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Dementia-Friendly Communities

May 3, 2019

This Wednesday, May 1st, the Age & Dementia Friendly Cape Ann initiative held a community forum at the Elks at Bass Rocks.  The goal of the event was to explore how Cape Ann can become a place where all residents–regardless of age or health status–can thrive.  In last week’s article, I looked what it means for a community to be “age friendly.”  This week, I would like to examine the “dementia friendly” aspect of the initiative.

What is dementia?  The Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as “a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.” Memory loss is probably the most well know result of dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, accounting for up to 80% of cases.  Vascular dementia, which can occur after a stroke, is the second most common dementia type.

Dementia is not a disease. It’s a term that describes the symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. There are conditions that can cause symptoms of dementia, such as thyroid problems and vitamin deficiencies that can be reversible.  Others, such as Alzheimer’s, are not reversible. Dementia is often incorrectly referred to as “senility,” which reflects the incorrect belief that serious mental decline is a normal part of aging.

According to research from the Alzheimer’s Society, 35% of people with dementia leave their homes once a week, and about 10% go out only once a month.  It is not uncommon for a person with dementia to feel uncomfortable, and sometimes unwelcome, in their community. 

I heard a woman living with dementia speak recently.  She told about going to a restaurant to celebrate with her family.  During dinner, she excused herself to go to the bathroom.  When she approached the doors, rather than signs saying “Men” and “Women,” the signage was thematic and said “Gulls” and “Buoys.”  She became confused and had to return to her table to request assistance.  A happy celebration had turned into a moment of confusion and embarrassment.  A dementia friendly option might have been to add small “men” and “women” signs to the doors in addition to the fun nautical themed décor.

A dementia friendly community encourages businesses and other organizations to understand dementia and to recognize signs that a person may be living with dementia or other cognitive difficulties.  This allows people living with dementia and their care partners to engage fully in a community that is informed and safe.  Specialized training about dementia has been performed with the police and fire departments throughout the north shore in the past two years. Training can be arranged for specific business types to provide assistance to staff working with the public. 

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends the following when working with a person with dementia:

  • Maintain good eye contact.
  • Speak slowly in a non-threatening, low-pitched voice.
  • Loudness can convey anger; do not assume the person is hearing-impaired.
  • Use short, simple words.
  • Ask “yes” and “no” questions.
  • Ask one question at a time, allowing plenty of time for response.
  • If necessary, repeat your question using the exact wording. People with dementia may only grasp a part of the question at a time.
  • Instead of speaking, try non-verbal communication.
  • Maintain a calm environment, devoid of chaos and excessive stimuli; reduce radio volume, keep squelch down and avoid use of sirens.
  • Avoid confrontation.

Learning to kindly and effectively communicate with a person living with dementia is just one small piece of the work.  In a dementia-friendly Cape Ann, we will be aware of and understand dementia, so that people with dementia can continue to live in the way they want.   We can all play a part in creating a community where people with dementia feel welcomed, engaged, valued, and respected. 

Age & Dementia Friendly Cape Ann is an initiative of SeniorCare Inc. and the four communities of Cape Ann.  For more information on the initiative, please visit our website www.ADFCA.org or contact the initiative Coordinator Carrie Johnson at 978-281-1750.