Speech State Secretary Martin van Rijn at the EU Group of Governmental Experts on Dementia in Malta

Speech by State Secretary for Health, Welfare and Sport Martin van Rijn on dementia, at the EU Group of Governmental Experts on Dementia in Valetta, Malta (15 may 2017).

Ms Caruana, Mr Banovsky,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I wish to thank our Maltese hosts for their warm reception and hospitality.

It’s lovely to be here.

Allow me to start with a short story.

Some time ago a lady living in Amsterdam received a call from a police officer from the small village of Doorn many kilometres away.

It’s where her elderly mother lives.

According to the officer, her mother had been caught shoplifting.

Lately, her mother had been forgetting a lot of things.

Dates. Appointments. Directions.

And now, she had forgotten to pay for her groceries.

On her drive from Amsterdam to Doorn, the daughter realized her mother was most probably suffering from dementia.

Fortunately, the shopkeeper was very understanding.

He decided to take measures.

Very thoughtful measures.

He gathered his staff and told them that they would no longer call police if someone suffering from dementia walked out the shop without paying.

Instead, they would help the person do their shopping.

In future, the shopkeeper told his staff, no big deal would be made of it.

No scenes would be made.

One person would simply assist another.

A very simple solution, but one with significant impact.

The outcome is a more dignified way of dealing with people who suffer from dementia.

And because the shop is part of a large chain, thousands of employees are now being educated in recognizing the symptoms of someone with dementia.

The idea has caught on.

A local public transport company has followed suit.

As has the municipality of Doorn.

And ... the city of Amsterdam.

One small gesture has turned into very significant movement.

Big change starts with small gestures.

Ask any mountain climber how he reached the summit and he’ll say one step at a time.

Now, about the challenge we face.

What we know is this:

Worldwide almost 50 million people live with dementia.

Six out of ten of these people live in low and middle income countries.

Within the EU six and a half million people live with dementia.

What we know is this:

Dementia is a major cause of disability and dependency among older people.

Dementia may develop at a relatively young age.

Dementia leads to increased costs and to loss in productivity.

What we know, ladies and gentlemen, is that dementia ravishes people and their environments indiscriminately.

It confronts our societies with an array of queries and problems.

We need answers. We need solutions. And we need them soon rather than later.

Throughout Europe scientists are searching for these solutions and answers.

Many of them looking for medicinal solutions.

They say, let’s invest all our money in research to find the cause and cure of dementia.

And they are right. This is what must be done.

Yet, others say: Sure, find a cause and cure, but while we’re waiting we must invest in creating conditions that ensure dignified lives for those suffering from dementia.

And, of course, these people are right too.

That’s why in the Netherlands we have chosen to do both. And you, Ms Caruana and Mr Banovsky, haven chosen so as well.

More money to research cause and cure and heavy investments to ensure dignified lives.  

The research we can leave in the hands of our scientific community.

Within the walls of our universities several research groups are busy looking for causes and cures.

However, creating the right conditions for dignified lives is something else.

Something we cannot leave in the hands of just one party – no matter how capable, no matter how competent.

We cannot tackle this by rigging up enormous organisations or going in with big government.

We need to start with the individual and take it from there.

Sure, it is a job for those working in health care.

For the general practitioner. For the specialist.

But just as much, it is a job for the partner of the afflicted.

For family and friends. For neighbours. The bus driver. For the shopkeeper.

All of society has a task in making sure that those who have been afflicted with dementia can live with it instead of suffer from it.

During the past 4 years as state-secretary of healthcare I have often referred to dementia as the ‘long goodbye’.

I experienced this with my own mother. 

A difficult time. I mourned losing her, yet she was still with us.

Each day, many millions of families in Europe are doing their best in dealing with their long goodbyes.

Many within the privacy of their own homes, where most prefer to spend their remaining years, weeks and days.

In the Netherlands seven out of every ten persons with dementia live at home.

These people are very much a part of the daily life in their streets and neighbourhoods.

And many of them are willing and able to live independently as long as possible.

They do not wish to be seen as ill or pitiful.

On the contrary, in more cases than not, they lead active lives.

The difference being that those living with dementia may need our help every now and then.

A nudge in the right direction.

A bit of assistance when shopping for groceries.

It’s up to us, the rest of society, to recognize these people for what they are: healthy people who are slowly losing the ability to think and remember.

Despite the enormity of the challenge we face, I am emboldened by our efforts so far.

Emboldened by the cooperation between European member states - of which this conference is another great example.

And I am encouraged by all the work the world health organization has done and keeps doing.

I see there is a great sense of urgency.

I have seen it in the plans and initiatives taken.

We are gathered here today for our initiative as trio-partners in the EU-Presidency.

A joint statement calling upon the European Commission and the EU member states to continue and intensify their efforts to face the challenge called dementia.

I want to thank my Maltese and Slovak colleagues for joining me in this statement.

A special thanks to you, Ms Caruana, for organising this event. And for taking the attention to dementia another step further within the EU.

Today, not only we are gathered here in Malta.

Starting this afternoon, representatives from EU-member states meet in DG Sante’s Governmental Expert Group on Dementia.

All of them eager to exchange ideas, to learn from each other and to take action for the benefit of those who have to live with dementia.

Looking at the initiatives taken by WHO and the World Dementia Council, I can see a future where the EU and its member states play an important role in facing the challenge of dementia.

So, we can and must fund research and let scientists do their job.

And we can and must combine our efforts and share our findings and stories.

One step at a time we can reach that summit and turn suffering into living.

Thank you.