Wednesday, 3 February 2010

£27 647 per annum - is this the value of a person suffering from dementia?

As I was going out to work this morning, I caught coverage on BBC Radio 4's Today programme of a report relating to the number of people suffering from dementia in the UK and to the economic cost that that imposes on society. The BBC news website has its report of the research here. Like the Today programme package, this report focusses on facts and figures, and, as far as the figures go, mostly monetary ones.

As I was listening this morning, something made me feel a bit uncomfortable and it took me a little while to work out what it was. At one level, it is not at all wrong to be discussing the question of dementia sufferers in terms of the financial costs of caring for them. Discussion in such terms is important as part of how society, (through the NHS, through the pension or benefits system, through the mechanisms of civil society, and so on) sets about planning its provision for dementia sufferers.
Every dementia patient, they found, costs the economy £27,647 each year.
But I think we do need to be aware of an implicit valuing hidden in a phrase like this one. "Costs the economy" ... doesn't this suggest that in some way a loss has taken place? "The economy spends £27 647 each year caring for each dementia patient". Or better: "The economy invests £27 647 each year in the care for each dementia patient".  I would suggest that these different wordings to describe essentially the same quantitative fact do carry with them a different implicit valuing.

But, just before I went out through the door, I realised more clearly what was making me feel a bit uncomfortable. It was the valuing of a human person only - and in the context of the Today programme package and the BBC news website package, the word "only" is quite accurate - only in terms of the financial cost to the economy of their care or the financial investment in research into the medical condition from which they suffer.

Our valuing of people who are suffering from dementia should have another part to it, that is not mentioned at all in this reporting. And this is our valuing of them as persons. They are people who are worthy of our care, and not people deserving of abandonment. The financial investment in their care (or, if you like, the cost to the economy of their care) is at the service of a higher value - the value of the person cared for precisely as a human person, able to love and to be loved, and deserving of our care. If this is lost sight of - and in the media discussion that I heard this morning, it was entirely invisible - then we open the way to euthanasia for those suffering from dementia.

This is not just a theoretical discussion for me as I do, from time to time, meet people who are suffering from dementia. I often do not know them well enough to be able to connect to anything in their earlier life, and so find it very difficult to communicate successfully with them, a certain amount of confusion and muddle resulting. But I do think it is important for me to be willing to spend time with them, because it sends both to them and to those caring for them a message about the value that I believe dementia suffererers have as human persons, capable of loving and capable of being loved.

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