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Alzheimers and Dementia: Ending the Discrimination

Alzheimer’s is defined by the Alzheimer’s Association of America as a disease of the brain that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.

Dementia on the other hand, is an overall term used to describe symptoms that affect memory, performance of daily activities, and the ability to communicate.  The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. In Namibia, as is the case in most Sub-Saharan countries, dementia is often associated with witchcraft and people who show symptoms are ostracised from their communities , are subjected to isolation and in severe cases, chained up with very little food and water in conditions that can be fatal.

Kirsty Watermeyer talks to Dr. Berrie Holtzhausen, the selfless founder of Alzheimer’s Dementia Namibia, an organization that looks to assist people living with or are affected by Alzheimer’s and Dementia .

MYD: Let’s talk about why you started the association? 

Dementia is an umbrella term for all the signs and symptoms of that one experiences when a disease starts to damage your brain partly or permanently. Alzheimers is one of those diseases. I met a farmer living with dementia many years ago. His wife told me they drove to the Kalahari and when they came back home he drove past his farm gate, his wife asked him where he’s going and he said he doesn’t know where he is. She took him to a neurologist in Windhoek and he was diagnosed with Alzhaimer. 

I said to myself, I need to understand this disease, I want to help people living with it and how to care for them and because I also love to travel, my friend has a farm in the Kunene region and I told my wife – this is where I want to be. He took me to a village of the OvaHimba people. We met a woman calling out to us from a hut. I wondered why she was calling us from the hut and was told that she was chained down because she was bewitched. I asked to meet her and was told she’s dangerous and that no one goes near her. We asked for the chief and asked that we get permission to unchain the woman. Two weeks later, we met him and asked him to remove her. We negotiated her unchaining and managed to get her professional help.

Where is she now? How is she cared for?

We are treating her with dignity, with love. We cared for her for five and a half years, built a little village of her own with five huts and we built a borehole for her and the chief’s animals were later drinking from that water. He was even visiting her because now she was a provider. But I noticed after five and a half years that things were no longer good for her. I noticed that they started stealing her food and clothes, I visited her and could see that she started hiding behind her hut. I took her to Swakopmund and she’s fine now.

Tell us a little bit more about the symptoms?

You do get different domains, the physical where they need to wear diapers. The symptoms where there’s no signal between the brain and the body and it becomes difficult to do things like swallowing. There’s also cognitive symptoms where a person wouldn’t know the dangers associated with things like crossing the road. 

How do we care for people living with Dementia? 

First of all, you need to understand the function of the brain. For instance recognition. I can see you everyday,  but when Dementia kills that part of the brain, I won’t recognize you. Even if you are married to someone and this disease affects you brain, your partner will walk into your room and you’ll wonder ‘who is this person?’. You will be scared, so if you’re working with these people, make sure to introduce yourself all the time. And make sure to do everything with love. Lets get rid of the stigma and the discrimination. Your brain is an organ, it’s not a place for demons and the devil.

How can people get in touch with the organisation in order to help?

We are all over the internet under the name Alzheimer’s Dementia Namibia, we’re on Facebook and we have a Dementia Whatsapp group. We also have a home in Swakopmund at the River plots where we care for people living with Dementia.

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