Understanding dementia among Indigenous Australians

Dementia has a deep impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (respectfully referred to as Indigenous Australians) and communities. The following pages present the impact of dementia among Indigenous Australians in relation to:

The pages also discuss what is being done to address the impact of dementia and the availability of services to meet the needs of Indigenous Australians.

It is essential to understand how dementia is understood and managed among Indigenous Australians in order to devise culturally appropriate and effective policies and services. However, there are important data gaps in relation to dementia in Indigenous Australians, which limit the robustness of analyses and the generalisability of findings for Indigenous Australians. These gaps include the lack of Indigenous Australian representation in key survey data, and that data on available services and uptake are not necessarily available outside the organisation providing them (AIHW 2020). As such, results presented here should be interpreted carefully.

Indigenous Australians: key demographics

The term ‘Indigenous Australians’ refer to hundreds of different groups of people with distinct cultures, traditions and languages.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) estimates that in 2016, there were over 798,400 Indigenous Australians, making up 3.3% of the total Australian population. According to the ABS (2018), among Indigenous Australians in 2016:

  • 50% were males and 50% females
  • 91% identified as Aboriginal people, 5% as Torres Strait Islander people, and 4% as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
  • 4.3% were aged 65 years and over, compared to 16% of non-Indigenous Australians. However, the Indigenous Australian population has been ageing and it is expected to continue to do so in the future (Temple et al. 2020)
  • 81% lived in Major cities, Inner regional, or Outer regional areas (compared to 98.5% of non-Indigenous Australians), and 19% lived in Remote or Very remote areas (compared to 1.5% of non-Indigenous Australians).

How is dementia perceived by Indigenous Australians and what enables people to live well with dementia?

Experiences of dementia and awareness of risk factors for developing dementia vary greatly among Indigenous Australians, as with non-Indigenous Australians (Flicker & Holdsworth 2014). However, as long as dementia doesn’t affect connection to family, community, and culture, many Indigenous Australians perceive the condition as a natural part of life and not necessarily a medical problem that needs to be fixed (Alzheimer’s Australia 2006).

The causes of Aboriginal dementia in Gugu Yimithurr culture is part of a natural process. The body, mind and spirit naturally get older including the brain... It may not need to get fixed as long as the individual is safe and the family and the community is safe there may not be any need to do anything at all.

–Mr. Eric Deeral, Chairperson, Elders Justice Group, Hopevale Community, Queensland

Policies and service enablers that support Indigenous Australians with dementia to live well include those that: incorporate Indigenous cultural perspectives of dementia; support family and communities to care for loved ones with dementia on Country; and are controlled by the community and delivered in a culturally safe manner (see Table 12.1 for more details).

Table 12.1: Common enablers of living well with dementia among Indigenous Australians
Cultural security
  • Availability of culturally safe and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled health and aged care services, especially community-controlled aged care
  • Growing the Indigenous Australian workforce in all areas of aged care
  • Appropriate transport options to access preferred services
  • Use of culturally appropriate and co-designed screening tools for dementia and quality of life, and creating culturally safe care plans
Caring for family and friends with dementia
  • Availability of culturally safe and community-controlled aged care support services, so families and communities can care for people with dementia on Country
  • Integrated care models with well-coordinated health and aged care service provision
Ongoing culture
  • Many Indigenous Australians view dementia as a natural part of the life cycle rather than an illness, as long as the person with dementia, their family and community, are safe and it doesn’t affect the connection to family, community and culture.

Source: Information is summarised from: Alzheimer’s Australia 2006; Arkles et al. 2010; Lindeman et al. 2017; LoGiudice et al. 2020; Smith et al. 2007; Smith 2008; Smith et al. 2020; Warburton and Chambers 2007; and Western Australian Centre for Health and Ageing 2010.

Need more information?

If you require more information about dementia in Indigenous Australians, or if you are an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander person and want to know where to seek help if dementia is suspected or want to find out about available support services refer to: