Workers at nursing homes and hospitals in Melbourne often have trouble helping elderly Greek-Australian patients as the two parties don't speak enough of the same language to make proper communication possible. The situation is even harder when the patients are experiencing symptoms of dementia.
“The problem, of course, is observed with all the elderly ethnic minorities in Australia. The healthcare system is not friendly toward them,” notes Greek-Australian neuropsychologist Matthaios Staios, who is spearheading research to create a diagnostic test for dementia that is tailor-made to the needs of Australia's elderly Greeks.
Between 1940 and 1980, some 250,000 Greek emigrated to Australia.
“Most who left in the difficult postwar years had not managed to complete formal education, had only managed a few years of elementary school and, when in Australia were forced to start working immediately, without the luxury of learning fluent English,” says the doctor.
“It has been observed that misdiagnoses are two to three times more frequent among elderly [immigrants],” says Staios. “This is also due to the existing tests, which come initially from the US and are aimed at a population with a higher educational level and different mother tongue.”
The questions on these tests often require knowledge of Australian history, which few Greek-Australian pensioners can answer – even if they don't have dementia. Likewise, the diagnostic tests used in Greece are not a solution either, because after having spent decades in Australia they have lost touch with their mother tongue as well.
Staios plans to travel around Australia over the next few years to conduct personal interviews with elderly people and use Greek diagnostic tests on 30 Greek Australians who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and another 200 “healthy” Greek Australians, all aged between 60 and 80.
The development of the new tests, which will then be introduced to the public health system, will be done with the cooperation of academics from both countries, explains Staios, who is currently doing his doctorate at Monash University, under the supervision of Maria Kosmidou, a professor at Thessaloniki's Aristotle University. To finance the project, titled “i-remember,” the doctor has started a crowdfunding campaign in the hope of collecting 75,000 Australian dollars (roughly 50,600 euros), while to raise public awareness, he plans to cycle from Melbourne all the way to Canberra, 750 kilometers away, starting on November 27.
“We used to have the same problem with the compatibility of the tests in Greece as well,” says Professor Kosmidou, who became involved in altering them when she returned from the United States in 1999, noting that education for women and mandatory education for the entire population were late in coming to Greece.
“The adjustment is broadly of a cultural nature,” says Kosmidou. “Doctors in the past believed that the tests using shapes did not need to be changed, but they were wrong: Greek patients were very skilled with geometric shapes, which were familiar because of extensive teaching of geometry at schools, which was not the case in America.”
The differences in the educational systems of different countries is, she stresses, something that is very important in treating the elderly.
“The Anglo-Saxon system encouraged abstract thinking and creativity; the Greek one focused more on convergent thinking, all of these things need to be taken into account,” she says.
For more details on the project, log on to www.i-remember.com.au.