Mrs. Beatrice Balogun is inconsolable. Dejection has taken over her world. The reason is simple! Her daughter-in-law, Tola, who she single-handedly picked for her only son to marry, has labelled her a witch. Beatrice was full of life until she developed Alzheimer Disease (AD), an irreversible neuro-degenerative type of dementia that damages the brain and slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out simple tasks.
The tragic thing is that the daughter-in-law has vowed not to see her around her home or have anything to do with her. Beatrice would still have been happy with Tola, if not for the condition which started slowly and grew to a brain disorder, leading to impairment of her reasoning, poor understanding of safety risks, poor decision-making ability and difficulty in speech among others.
Today, Beatrice has lost most of her friends who now see her as a witch. Even some of her friends and family members have written her off, concluding that it was her past that caught up with her. Beatrice’s plight worsened when her only son and his wife banished her from their home out of ignorance of the disorder. Abandoned to her fate, she urinates and defecates without knowing. Out of ignorance too, children stone her. And she behaves like a baby at 57. She hallucinates and incoherent in her speeches.
To worsen her case, sometimes, Beatrice tends to claim things she never did or not capable of doing. But succour came her way when a Good Samaritan ran into her while being stoned by children on the street. She was taken to a hospital where a psychiatrist evaluated her and discovered that she was suffering from AD.
Beatrice is one out of the over 37 million people worldwide suffering from AD, also known as dementia.
Meanwhile, unlike Beatrice, Mrs Agnes Mbawuihe is lucky as her family never abandoned her. Due to the care and attention paid to her strange behaviours, her case was detected early and her symptoms managed as well. Soon after retiring in 2012, Mrs. Mbawuihe began to behave strange. Her husband noticed the change but it was hard for him to pinpoint what the problems were.
On one occasion, she was cooking in the kitchen and, instead of putting salt in the soup, she put sugar. Similar things happened for months. Still no member of the family could understand what was happening to her. Then one day, her son-in-law visited to announce to the family that his wife had been delivered of a baby. Mrs. Mbawuihe was not moved by the news. Her unusual reaction made her son-in-law and husband to become curious but still could not do anything about it.
“My wife would normally be very happy and will be arranging her things to travel with our daughter in-law but none of these happened. She was quite passive,” Mr. Joseph Mbawuihe stated. “I then noticed that she began to feel insecure and would be saying irrelevant things. Sometimes in the night, she will be asking repeated questions.” The worst happened when Mbawuihe visited her son and daughter-in-law. Two days after she arrived, she went to a nearby market to get some food items and went missing. Several hours later, a neighbour found her wandering along the street and brought her home.
Worried at the sudden change of character, the children took her to hospital, where it was discovered that she had dementia. Although, Mrs. Mbawuihe and Beatrice suffered of this public health emergency, whereas the latter’s family failed to understand and give her necessary support, the former was lucky.
Mrs. Mbawuihe’s family was able to recognise that she had a problem and required medical attention. Beatrice’s case aptly describes the fate of many patients in Nigeria today. Investigation shows that many of these Nigerian folks are abandoned under the guise that they are a disgrace to the family. Although there is no cure for the disease, experts say people like Beatrice and Mrs. Mbawuihe can live a fulfilled life if they get medical attention early. Sadly, many Nigerians know little or nothing about the disorder.
However, World Health Organisation, WHO, says although dementia mainly affects old people, it is not a normal part of ageing. According to experts, Alzheimer (dementia) victims are labelled as witches or mentally derailed. Statistics by WHO show that estimated 47.5 million people have dementia and there are 7.7 million new cases every year.
Out of the number, it is said that developing countries like Nigeria account for 57.7 percent of the problem. According to the Medical Director, Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Yaba, Dr. Richard Abayomi, five percent of the Nigerian population will suffer dementia at one time or the other of their lives. Abayomi said the burden of the disorder is such that whatever is presently seen in the various hospitals is a tip of the iceberg, as a lot of people don’t want to be associated with the disorder but see it as a disgrace.
Throwing light on the disease, he explained that the most striking sign of the disease is abnormal form of memory loss and, with time, other features will come up.
“He or she may begin to behave like a child, there will be mood problems and other behavioural problems may come up. When the disease becomes advanced, certain behaviours like urinating on oneself may occur, but, often times, people don’t understand the nature of this disorder. We tend to get at these people by thinking that they are just creating problems for the younger folks, or paying for what they have done in the past. Even some people categorize them as witches and wizards”, he added.
Prof. Richard Uwakwe of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, also told Sunday Vanguard that although Alzheimer type of dementia is not responsible for all forgetfulness, in older adults, a large number of cases may be cause by the disease, hence the need for medical assessment. Uwakwe, who regretted that the burden of the disease was not very clear in Nigeria, said:
“According to the 2006 population census, about 3.1 percent of Nigerians are about 60 years and above, and this is the age at which this disease is common, and within people who are 65 years to 70, about 5 percent may be having the disease, and then, as people grow older, the percentage increases”.
The professor of psychiatry pointed out that studies in Nigeria show that about 7 percent of the population will suffer the disorder, adding that from what is seen in the clinics, the problem is quite large in the country. Prevention He attributed factors that can predispose individuals to the problem to include unhealthy lifestyle.
“The way individuals’ live their lives while growing old is very important. Healthy living is made up of diet and exercise. Physical activities have been known to affect not only our memory but also general well being and, of course, when an individual’s general health is better, his memory will also be better. “
He encouraged individuals to seek help early in order to delay the progression of the disease.
Can Alzheimer be treated? Uwakwe answered yes and no, explaining that if the disorder is detected early, the symptoms can be managed.
“We can manage and treat every illness but permanent cure is not in all illnesses like Alzheimer’s case. There is always something you can do for the individual to live appreciable quality life and have a prolonged life”, he stated.
Also in a chat with Sunday Vanguard, National President Alzheimer’s Disease Association of Nigeria, Dr. Valentine Ejiagwu, during a walk organised by the association, explained that the disorder can be inherited from parents. He explained that when people start having problem of memory loss, keeping things and forgetting where they were kept, forgetting children’s names, forgetting crucial things, then there is need for diagnosis for AD through neurological institutions and psychiatric institutes.
Chioma Obinna for Vanguard Newspaper