Speeches

Speech by Minister of State Tim O’ Malley T.D. at the official opening of the “Share the Care” Conference

Introduction

Thank you for the invitation to be here with you today to officially open your Conference, the first conference specifically for carers of those suffering from Dementia/ Alzheimer in Mayo.  Indeed, I regard it as privilege to be associated with an event which recognises the enormous contribution of people involved in a caring role, in support of dependent family members or friends, and I welcome the opportunity to meet those people and to express my encouragement and support for them.

Demographics

There are over 60 million people in the European Community who are aged 60 or over.  One in five of the population of the Community is an older citizen and the ratio is set to rise to one in four quite rapidly.  In Ireland, the expected increase in the number of older people reaching advanced old age is dramatic.  It has been estimated that between 1991 and 2026, there will be a 75% increase in the number of people aged 75 and over.  Inevitably, this will give rise to an increase in the numbers of people suffering from dementia, and will present a major challenge to our health services in the coming years.

Dementia / Alzheimer’s Disease

Dementia is one of the most distressing conditions facing the older person.   It is, for the most part, a progressive and incurable condition in which brain function deteriorates causing impairment of memory, disorientation and gradual loss of skills. As a consequence, people lose their independence and require help from others in the basic tasks of self-care.  Dementia is a pathological process and is clearly different from normal ageing, in which changes such as difficulty in recalling names, for instance, may occur. While dementia is not solely related to age, it does affect 5% of those over 65 years with the figure rising to 20% of those aged over 80 years.

Care for those with Dementia

According to the National Council on Ageing and Older People, family care accounts for almost 50% of care provided to persons suffering from dementia.  The Government is very much aware of the enormous contribution of carers in looking after dependent dementia sufferers and other people with disabilities, in the home.

Caring

Caring can be at great expense, be it emotional, physical or financial, to the person providing that care. We are all aware that the role of carer can be a 24 hours-a-day, 7 days-a-week job, and many carers have found themselves in a situation where they have been forced, by circumstances, to sacrifice their careers and social lives in order to address the needs of dependants. Consequently, many people acting as carers can feel isolated, alone and taken for granted by society. That is why a conference like this one, whose theme is “Share the Care”, is so important as its aim is to provide carers with information on services available and covering practical aspects such as legal, welfare, medical issues and the psychological affects of caring, hopefully helping to alleviate the feeling of being separated from society that can be experienced by some carers.

Role of the Government

I am aware that recognition of their invaluable role is an important issue for carers.  We are not yet at the stage where we can say with confidence that the needs of carers and those in their care are being completely met. However, I am pleased to say that the situation is changing and a number of initiatives have been taken, particularly in the past few years, to address carers’ needs.

Assistance to carers is provided by the health services and can include the provision of day centres, short-term and holiday relief care, night sitting and domiciliary relief care, as well as community nursing and paramedical services.  It is accepted that there is still some way to go in the development of an integrated network of support services for carers. However, much progress has been made and I would like to say a few words on how this Government has responded to the needs of carers in recent budgets.

Government Initiatives

In the past four years or so, the Department of Health and Children has provided a total of over €6m additional funding to the health boards specifically for the support of carers.  This funding has been used by the health boards to fund Carer Support Groups, to provide training to Carers and to provide support to them through, for example, the employment of liaison officers and the provision of respite breaks.  The funding was also used to support home care services.  In addition, approximately €12 million was allocated to the boards over the years 1999 to 2002 to recruit more paramedical and nursing staff to provide locally based services for older people and their carers.

During that period, an initiative was announced to provide aids and appliances to older people in their homes, i.e., for those experiencing difficulties with the activities of daily living. Most older people, given a choice, would prefer to stay in their own homes, and the provision of medical and other appliances or aids can be an essential element in helping them to do so, thus making life easier for their carer and also helping the older person to maintain his/her independence.  A special provision of £2m was also allocated among the health boards for the provision of walking sticks and frames, wheelchairs, commodes, bed rests, special beds with hoists, stair rails and many other vital appliances. Supporting carers in our society has been a priority of the Government since 1997.

The Department of Social and Family Affairs has introduced a range of measures since 1999 to assist carers, including increases in the Carer’s Allowance, the introduction of an annual payment towards the cost of respite care, the extension of schemes such as the free electricity allowance, free telephone rental and free TV licence to those on Carer’s Allowance.  A Carer’s Benefit Scheme was also introduced to facilitate and support those who have to leave the workforce, temporarily, to provide full-time care to older persons or those with disabilities.

Over that period weekly payment rates to carers have been greatly increased, qualifying conditions for carer’s allowance have been significantly eased, coverage of the scheme has been extended and new schemes such as carer’s benefit and the respite care grant have been introduced. Under the provisions of the Carer’s Allowance Scheme, carers may engage in employment or self-employment for up to 10 hours per week. This measure was introduced in recognition of the value such work affords to carers.

Funding of €18,000 has been provided to the Carers’ Association from the Department of Social and Family Affairs towards the publication and distribution of a new information pack which will provide information about services and supports for carers and their families.

The information pack is currently being compiled by the Association and will be distributed throughout the country through local libraries, health board offices, clinics, citizen information centres and social welfare offices by the end of the year. It will contain important information to carers on the services and supports available to them and their families.

The development of the range of supports for carers will continue to be a priority for this Government and, building on the foundations now in place, we will continue to develop the types of service which will recognise the value of the caring ethos and which will provide real support and practical assistance to the people involved.

Conclusion

Finally, your speakers here today include those who have an expert knowledge and a hands-on experience of matters relating to caring and Dementia.  I trust you will find your conference beneficial, and it only remains for me to declare the conference officially open.