…If you’re with somebody who has a serious illness, you can usually talk to them, have a laugh every now and then – the person is still with you. With dementia, there’s no conversation; there’s no togetherness, no sharing – Judy Parfitt
She is suffering from Alzheimer’s but they thought she was a witch and wanted to burn her. This account of her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, by Annah Mkhonto from South Africa is just one of many distressing stories about the misunderstanding of mental illness, and lack of access to care, on the African continent.
There is a lack of proper information about Alzheimer’s disease, and the pervasive belief that the kind of behaviour demonstrated by the afflicted is an indication of witchcraft. Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.
Seen through the eyes of tradition, Africans can be cruel to people with Alzheimer’s disease. And according to Annah, the last time her mother disappeared people from a nearby community found her walking alone in the middle of the night naked. She couldn’t remember her own name and because she was naked people thought she was a witch. They wanted to burn her alive.
Similar to Annah’s mother, elderly people in Nigeria suffering from Alzheimer’s are harassed for being thought of as a witch, or possessed by a spirit.
Remarkably, every three seconds someone develops dementia around the world. It is estimated that close to 50 million currently live with dementia. And by 2050, that number is expected to be close to over 130 million.
Understanding Alzheimer’s and dementia
Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia which is a general term for memory loss and other cognitive abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 percent to 80 percent of dementia cases.
Who gets dementia?
Most people with dementia are over the age of 65. It’s estimated that 2%-5% of people with dementia are under 65. Some rare forms of dementia can affect people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
What are the symptoms of dementia?
Dementia often develops slowly and the early signs are not always obvious. Symptoms similar to dementia can be seen in other illnesses. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell apart dementia from the usual mild forgetfulness seen in normal ageing.
- People may find that their ability to remember, think and make decisions worsens.
- Communication and language often become more difficult.
- A person’s behaviour may change and some people can become sad or demoralised.
- Anxieties or phobias are quite common.
- Problems with time perception may cause problems with sleeping and restlessness at night.
- Anger or agitation is common in the later stages of dementia.
- It is common for people to be unsteady on their feet and fall more often.
- Gradually people require more help with daily activities like dressing, toileting and eating.