Why The US, And Texas, Need To Catch Up When It Comes To Dementia Care

A professor for the country’s first master’s program in dementia and aging studies says the U.S. health care system needs to stop “medicalizing” dementia treatment.

By Laura RiceMarch 20, 2019 7:18 am, ,

The U.S. population is aging, and many older adults have, or will have, some form of dementia. Right now, the health care workforce is not prepared to meet their needs, says sociologist Christopher Johnson. But Johnson is particularly poised to help fix the problem, as professor at the country’s first master’s of science program in dementia and aging studies, at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Johnson says up until now, dementia research and treatment has focused on “medicalizing” the condition – meaning trying to find a medical cure. But Johnson says the master’s program is focused on de-medicalizing the condition.

“We look at empowering persons with dementia,” Johnson says. “Part of their empowerment is understanding there’s a lot they can do. … We wanna look at it as a disability with abilities.”

One way to empower people living with dementia, Johnson says, is by helping them stay in their homes as long as possible. Also, rethinking the design of public and private spaces. He says creating better visual cues as to where a bathroom can be found is one example.

“To where they can get to the bathroom rather than face incontinence,” Johnson says. “Cueing them, whether it be in a city with signage, whether it be in an airport.”

He says “dementia-friendly” design already exists at London’s Heathrow Airport, as well as dementia-friendly villages in Holland. But Johnson says the U.S. is behind in this movement, especially when the country faces a “tsunami” of dementia. It’s occurring among the old and young, Johnson says.

“It’s gonna be to changing clothing … it’s going to have effects on cars, it’s going to have effects on housing, every aspect of our lives, and we are running out of time,” Johnson says.

Dementia is actually a cluster of about 80 diseases; it’s more than the “Alzheimer’s stereotype,” he says. Plus, he says in Texas, there’s overuse of psychotropic drugs to manage the condition.

“You have behaviors that are ‘problems’ for staff, because persons with dementia in long-term care have unmet needs,” Johnson says.

But he says the actual problem is that nursing home staff who often care for people living with memory-related diseases aren’t equipped to work with those people.

“Nursing home administrators in this state are not required to have any kind of training in gerontology, particularly dementia studies … and yet 75 percent of their residents have dementia,” Johnson says.

He says more training is needed to become a certified barber in Texas than to become a nurse’s aid.

“We value our hair more than we do elders in Texas,” Johnson says.

Written by Caroline Covington.

Support for Texas Standard’s ”Spotlight on Health” project is provided by St. David’s Foundation.