In Canada, we have a single-payer health care system, a great achievement.
However, it’s not a market-driven system; therefore it’s not as responsive as it should be.
The Canadian numbers of those with Alzheimer’s will climb. Here’s what it’s like for those who entered the system in the early days of disease awareness.
The gateway to ‘The New Normal’
Jeff Willis’s wife of more than 20 years thought he was just stressed out. The couple and their two children had recently moved from Alberta to Ontario and bought a new home. Jeff, then an artillery officer with the Canadian Armed Forces, was starting a new job.
Some absentmindedness, a degree of distraction and forgetfulness would be in order. Jeff’s new co-workers in Kingston, however, suspected a deeper problem.
Jeff would be late for meetings or miss them altogether. He failed, three times, a standard exam required for Canadian Armed Forces employees “which is so not him,” says Vicky, his wife, from their home in Gananoque, Ont.
“Jeff has three degrees, including a masters in history. For him to fail and shrug it off seemed odd, but we were moving and trying to get settled…” she says, her voice trailing off as if she is still trying to make sense of all that has happened in the past few years.
Jeff, then 47, was dispatched to a doctor on base, and from there, the process (cognitive testing; visits with a specialist) moved quickly. A neurologist in Ottawa made the diagnosis: frontotemporal dementia, or FTD.
Once called “Pick’s disease,” FTD usually strikes people in their 50s and 60s and accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all dementia cases. It’s a form of cell damage that causes the brain to shrink in the areas behind the forehead and the ears, regions that control speech, movement, planning and judgment.
There is no cure or drug treatment for FTD and, on average, people survive six to eight years after diagnosis. Jeff is 52 now, he can no longer speak, and he was diagnosed five years ago.
Once the military had a diagnosis and a reason to release him, they did release him.
FTD is just one of the many diseases that cause dementia
Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s is the most common disease to cause dementia, and has become a chronic public health issue in Canada, with the aging of the baby boomer population.
People can live for 20 years after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, but, on average, people live four to eight years after the onset of symptoms.
As those years pass and function declines, care needs in general – and health care needs in particular – will increase.
For Jeff, military service brought with it health benefits beyond those available to most Canadian employees, like prescription drugs, a few pairs of glasses and dental exams. It also brought quick access to many levels of care. You would think that would be a good thing, but “it was and it wasn’t,” says Vicky.
“Once the military had a diagnosis and a reason to release him, they did release him and we were stuck by ourselves,” she says. “We had to get into the civilian end of it.”
The civilian end, meaning Canada’s lauded and lamented universal health care system, has many enviable benefits compared to programs in wealthier nations. But quick access and responsive care are not chief among its hallmarks.
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