Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation Virtual Walk Challenge 2020
Many of us think having a failing memory is a sign of old age. But Prof. Shehan Williams, President of the Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation (LAF) and Consultant Psychiatrist begs to differ. “It’s not normal for people to have memory loss, and that’s not a sign of aging,” stated Prof. Williams, adding memory loss was one of the first signs of dementia. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around 50 million people worldwide have dementia, and around 10 million new cases are reported annually. Of that, around 60%-70% are caused by Alzheimer’s disease. This non-communicable, progressive disease affects the brain cells, causing them to die, resulting in memory loss and a decline in thinking, behavioural and social skills. This causes the person to lose their ability to function independently. Though Sri Lanka has a rising ageing population, with currently around 13% of the population being over 60 years and expected to rise to 20% between 2025-2030, not many are aware of the disease. With the motive of spreading awareness regarding dementia and promoting a healthy lifestyle, LAF together with the ayubo.life health app will be conducting a Virtual Walk Challenge “Memorable Steps 2020” from 1 to the 21 September 2020.
Why a Virtual Walk?
This is an annual walk conducted by LAF, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic and health guidelines, LAF decided to do the walk virtually.
Though Sri Lanka has a high ageing population, those affected by dementia are usually undetected until later stages and are underrepresented due to the lack of awareness of the disease. Prof. Williams pointed out two key risk factors for the disease: the genetic risk factors which can cause early onset dementia in most cases; and environmental factors like neglecting a healthy lifestyle might cause a rapid disease progression.
“This a multifactorial disease with multifactorial causes. Even though lifestyle is an independent factor, it does have a huge impact on determining the onset of the disease and its progression,” stated Prof. Williams. Thereby the challenge was created to spread awareness on the disease and to promote a healthy lifestyle.
Prof. Williams added he believes and hopes the challenge would bring about interaction and bonding among young and old members in the family, noting that though the challenge would be conducted online it was an opportunity for older people to learn about technology, and this would provide a mental stimulation activating the neurons.
“Being physically and mentally active is an important factor in preventing the disease and slowing its progression,” he said.
He added most families do not let persons affected with dementia to be physically active, and warned against it stating people with dementia should be allowed to be physically active. He shared this challenge could promote physical activity among family members, including dementia-affected members.
Touching on the importance of awareness, Prof. Williams said people with dementia were at a high risk of contracting infections and early death due to their impaired cognitive ability, and thus awareness was important to ensure quality of life.
“Awareness is also important in ensuring that people with dementia are treated with dignity and respect as we see many cases of such people being abused and ill-treated.”
Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation
Being the only organisation in Sri Lanka dedicated to advocating and addressing the needs of those with dementia, LAF has raised awareness on dementia through various programmes and is advocating for a National Dementia Action Plan as Sri Lanka doesn’t have one despite our rising ageing population.
Speaking to Yasmin Cader, who is a Founder Member, Board Director and Volunteer at LAF, she said this started as a home-based initiative. For Cader, volunteering at LAF is something close to her heart as her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“My mother used to love crafts and dance but sadly she passed away before the establishment of LAF,” Cader said, adding that LAF has 5- 6 hour activity sessions three-days-a-week which include spelling, arts and craft, singing, dancing, mind games, memory exercises which are carried out by a group of volunteers.
“But it is all up to the client. They can choose to partake in what interests them. Some aren’t interested in crafts and prefer doing jigsaw puzzles and we let them do what they want,” she stated.
Speaking about the volunteer selection process, Cader said volunteers are interviewed, then taken on a familiarisation tour and given volunteer handbooks. “Volunteers are indispensable, and as a volunteer I’ve found it rewarding and it’s a good learning process for me,” she said.
"Though Sri Lanka has a high ageing population, those affected by dementia are usually undetected until later stages and are underrepresented due to the lack of awareness of the disease"
“Growing up, I saw many elders in my family and social circle who were affected with dementia. Most people, however, were unaware of the disease, or of how it progressed and changed the behaviour of the sufferer. I soon realised that for people with dementia to live comfortably, they needed loving, patient and understanding carers,” he said.
“When I heard about the wonderful work that the Lanka Alzheimer’s Foundation does, I realised that I had finally found the perfect way to give back to a society that has given me so much. This is why I volunteer at the Foundation,” shared Alnaas Esufally, a volunteer at LAF.
She added she had learnt to be more tolerant, patient and empathetic through her volunteering experience. Esufally also emphasised that people should participate in the virtual walk challenge as the increased dementia awareness would help create a dementia-friendly society where older people could live with dignity, and added the walk was a win-win situation, as one could simultaneously learn more about dementia while improving their own personal fitness.