Dementia and Climate Change: Both in Need of Global Cooperation for Positive Change

I’m not an expert in climate change. However, I am a professional and academic expert in dementia and have noted some comparisons between the two. First, both have been heavily stigmatized and progress to better understand what is needed has been slow for the past thirty years. Second, both seem to have a need for positive change. What I mean by that is: both of the issues have consequences that are unthinkable, yet each of us is or will be personally affected. Acts of denial mean that most people think they won’t be affected today, so pro-active solutions are often not discussed on a societal level. In other words, we’ll deal with the consequences tomorrow, not today.

Every living thing on this planet will be affected by climate change, and most people will be affected by dementia in some way—be diagnosed with dementia, know someone with dementia, care for someone with dementia, or work in healthcare. Climate change doesn’t discriminate against race, religion, economic class, or country of origin, and neither does dementia. This is why global solutions to both challenges are vital to progress. It is heartening to see a majority of countries adopt both the Paris Climate Agreement (1) adopted in 2015 and the Global Action Plan on the Public Health Response to Dementia (2) adopted last week (May 29, 2017). Indeed, the Global Action Plan on Dementia was unanimously adopted! It includes targets for the advancement of dementia awareness, risk reduction, diagnosis, care and treatment, support for care partners, and research.  

A significant focus on human rights is also a meaningful part of the plan. It is exciting to note that countries that have historically been criticized for human rights appear to be stepping up to the plate on both climate change and dementia. When the US pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement this week, both China and India made their commitments stronger. At the World Health Assembly, many countries spoke in support of the Global Action Plan on Dementia, including China, Russia, Philippines, Iraq, Niger, and more.  Both climate change and dementia may be unifying causes that can build bridges between countries in other ways. However, it won’t happen overnight, and a difficult road lies ahead, starting with the question what does "human rights for people with dementia" mean?

A good starting place is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (3). Dementia causes dependency and disability, and people with dementia are now recognized by the CRPD.  In March, I attended the Opening Session of the CRPD Committee in Geneva with Phyllis Fehr, a person with dementia representing Dementia Alliance International and representing her home country of Canada, which was due to report its disability efforts to the committee. I was honored to attend on behalf of Alzheimer’s Disease International (4).

Over 35 articles in the Convention can be applied to the individualized experiences of people with dementia in countries around the globe. Articles such as the right to health, the right to live independently and be included in the community, and the right to accessibility are just three examples. One of the key targets in the Global Action Plan on Dementia for countries is to make their societies more "dementia-friendly," which covers at least these three articles. The World Health Organization is the body responsible for monitoring the efforts of member states.

Global target 2.1: 100% of countries will have at least one functioning public awareness campaign on dementia to foster a dementia-inclusive society by 2025.

Global target 2.2: 50% of countries will have at least one dementia-friendly initiative to foster a dementia-inclusive society by 2025.

It is imperative when thinking about implementation of such targets that the language used is "dementia-inclusive." This means the language is positive and directly relatable to improving people’s everyday lives. Often the focus in dementia, as in climate change, is on economic and scientific language. Much of the time this language is not accessible to general populations and sometimes increases fear rather than providing possible solutions. Campaigns and initiatives should include ways individual citizens can benefit from these global targets. In climate change, a focus on the scientific evidence for melting icebergs and bleached coral reefs seems too distant a problem for most people going about their day-to-day lives. These scientific facts are important, but so are making small differences every day in one’s own garden or city by growing vegetables, recycling waste, and planting trees. Instead of the latest fashion fad or umpteenth technology iteration, wouldn’t it be nice to see television ads encourage people to get outside and get involved in something meaningful to improve the environment?

In comparison, in dementia, it is easy to find photos of older people in declining states and statistics about death rates, but we’re all going to die of something. It is more difficult to find people with dementia experiencing joy and laughter—which is, of course, possible but requires another human being to bring joy to a person who is less able to initiate it on their own. I am reminded of the photo book Love, Loss and Laughter: Seeing Alzheimer’s Differently by Cathy Greenblat (5). This book has been an inspiration to me and many others and demonstrates the possibilities for people with dementia. These photos and more photos like them would go a long way to improving the perception of dementia and reducing stigma while helping to work towards the targets of "dementia-inclusive" societies. 

I am also reminded of another way climate change and dementia can interact—the planting of vegetables, gardens, and trees can be assisted by people with dementia. Many people already have their human rights compromised by not being "allowed" to go outside. There's an assumption that it's too risky for people with dementia to enjoy the outdoors or it's too difficult to plan an outing. The only limitation is a perceived limitation by the person providing care. Take some time these warm summer months to enjoy an outdoor stroll in nature with a person with dementia. Sit on a park bench, plant a raised garden, or pot a plant with a person with dementia for their room, which will bring oxygen and joy.