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Dementia: A reflection from an Egyptian Perspective

Written by Amira El Baqary · Friday 7th March 2014

Through different periods of the Egyptian history from Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic, Islamic and Modern Era; Egyptians tend to respect, appreciate and care for elderly. There is also a rich Eastern Christian tradition in respecting and taking care of old people that has continued since the first centuries of Christianity. Churches used to develop retirement homes served by monastic personnel and nurses. Egyptian culture traditionally linked some aspects of mental illnesses to sin, possession of evil, separation from the divine and it is usually associated with stigmatisation for all family members. However, forgetfulness with ageing was normalised. Until now, it seems that the difference between normal ageing and dementia is blurred for some people. Recently, the term 'Alzheimer' became popular, and some people use it as synonymous to forgetfulness. El-Islam, stated that some people erroneously pronounce it as 'Zeheimer' removing the 'Al' assuming it is the Arabic equivalent to the English 'the'. In 2010, a film was produced with the title 'Zeheimer' confirming the mispronunciation. Elderly face many health challenges which affect their quality of life. Dementia is one of these challenges as it is considered to be one of the disorders which attack elderly and affect their memory, mental abilities, independence, decision making and most cognitive functions. Therefore, the focus on dementia has increased around the world due to the rapid spread of the syndrome and the economical and psychosocial burden it cause for patients, families and communities. (Grossber and Kamat 2011, Alzheimer’s Association 2009, Woods et al. 2009).

In recent years, the proportion of older people is increasing due to the improvement in health care and scientific development. The demographic transition with ageing of the population is a global phenomenon which may demand international, national, regional and local action. In Egypt the ageing population at the age of 65 and older are less than 5% of the Egyptian population (The World FactBook, 2012), yet, the World Health Organization (WHO) asserts that a demographic shift is going to happen as most of the rapid ageing population will transfer to the low and middle income countries in the near future (WHO, 2012). Egyptian statistics assert this shift. The Information Decision Support Center published the first comprehensive study of the elderly in Egypt in 2008. According to the report, in 1986, 5 percent of Egyptians were age 60 and older. In 2015, they will make up to 11 percent of the population and in 2050; over a fifth. Caring of older persons constitutes an increasing segment of the Egyptian labor market. However, nation wide statistics about number of dementia sufferers in Egypt may be unavailable but the previous demographic transition is expected to be accompanied by an increase in dementia patients in Egypt and will affect priorities of health care needs as well.
The Egyptian society may need adequate preparation with regards to health insurance, accommodation and care homes for the upcoming ageing population (El-Katatney, 2009). Although the number of care home increased from 29 in 1986 to be around 140 home in 2009; it cannot serve more than 4000 elderly from a total of 5 million. Not every elderly will need a care home but the total numbers of homes around Egypt are serving less than 1% of the elderly population. These facts created a new situation of needs for care homes besides the older people who are requiring non-hospital health care facility for assisted living.

The Egyptian traditions used to be strongly associated with the culture of extended family and caring for elderly as a family responsibility. Yet, in recent years changes of the economic conditions and factors as internal and external immigration may have affected negatively on elderly care within family boundaries. There is still the stigma of sending elderly to care homes. Some perceive it as a sign of intolerance of siblings towards their elderly parents but it is generally more accepted nowadays. Therefore, the need for care homes become a demand at this time in Egypt as a replacement of the traditional extended family when many older people nowadays either do not have the choice or the facilities to continue living with their families (El-Katatney 2009). Many families among the Egyptian society seem to have turned from holding back from the idea of transferring to a care home to gradual acceptance since elderly care homes are becoming more accepted than the past and constitutes a new concept of elderly care. Currently, many are thinking to run away from a lonely empty home in search of human company or respite care but numbers of geriatric homes are extremely lower than required and much more are still needed (Abdennour, 2010). Thus, it seems that more care homes may be needed in Egypt.

Dementia patients are usually over 65, this is one of the factors that put them at high risk of exposure to different physical conditions related to frailty, old age, and altered cognitive functions. Additionally, around 50% of people with dementia suffers from other comorbidities which affect their health and increases hospital admissions (National Audit Office 2007). Therefore, it is expected that the possibility of doctors and nurses needing to provide care for dementia patients in various care settings is increasing (RCN 2010).

Considering previous facts, we have an urgent need in Egypt to start awareness about normal and upnormal ageing and what is the meaning of dementia. Moreover, change of health policies and development of health services is required to be developed to match community needs. Another challenge is the very low number of psychiatric doctors and facilities since the current state of mental health can summarised as; one psychiatrist for every 67000 citizens and one psychiatric hospital bed for every 7000 citizens (Okasha, 2001). Finally the need to develop gerontologically informed assessment tools for dementia screening to be applied particularly in general hospitals (Armstrong and Mitchell 2008) would be very helpful for detecting dementia patients and develop better communication and planning of care for elderly.

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Grossberg, G. and Kamat, S. 2011. Alzheimer’s: the latest assessment and treatment strategies. Jones and Bartlett, publisher: The United States of America.

Alzheimer’s Association. 2009. 2009 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, Volume 5, Issue 3. [online] Available at:

Royal College of Nursing. 2010. Improving quality of care for people with dementia in general hospitals. London.

National Audit Office. 2007. Improving service and support for people with dementia. London. [online[ Available at:

Miss Amira El Baqary, Nursing Clinical instructor, The British University in Egypt

Dr Emad Sidhom, MBBCh, ABPsych-Specialist in Old Age Psychiatry-Behman Hospital