My mother became the invisible woman, one brain cell at a time. Alzheimer’s was a stealth robber, gradually stripping her of the outgoing, friendly personality she had worn through life.
In many ways she was one of the lucky ones. She had a good support system in Napa, California. My brother and his wife were there. So were her grandchildren, church members and people she knew from her years of working at a farm for developmentally challenged adults. She had many other friends from her volunteer work.
Thanks to all of them, she lived independently until she died.
In the U.S. and Canada, her experience is all too rare. That’s because the story we tell ourselves and each other about dementia scares the daylights out of us.
Denmark tells a different story. I heard about it on a radio documentary produced by Karin Wells. The title says it beautifully: It’s Their Life.
The story Denmark tells is that elders with dementia have a right to decide how they want to live. They have a right to go on holidays, ride bicycles, chop wood, and fall in love. They have a right to decide how they will spend their days.
Alzheimer Europe says Danes with dementia are protected by government policy “which states that the patient’s dignity, integrity and right of self-determination must be respected.”
The first thing you notice upon entering is there are no signs warning you of something or pictograms and ideograms giving instructions. The next thing you notice is the lack of plastic. No carers in wipe down aprons, no wipe clean table clothes, plastic beakers or bibs. The tables have tablecloths, the residents have lunch as anyone would, using normal cutlery and china plates and they have beer or wine with their meals. This is not an institutionalized feeling care home.
It hasn’t always been like that. Denmark used to warehouse people, just like we do. But Thyra Frank, a nurse and member of parliament, worked tirelessly to change that. Today Denmark treats its elders with dignity and respect. People lead active lives, in whatever ways they can, until they die.
In 2008 Judy Steed visited care homes in Denmark and wrote about it for the Toronto Star. She wrote:
I am struck by the attitude of proud independence I encounter in many of the seniors I meet in the two countries [Denmark and Sweden], how they persist in doing the chores they are able to do. The system supports them where needed, but doesn't take over – not even in nursing homes, where they have kitchenettes so they can make their own toast and tea.
That sounds like a recipe for keeping people healthier longer, and the healthier we are, the less of a strain we are on our medical systems. Denmark’s model for compassionate elder care gives me hope.
Read more about Denmark's treatment of its aging population in this article by Judy Steed, Elderly thrive in Denmark.