We are sitting in the Frankfort airport, waiting for our return flight to the US after several delightful days of exploring Vienna when the conference ended. We continue to ponder not just the content of this year’s conference, but what it is about Alzheimer Europe meeting that makes us so eager to participate at our own (considerable) expense.
Above all, we participate because we learn so much from our European colleagues and friends. We appreciate their holistic understanding of dementia and the ways it can be addressed (through public policy, person-centered care, focus on creating dementia-friendly communities, psychosocial programs, high quality research on those programs, etc.). Focusing primarily on limiting “cost and liability” (words used by one speaker to describe what shapes US dementia policies and practices) constrains creative thinking about how people might live well with dementia.
We believe the ideas and inspiration we bring back can help our Fox Valley Memory Project enact the vision of dementia-friendly communities. However, if limiting cost and liability remain the primary goals of US policy and practice, our local project will remain an anomaly in a society that continues to medicalize and individualize dementia, isolating and stigmatizing persons with the diagnosis and those who care for them. We anticipate evidence will show that emerging models of dementia-friendly communities are far more cost effective—and healthier, for individuals and societies—than our current, unsustainable approach which provides expensive, high quality care for a small proportion (usually wealthier persons) of those affected by dementia.
At the Alzheimer Europe gathering, we meet people committed to breaking down the walls that too often divide pharmacological research from psychosocial research, researchers from practitioners and policy makers, and—most importantly—exclude persons living with dementia from the conversation about what will best meet their needs and enhance the quality of their lives. Fortunately, we see a similar commitment to breaking these barriers growing in the US. We understand that our European colleagues are also constrained by worldwide economic challenges, but again, efforts to create dementia-friendly communities need not exert high demand on national economies.
Importantly, our European friends do not believe that the challenges presented by an aging population and the growing number of persons affected by dementia can be effectively addressed by any one nation alone. Cooperative efforts across national borders are essential to forming policies and creating new practices that will best serve not only the persons directly impacted, but the common good of society.
The American mindset leans strongly towards “we will come up with the best solution without help from others.” We do not know exactly why so few persons from the US attend the Alzheimer Europe (this year there were about 6 Americans, including the two of us). Is it merely the name of the organization that discourages Americans from attending? This doesn’t seem to preclude participation by people from India, China, Hong Kong, and Australia. We recognize that the American Alzheimer’s Association is very much involved with the work of the organization, Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI), and since we have never attended one of those meetings, we cannot draw fair comparisons.
Many of the meeting’s attendees work with one another on a regular basis through special-focus organizations, several of which were mentioned in our previous post. They address dementia in many different settings and out of multiple disciplines, coming together in settings like Alzheimers Europe to affirm a common vision and purpose that ensures that their various efforts are not carried out in isolation from those working on other aspects of the challenge.
One reflection of this is seen in how persons listen attentively to those from other professions and disciplines in both plenaries and parallel sessions. Moreover, persons with considerable experience and global reputations welcome, encourage and engage with researchers and practitioners just beginning to explore how they can make a contribution. We were pleased to meet a number of young professionals and graduate students who view this meeting as an opportunity to gain mentoring, encouragement and inspiration. They will have much to offer in the coming years.
It is a long way to travel for a relatively small conference that only runs two full days. But it is more than worth the effort to spend time with these wonderful people, to draw ideas from them, and to be inspired to continue our own efforts.