doing similar things but with significant additional features.  There are diagnostic centres around the country, where people are encouraged to come to have memory tests.  More significantly, the country is undertaking a massive program to change the cultural attitude toward dementia specifically but toward mental illness generally.  In addressing the stigma, children are being engaged in experiential learning, both in use of artificial handicaps such as distorted vision created by glasses with misshapen lenses to give the feel of strained reality and also by contact with the demented themselves.  Contacts with people with dementia begin as early as kindergarten.  Children from 11 to 13 are trained to assist sufferers, performing such personal tasks as foot and hand massages.

There is a nationwide program of training for supporters of dementia patients staying at home, aimed at enabling sufferers to maintain functional roles in the family.  For example, the person can assist in meal preparation but may require step-by-step supervision. 

Business in Korea is encouraged to develop and produce items useful to persons with dementia.  One example is chopsticks that are easier to handle. 

France’s approach, following leadership given right from the very top, is promising.  South Korea goes even further, aiming as well to change an important cultural attitude, working with people of all ages, beginning even in kindergarten. 

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